At barely seventeen Miriam Florence Follin was thrown on her own resources in New York City. Her uncle had renounced his guardianship, her father disappeared into Mexico on another doomed financial mission, leaving her and her mother alone without support and the rent due. What were her options?
Opportunities for women in the early 1850s in Manhattan were few and thankless. Seamstresses, flower-makers, map-colorers, straw braiders, and book folders endured “never-ending daily toil” under harsh bosses for as little as seventy-five cents a week.
Sex workers, on the other hand, earned an average of five dollars a night and could free-lance part time. An estimated fifty-thousand women practiced prostitution in the city mid-century—ten to twenty percent of the female population.
Miriam changed her name to “Minnie” and entered the trade, via a number of possible routes. A Dr. Collyer hired women to pose in “tableaux vivants” after which the “model artists” could arrange rendezvous at the Bowery hotel, “no references required.” Assignation places abounded: “naughty third tiers” in theaters, restaurants with private rooms, and the “public balls” she attended. When she grew skilled enough (compliments of tutorials by the great courtesan Lola Montez) to rise in the ranks, she landed a congressman who bought her a townhouse and found a distinguished husband, E. G. Squire at trysting spot, Castle Garden.
By 1870, New York City prostitution was ubiquitous, and a successful madam could net as much as $200 a night and retire in luxury. There were about five hundred brothels and men could buy A Gentleman’s Companion Guide to these pleasure houses.
Miriam never lost her sympathy for “soiled doves” and translated and produced Alexander Dumas’ The Demimonde, a comedy about a triumphant lady of pleasure.
Learn more about Miriam’s life and New York City in the Gilded Age in Diamonds and Deadlines: A Tale of Greed, Deceit, and a Female Tycoon in the Gilded Age
Available March 29, 2022
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