Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Seedy Side of Censuses

The other day, someone mentioned an individual on the 1880 census with the occupation "thief" and that in the next census, he was in jail and his wife was now recorded as a "whore". I was intrigued by this because I was surprised one would admit to a criminal career, if not already in jail. And indeed, a quick search of the 1880 census by occupation "thief" turns up 74 results, mostly people serving time in jail.

However, a few are not in prison. Most amusing is one which actually says:
"'Thief' Would Dignify Him. To Low For Anything"
This was reported of a Wm. Cameron, 36, in West Del Norte, Rio Grande, Colorado. He was living with his wife so one has to wonder if she, perhaps an embittered and griping wife, was the informant. I can just imagine the conversation between her and the enumerator:
Enumerator: "And what does your husband do for a living, ma'am?"
Mary Cameron: "He's a good-for-nothing, lowlife scumbag, is what he is."
Enumerator: "I'm sorry, ma'am, that's not an occupation."
Mary Cameron: "Well, that's what he is!"
Enumerator: "How about 'thief'? Would that be close?"
Mary Cameron: "Thief?! Ha! That would dignify him. No, he's too low for anything. Write that down! Too... low... for... anything. That's right."
On a more serious note, there are many more people recorded as prostitutes, in one term or another. 155 people are described as a "whore" (yes, that actual word was used 155 times), while 4,891 people are reported as a prostitute/prostitution. Another 109 were noted under "house of ill fame/repute" or "sporting house", and one woman even a "bordello." 42 were "harlots", 27 "bawds", and 19 women were called "strumpets". Another 49 had something to do with a "pleasure house" or being a "lady/woman of pleasure" or "pleasure girl", not to be confused with a lady of leisure, but amusingly one said:
"Gratifying The Pleasure Of The One Paying Her Board"
I wonder who was paying her board? I guess whoever he was, she made it worth his while.

All in all, they added up to about 5,293. And they are not all women. Barring any recording or transcription errors, 125 of those 5,293 prostitutes were male, although some of them may have been managers and not prostituting themselves. Indeed, 164 individuals, some male, some female, were recorded as some kind of keeper, madam, or proprietor of a brothel, prostitution/pleasure/sporting/bawdy house, house of ill fame/repute, or "whore house", and 24 men were some kind of "pimp" such as a "harlot pimp".

I'm guessing actual numbers were probably even higher than this. There were likely people who lied about their occupation, and there might have been others recorded under some terminologies I'm not thinking of at the moment.

I recommend you stop reading now if you don't want to delve into the more disturbing side of this data: ages.

There were 256 individuals who were 17 and younger. Of those who were 14 and younger, the majority were Chinese. Technically, I even found a few who were 10 years old and younger, but I highly suspect most, if not all of them were actually just children of prostitutes. One of them, 5 years old, had a question mark next to the occupation and the youngest was 8 months, so I think the enumerator often just marked down "prostitute" for everyone living in a brothel without paying attention to their age. As such, it's difficult to tell what the youngest age of an actual prostitute was. Let's hope it was much higher than what this data suggests on the surface.

Apologies if you now feel the need to take a shower.

Update: Apparently the city of Philadelphia even had it's own guide book of brothels in 1849, amusingly titled "A Guide to the stranger, or Pocket companion for the fancy, : containing a list of the gay houses and ladies of pleasure in the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection."

  • 1880 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2010. 1880 U.S. Census Index provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints © Copyright 1999 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved. All use is subject to the limited use license and other terms and conditions applicable to this site. Original data: Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. (NARA microfilm publication T9, 1,454 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.