The best books on the dark side of the Wild West – prostitution, bad whiskey and drugs

Randi Samuelson-Brown Author Of Market Street Madam
By Randi Samuelson-Brown

Who am I?

I recall the exact moment when my interest sparked about frontier prostitution and Denver’s underbelly — a friend mentioned the ‘bad blood’ in her family — an ancestor who was a second-rate madam and who employed her own daughters. The quest started. Who were these women, and why did they make the choices they did? I’ve spent years chasing down traces of the old west’s prostitutes, fascinated by their identities and lives. The west had opportunities for women who were willing to take chances. As a fifth-generation Coloradoan, I hoped to capture the story of these enterprising and overlooked women, their lives, and the world around them.

I wrote...

Market Street Madam

By Randi Samuelson-Brown,

Book cover of Market Street Madam

What is my book about?

A rollicking tale of blurred lines, flowing booze, played-out miners, and upstairs girls.

Annie Ryan is running a second-rate brothel in 1890s Denver with an eye toward expansion. By chance, she encounters Lydia Chambers, a society woman suffering from a laudanum habit and a bad marriage, who owns a property on the infamous Market Street. Annie’s fortunes at the brothel turn on her niece Pearl, a pretty young woman swept up in Denver’s underworld of jealousy, booze, and vice – until murder stalks the good-time girls and puts everyone’s future in doubt. Market Street Madam delivers a compelling look at the intrigues of the Wild West, where women were enterprising and justice could be had…for a price.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Hell's Belles, Revised Edition: Prostitution, Vice, and Crime in Early Denver, With a Biography of Sam Howe, Frontier Lawman

By Clark Secrest,

Book cover of Hell's Belles, Revised Edition: Prostitution, Vice, and Crime in Early Denver, With a Biography of Sam Howe, Frontier Lawman

Why this book?

This is a no-holds-barred account of prostitution in Denver’s Market Street district with all the accompanying Wild West behavior this implies. Secrest’s account is well researched, the photographs are fascinating, and it brings the seedy side of old Denver back to life! Be prepared for rather graphic descriptions of “the trade” replete with accounts of alcohol, drugs, and varying forms of violence and crime. A must-read for people interested in Denver’s History, the Wild West, or frontier prostitution.

Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-90

By Anne M. Butler,

Book cover of Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-90

Why this book?

This is a scholarly work that provides an unvarnished look into the world of the frontier prostitute. This is an often-overlooked facet of frontier life and the constricted choices women had available to them, should they not pursue a more traditional life for one reason or another. Hint – the life of a prostitute and Miss Kitty of Gun Smoke fame diverge rapidly at this point.

Alcohol and Opium in the Old West

By Jeremy Agnew,

Book cover of Alcohol and Opium in the Old West

Why this book?

By now, readers can get a sense of where my recommendations are going with all of this. Life in the West was hard, and alcohol and drugs were turned to (often) to help reduce the pain, discomfort, and loneliness of living in the western United States. Whiskey tended to be of poor quality, drugs were not known to be addictive, and a lot of the stereotypical old west behavior stemmed from the use of liquor and drugs – often to the detriment of the users…and innocent bystanders.

The Homesman

By Glendon Swarthout,

Book cover of The Homesman

Why this book?

Great account of the lonely life on the plains in the mid 1800s…Swathout’s wording and writing are beautiful and it conveys a great sense of place. It is basically a story of women who went insane due to isolation combined with other factors. It is an entire facet of pioneer life that I had never considered. As most know, a movie was made from this book, and it follows the story well. However, I prefer the book. It was an interesting/disturbing/fascinating read.

Slogum House

By Mari Sandoz,

Book cover of Slogum House

Why this book?

Slogum House is a fairly brutal account of the dynamics between a gentle patriarch who married a shifty woman and the influence her brutality had on the family. Parts of this novel are disturbing and hard to read, but this is an interesting tale of a desperate and driven woman who will literally stop at nothing to get what she wants, and how that ruthlessness colors her family and children’s lives. The setting is the remote western sand-hills of Nebraska. Brilliant writing.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in prostitution, American frontier, and the American West?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about prostitution, American frontier, and the American West.

Prostitution Explore 40 books about prostitution
American Frontier Explore 48 books about American frontier
The American West Explore 83 books about the American West

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Westward the Women, Roughing It, and African American Women of the Old West if you like this list.