Wanton West: Madams, Money, Murder and the Wild Women of Montana’s Frontier, by Lael Morgan, Chicago Review Press, 2011, $24.95
Bad girls. Fallen women. Soiled doves. Oh, let’s come right out and say it—whores. They are the Old West’s dirty little non-secret, an omnipresent backdrop to its settlement, providing comfort to its notorious badmen, as well to members of the “respectable” crowd. Wanton West journalist Lael Morgan pulls the world’s oldest profession from the shadows and focuses on its activities in Montana, where prostitution generally boomed, save for a few crackdowns, until World War I, when venereal disease—followed by the state’s economic decline—finally drove the once-grand cribs out of business and several to the wrecking ball. Hers is largely an anecdotal history, driven by the colorful characters who chose that life as an alternative to more mundane professions.
Prostitutes in late-19th-century Montana included young, pretty, intelligent ladies who paid their own way, perhaps found wealthy husbands or acquired the entrepreneurial experience to parlay their earnings into more respectable businesses. But there were also the old, addicted, out-of-luck floozies who got by on whatever clients would still have them, living lives of desperation.
If it takes colorful characters to keep Western history interesting, readers will find their fair share in Wanton West. Morgan includes here losers such as Martha Jane Canary, whose ups and downs truly earned her the moniker Calamity Jane, to winners like Madeleine Blair, whose 1919 autobiography, Madeleine, shocked the country with its unapologetic treatment of her former profession—and whose real name remains a mystery.