The Ninteenth Century Knocking Shops Of New York.

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.

Prostitute Helen Jewett. Jewett, one of the best-known prostitutes of the nineteenth century, was brutally murdered in 1836 at the age of twenty-three. The details of her life story and relationships with customers and other prostitutes fascinated New Yorkers for several decades. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)

Prostitute Helen Jewett. Jewett, one of the best-known New York prostitutes of the nineteenth century, was brutally murdered in 1836 at the age of twenty-three. The details of her life story and relationships with customers and other prostitutes fascinated New Yorkers for several decades. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)

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.

Scene in a Brothel. Although life in a brothel was publicly portrayed in terms of debauchery and sin, many women perceived it as promising greater independence, escape from poverty, and the possibility of marriage and upward mobility. (New-York Historical Society, New York City)

Scene in a Brothel. Although life in a brothel was publicly portrayed in terms of debauchery and sin, many women perceived it as promising greater independence, escape from poverty, and the possibility of marriage and upward mobility. (New York Historical Society, New York City)

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‘).

A large erection – 101 Crosby Street, the site of a former knocking shop

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.

Inside a 19th Century Paris Bordello

Inside a similarly ornate 19th Century Paris Bordello

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.

John Allen's Dance Hall. John Allen's was one of New York's most famous "secondary sex institutions," a place of public entertainment where prostitutes could recruit customers. (Courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

John Allen’s Dance Hall. John Allen’s was one of New York’s most
 famous “secondary sex institutions,” a place of public entertainment
where prostitutes could recruit customers. (Courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

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.

Crosby Street is now known for an entirely different kind of purchase by men. (Mark Abramson for the Wall Street Journal)

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:

And: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-1/back-locations-crosby-street-new-york/

© Peter Alan Lloyd

Reviews: Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews 

UK: Amazon.co.uk: BACK Parts 1 and 2 

US: Amazon: Back Parts 1 and 2

Smashwords: Back Parts 1 and 2

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Website: www.peteralanlloyd.com

Twitter: @PeterAlanLloyd

Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

 

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