The best books about 19th century prostitutes

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Patricia Cline Cohen

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

Why 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.


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Madeleine

By Marcia Carlisle, Ben B. Lindsey

Book cover of Madeleine

Why 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. 


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

By Josie Washburn

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

Why 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.


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

By Nell Kimball

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

Why 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.


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

By Hallie Rubenhold

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

Why 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.


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