On a recent visit to Vancouver, BC I sat in a coffee shop. Watching people scoot along about their day in the grey, damp weather, it really didn’t feel that far away from Bellingham, Washington. Situated a mere 50 miles Northwest of Bellingham, Vancouver seems a lot like the future that early B’ham boosters had in mind for their small frontier logging town - only... you know... in a different country.
In fact in the 1850s and 60s Bellingham seems to have seen itself more in competition with Victoria and Vancouver than with Seattle. When it comes to who won the race to become the next metropolitan commercial hub of the Pacific Northwest though, Vancouver definitely won out.
This got me thinking: Bellingham, as a historical research subject, is a challenge. The Good Time Girls are constantly asked for photos of women who work as prostitutes. Sadly though, confirmed studio photographs and even mugshots of these women do not exist. Unlike their contemporaries in other western cities of the late 1800s, madames don’t seem to have advertised by having their girl’s pictures taken in front of their establishments.
Was Vancouver a big enough city to have taken and kept mugshots as part of the booking process at their jail? A trip to the Vancouver Archives seemed in order.
After my standard explanation of GTG and a half second of fear that the archivist was going to be offended by the very nature of my research-- this is uber polite Canada afterall-- she suggested I take a look at a book called “The Rogues Gallery.”
“Yes, please!” I said excitedly.
I was told that the book is from the 1900s-1910s, and had been used as a way to identify criminals in an age before photo identification. Each entry included a photograph and basic information about the criminal, his or her crime, whether or not they were convicted, and what their sentence was.
I was nervous even touching it. We had been studying local sex workers for almost two years without ever seeing one; we are like cryptozoologists in that way. We have seen grainy photos of women up on the balcony over a saloon in Fairhaven, but who is to say what they did for their wages? Sex workers were transient, and the border between the States and Canada was much more permeable at the turn of the century. A lot of newspaper and criminal records refer to women who had come to Bellingham from Victoria and Vancouver to be madames and prostitutes. Would it be possible that, in looking at women who worked in Vancouver, that I would see women who had also worked in Bellingham? Would I recognize any names?
What I found was exactly what I had expected to see after years of research: Photos of women, mostly between the ages of 21-35, mostly beautiful and well dressed, and a few who seemed very down on their luck. Many are listed as being from the US but none are recorded as being from Bellingham specifically. That is fine, I’m just so excited to have faces to conjure when someone asks me a question about “old hookers” or “those women” or-- the very worst-- whores. Next time that happens, I will think about Trilby Thorne or Lizzie Cooke and calmly explain that those women were women, and they probably weren’t what you would expect. Which is the best part about researching their lives.
A few notes of interest: These women were not very often arrested for crimes directly related to prostitution and when they were, they were almost always charged for being “a common streetwalker.” This was because, just like in Bellingham, women who worked as prostitutes were discouraged to drum up business on the streets. They were to be relegated to brothels with madames so they could be kept an eye on and-- in theory-- less likely to be the victims of violence. This means that we may be missing a major piece of the puzzle. Women who plied their trade in brothels would be unlikely to turn up in The Rogues Gallery.
Dupont Street was the Restricted District or Redlight District of Vancouver. Many of these women were arrested there or gave it as an address.
Suggested soundtrack for this post: Memphis Minnie's "Hustlin' Woman Blues."