The best books about 19th century prostitutes

Who am I?

As a young teenager, I lived in a small Texas town and loved touring the Victorian “gingerbread” homes full of antiques. I had an overwhelming desire to time travel back to the mid-1800s. When I learned of Diamond Bessie’s story, I was immediately intrigued because of the period, and also by the circumstances of her life. Why does a woman enter the world’s oldest profession? I discovered that I absolutely love research and “time traveled” back to that era by devouring everything I could get my hands on about life in the 19th century, especially for a marginalized woman like Bessie. 

I wrote...

The Lives of Diamond Bessie

By Jody Hadlock,

Book cover of The Lives of Diamond Bessie

What is my book about?

In a time when women have few rights or opportunities and being pregnant out of wedlock makes you a societal outcast, sixteen-year-old Annie Moore resorts to prostitution to survive. As a highly sought-after demi-mondaine, Annie—now Bessie—garners many jewels from her admirers. Her dream of returning to proper society appears to come true when she meets and marries the son of a wealthy jeweler. In the end, Bessie endures the ultimate betrayal, but she doesn’t let her story end there.

Inspired by a true story and set amid the burgeoning women’s rights movement of the mid-1800s, The Lives of Diamond Bessie is a haunting tale of betrayal, revenge, and redemption that explores whether seeking revenge is worth the price you might pay.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York

Why did I love this book?

When I decided to write a novel about a 19th-century prostitute, I of course wanted to read as much as possible about demi-mondaines in that era. Cohen’s narrative nonfiction book is engrossing, and while it focuses on one woman, it also gives a fascinating inside look at what life was like for prostitutes in 1830s New York City.

And, in a stranger than fiction connection to my novel, the murderer of Helen Jewett—Richard P. Robinson—who was sensationally acquitted, moved to Nacogdoches, Texas to start a new life. He married Atala Hotchkiss and died of an unknown fever at a young age. His widow remarried, to William Ochiltree, and they moved to Jefferson, Texas. The Ochiltrees and my main character, Diamond Bessie, are all buried in Jefferson’s Oakwood Cemetery.

By Patricia Cline Cohen,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Murder of Helen Jewett as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1836, the murder of a young prostitute made headlines in New York City and around the country, inaugurating a sex-and-death sensationalism in news reporting that haunts us today. Patricia Cline Cohen goes behind these first lurid accounts to reconstruct the story of the mysterious victim, Helen Jewett.

From her beginnings as a servant girl in Maine, Helen Jewett refashioned herself, using four successive aliases, into a highly paid courtesan. She invented life stories for herself that helped her build a sympathetic clientele among New York City's elite, and she further captivated her customers through her seductive letters, which mixed…


By Marcia Carlisle, Ben B. Lindsey,

Book cover of Madeleine

Why did I love this book?

In my quest to learn about the inner lives of 19th-century prostitutes, I found three memoirs, all gold mines. Demi-mondaines always used a stage name and that’s what the eponymous Madeleine chose. Even though she wasn’t a writer by trade, her story as a young “public woman” in the 1890s is riveting, and heartbreaking. When Madeleine’s autobiography was first published by Harper & Brothers in 1919, it caused a scandal and led to a lawsuit against the publisher. Harper eventually successfully defended itself but still ended up withdrawing the book from circulation. It wouldn’t be available to the public again for nearly 70 years. 

By Marcia Carlisle, Ben B. Lindsey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Madeleine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An insider's eloquent, moving account of life as a nineteenth century prostitute. This memoir offers a vivid account of brothel life in 1890s North Americain the city (Chicago, St. Louis), the Western boom town (Butte, Montana), and on the Canadian frontier. Containing the introductions to the 1919 and 1986 editions (by Judge Ben B. Lindsey and scholar Marcia Carlisle, respectively), its eponymous narrator offers great insight into the daily workings of both "high" and "low" class houses, as well as her relationships with madams, clientele, and members of the "legitimate" society in which prostitution flourished.

Book cover of The Underworld Sewer: A Prostitute Reflects on Life in the Trade, 1871-1909

Why did I love this book?

After not being able to find a publisher in the early 1900s, Josie Washburn self-published her memoir. In The Underworld Sewer, Josie not only describes her life as a prostitute and madam, but she also debunks the notion at the time that women became prostitutes to “satisfy their own unnatural lusts.” Josie wanted to educate the public about the true horrors and plight of the unfortunate women who had to resort to prostitution to survive and, ultimately, to motivate the public to effect change. Her memoir is as much a scathing commentary on society’s double standards as it is an account of her life as a demi-mondaine.

By Josie Washburn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Underworld Sewer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For twenty years Josie Washburn lived and worked in houses of prostitution. She spent the last twelve as the madam of a moderately fancy brothel in Lincoln, Nebraska. After retiring in 1907 and moving to Omaha, she turned to "throwing a searchlight on the underworld," including the "cribs" of Nebraska's largest city. The Underworld Sewer, based on her own experience in the profession, blazes with a kind of honesty unavailable to more conventional moral reformers. Originally published in 1909, The Underworld Sewer asks why "the social evil" is universally considered necessary or inevitable. Washburn minces no words in exposing the…

Book cover of Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American Madam, by Herself

Why did I love this book?

Nell Kimball was the least educated of the prostitute authors I read but also the most colorful. And the only one who didn’t feel trapped in the profession. Like Josie Washburn, Nell couldn’t find a publisher for her memoir when she looked for one in 1932. She was 78 years old and reportedly in dire straits financially. Nell had started in the “trade” in St. Louis at the age of fifteen in 1867 and worked as a prostitute and then as a madam, lastly in New Orleans’s famed Storyville red-light district, until it was shut down in 1917. Nell died in 1934. Her book was finally published by Macmillan in 1970.

I’m grateful that Madeleine, Josie, and Nell were fortuitous enough to pen their stories, to record a first-hand account of an era that we otherwise would not be privy to in such a personal way.

By Nell Kimball,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nell Kimball as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A witty, wild-spirited, purely American autobiography by a prostitute-turned-madam who lived and operated at the turn of the twentieth century.

“Looking back on my life, and it’s the only way I can look at it now, nothing in it came out the way most people would want their life to be lived. And while I began at fifteen in a good house with no plans, just wanting as a young whore to hunker on to something to eat and something good to wear, I ended up as a business woman, becoming a sporting house madam, recruiting, disciplining whores, running high-class…

Book cover of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

Why did I love this book?

When Hallie Rubenhold set out to write The Five, she thought she would be writing about the lives of England’s most famous prostitutes, the five women killed by Jack the Ripper. Instead, she discovered that three of the victims were not sex workers at all. They were just desperately poor and in the wrong place at the wrong time. And like my main character, Diamond Bessie, these women also lived at the wrong time. Newspapers in England and around the world intimated that the Ripper’s victims basically got what they deserved. Rubenhold authoritatively and engrossingly refutes this, but as I’ve found, it’s nearly impossible to change lore that’s been around more than a century.

By Hallie Rubenhold,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Five as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'An angry and important work of historical detection, calling time on the misogyny that has fed the Ripper myth. Powerful and shaming' GUARDIAN

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.

What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.

Their murderer was never identified, but…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in prostitutes, prostitution, and murder?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about prostitutes, prostitution, and murder.

Prostitutes Explore 20 books about prostitutes
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Murder Explore 728 books about murder

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