The Ninteenth Century Knocking Shops Of New York.
Above Photo: New Orleans Courtesan photographed by E. J. Bellocq
As research for my Vietnam War/Backpacker crossover novel BACK, I delved into the 19th Century streetscape of New York, especially Crosby Street, where I base an apartment in the present day.
Now a fashionably upmarket throughfare, Crosby Street has an interestingly seamy past.
I discovered some fascinating historical facts about prostitution in New York, and especially in Crosby Street, including the following references to bordellos that once stood on Crosby, in a book called ‘The Gentleman’s Directory’, published in 1870.
It has been estimated there were over 500 brothels in New York at that time, and the Directory managed to no doubt ‘exhaustively’ survey over 150 of them.
Crosby Street didn’t just boast one bawdy house, but it had a whole, er, rash of them.
They included houses at number 83 (see below), 121 (‘six lady boarders…a second class house‘), 101 (‘a parlour house of the second class‘ – see below photo of the site today), 99 (‘furnished rooms‘), 125 (‘which lets rooms to enterprising young ladies‘) and 123 (‘a first class house with six lady boarders, handsomely dressed, of pleasing manners, ready wit, and sparkling eyes. It is the finest house on the street and superbly furnished‘).
The comments about ‘Miss Jessie, 83 Crosby Street’ were odd.
‘This is a second class house, with six lady boarders. Small potatoes and a few in the hill.’
I wondered what “Small potatoes and a few in the hill” could mean?
Luckily, for half of it, the New York Times was on hand to helpfully explain, in an article about the Directory:
“A similar directory issued in 1859 called “Directory to the Seraglios,” had heaped praise upon the brothel that a Miss M. Stewart operated at 83 Crosby Street. It said, “one of the safest retreats in town, conducted principally on the assignation order. The hostess is a lady possessed of pleasing manners, and presides over her domicile with much care and attention. Gentlemen wishing to enjoy the comforts of connubial bliss with their wives intended would do well to call here. Good wine, etc.”
Eleven years later, “The Gentleman’s Directory” came on the market and diverged sharply in its assessment of several places mentioned in both books including this one, now under the thumb of a Miss Jessie. “Small potatoes,” the book sniffed.
I read a really outstandingly researched book (from where I took some of these illustrations and captions), called ‘Their Sister’s Keepers – Prostitution in New York City 1830-1870’, by Marilynn Wood Hill, which also shed a lot of light on the wilder side of New York during this period.
In this book I also read the following Crosby Street-related sorry tale: “Sometimes prostitutes’ children ran with a group of friends whose activities got them in trouble with the authorities. Eleven-year-old Margaret Fox, daughter of Mrs. Francis Reed, who managed a brothel on Crosby Street, was arrested with four friends for stealing a basket of clothes. The police committed her to the House of Refuge, where she stayed for at least four years and possibly more. Although the Refuge at first thought Margaret was “full of talk but a promising child,” by the end of four years they said she had “so ungovernable a temper as to be past management… really she is a hard one.”
Nowadays men congregate on Crosby Street for an entirely different reason – the below photograph was taken outside ‘Saturdays Surf’, a menswear and surf shop, located at 31 Crosby Street, which has quietly evolved into a men’s retail destination with small niche stores.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs and MIAs in Laos, see:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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