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Genealogy of Communities: Prostitution

Prostitution represents a researchable community. Whether legal or not, members of the prostitution community have long been reported in census enumerations.


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Rather than eliminating prostitutes from the family history, many people want to include them. Keep in mind, that very few prostitutes went into the business out of choice. It was a necessity. Many of us believe their names deserve to be preserved on the family tree, along with the rest of the family.

In many cases, prostitutes do assume a false name for census purposes. But anyone can learn the skill of researching the genealogy of women who were employed as prostitutes. As with all research, it is just a matter of understanding what is in the census enumerations.


The biggest obstacle in researching prostitutes is relying on members of this community to report their full and true legal names.

Endless men and women involved with prostitution did, apparently, give true reports. I have successfully researched family for clients attempting to verify that an ancestor was, in fact, a prostitute.

Oftentimes, they do not give a true report. The information in this article is the result of trends and patterns I recognized while doing that research that led to birth and death certificates and other documentation proving the identity of prostitutes who did not use their given names.

Bell or Belle is certainly not proof that a woman was a prostitute. However, with the prevalence of the name among prostitutes, it should not be overlooked as a possibility. But, keep in mind, that a person's name is not proof that someone was a prostitute without other information.

Kitty and Bell, or Belle, are typical names reported to census enumerators. Bell is sometimes a first name and sometimes a surname. Prostitutes are sometimes enumerated by only a single name, either a first name or last name.

As we keep in mind the name, or possible name, of a prostitute, we still have a lot of work to do. A number of other clues in the censuses indicate if someone is a prostitute.

The Occupational Community

The easiest cases to research are those where the prostitute's occupation is given as "prostitute." It sounds too easy, but it is true. Census enumerators have listed prostitution and related terms as occupations.

Enumerators have used a variety of names to describe their occupation. These terms can be searched as keywords in genealogical databases.

Alternative names used for the occupation include "fallen angel." In 1880, an enumerator in Champaign, Illinois, listed "fallen angel" as the occupation for both 25-year-old Nellie Hobin and 19-year-old Emma Bracket.

Along those lines, "fallen woman" was in vogue at times. In 1880, we find ten residents at the Home for Fallen Women in Baltimore, Maryland. These women appear to have left a life of prostitution. We find a 21-year-old "inmate," Laura Airoba, enduring cancer. A search for "lewd woman" will lead us to 25-year-old Katie, a Chinese immigrant living in Grantsville, Nevada, in 1880, with her brother. In 1880, Minnie Cooper was a 32-year-old boarder in Bois D'Arc, Arkansas, whose occupation was simply "lewd." In Morgan, Alabama, we find four lewd women living together. We have no reason not to believe that Ida Settles, Bettie Watts, Lew Day, and Maggie Roberts gave their real names to the enumerator.

Most enumerators used the term prostitute. Search for the term in any genealogical database, and it will show up as an occupation. In fact, in 1880, there were at least 4,700 reported prostitutes in the United States.

The majority of the prostitution community consists of women. But don't rule out men."Pimp" has been used as an occupation, and so has "panderer." At other times, enumerators gave them more prestigious occupations like "Proprietor – Fallen House." Any of these terms can refer to either men or women.

The Family Community

We are often surprised to find prostitutes living with their family. In 1900, we find Mary Arnet living in Mispillion, Delaware, with her husband four children – and working as a prostitute. It is a bit less common to find them living with their husband. But, prostitutes living with their own family appear in the censuses in all areas of the country.

The Prostitute's Residences

There are identifiable prostitution communities and trends. Prostitutes rarely live alone, except in very densely populated urban areas where there may be three or more neighbors working as prostitutes.

Prostitution followed remote and transient communities like mining or logging communities in Idaho, California, and elsewhere. In California prostitution communities, we see a unique trend with opium dealers and prostitutes often living in the same neighborhood. Stockton, California, is a good example of this. We find 17 Chinese prostitutes living with Yep Gum, an opium dealer, in 1880 Stockton. It is quite possible that most of them gave their legal names with the sole exception of a 35-year-old prostitute from Canton named "Topsy."

River towns, all across the United States, seemed to draw prostitutes. A 20-year-old prostitute, Bell Angel, lived alone and worked as a prostitute on the shores of the Great Mississippi in Quincy, Illinois, in 1880. She was born in Illinois, but reported that her parents were born in Germany and Pennsylvania. We can probably assume that Bell Angel invented her own name.

One community where prostitutes can be found is the almshouse or poor farm. A couple of prostitutes were living at the Ottawa, Illinois, almshouse in 1880. Among them was S. S. Armstrong, a 19-year-old with a month-old baby.

Houses of prostitution are also known as brothels. A brothel in St. Louis was home to Rose Bell, in the late 1800s. She lived with Mabel Bishop, Ethor Sowers, Mary Nesana, and Alice Kelly. Divorcee Mary Murphy, who gave her occupation as "Wash & Iron," appeared to be the proprietor. She was head of the household and, at age 39, was the eldest of the women. Murphy claims to have arrived from Ireland, but her ladies were born in the United States. With the exception of Rose Bell, all of the other women possibly reported their legal names.

It is highly unlikely that three of the five prostitutes living together at Lizzie Gillis' boarding house in Yankton, Dakota Territory, in 1880, were named Annie at birth. We also find a number of prostitutes, at various addresses in that enumeration district all using the last name of either King or Kingman.

After much scratching out, the enumerator for one district in Escanaba, Michigan, appeared to have given up on the hope of properly identifying the seven young women living with Robert Palmer, who gave his own occupation as "pimp." In the end, the enumerator recorded all of the women as prostitutes. As with many women in the trade, they used names ending with "ie."

While Mr. Palmer could be traceable, the sketchy information about Lottie, Annie, Anna, Ida, Katie Hattie, and Isabella is not at all helpful since none of them were identified by last name. The half-erased notes look as though Palmer originally may have tried to pass the women off as his daughters.

Usually, the relationship between pimps and prostitutes within a household is defined as boarders. Other times, prostitutes may be listed as servants, as is the case of several pimps in Escanaba, Michigan. It appears that Tony Harden is the head of the household and "keeps house of ill fame," employing four pimps along with a string of prostitutes.

An unfortunate community where we find prostitutes living is in hospitals. In 1880, the Female Hospital in St. Louis, listed everyone by occupation and illness. The enumerator duly recorded prostitutes, such as 17-year-old Bell Cunningham, with venereal disease, syphilis, gonorrhea, or alcoholism, alongside housewives giving birth.


As you search for prostitutes in the censuses, keep in mind all the possible terms for the occupation. Pay attention to the names and relationships of others in the household. And, do keep in mind that prostitutes are people, too, and deserve to be remembered alongside everyone else in the family.

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Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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