The Business of Prostitution

Series historical adviser Daniel Czitrom offers a look at the business of prostitution in New York City’s Five Points, a sex hub since the early 1800s.

Corcoran visits brothel owner Eva in the Tombs.

Corcoran visits brothel owner Eva in the Tombs.

Eva Heissen is arrested and jailed for stabbing an unruly patron who attacked Lola, one of her employees. As Detective Corcoran and General Donovan visit her in “the Tombs” and help plot her defense, the future of Eva’s Paradise looks shaky. Five Points had been a hub for commercial sex ever since the early 1800s. When the Civil War turned the city into a military garrison and recruitment center, prostitution became a growth industry serving the needs of young men streaming into the city. The appearance of “concert saloons” like Eva’s Paradise, featuring “pretty waiter girls” serving drinks, performing on stage, and turning tricks, reflected the soaring demand. City officials estimated that some 6,000 public prostitutes plied their trade in brothels and on the streets. But this figure did not include the many women who engaged in casual prostitution in tenements or “houses of assignation” (hotels for illicit sex), to supplement meager wages or to support themselves.

Success in the business of prostitution required ambition, access to capital, and protection from local police and political figures. Running a brothel was perhaps the best business opportunity available for a female entrepreneur like Eva. The more successful brothel keepers managed to amass small fortunes and to buy real estate. To attract customers, they used tactics similar to those used by more respectable businesses, especially advertising. Many mailed out illustrated fliers or took out ads in the daily papers, touting magnetic treatments, French lessons, manicures, or other euphemisms for their trade. Out-of-towners often relied upon commercially published guidebooks to New York City brothels. Charles DeKock’s Guide to the Harems (1857) typically invoked Victorian morality, justifying prostitution as a way to protect virtuous women: “These ‘houses’ by affording that gratification are the best safeguards to the virtue of maidens, wives and widows, who would otherwise be exposed to violence and outrage.”

Prostitution also meant lucrative profits for landlords. Some of the biggest entrepreneurs of vice who leased houses for the trade came from leading “respectable’ families. In the Five Points these included John Livingston, brother of Robert R. Livingston, one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, and John Delaplaine, a wealthy merchant. Well known political figures, especially those connected to Tammany Hall, also owned or had interests in brothels, providing valuable political and legal protection.

Legalization of prostitution never received much public support. The expansion of the trade in the 1860s, along with widespread fears of venereal disease, brought many police officials and medical experts to support regulating prostitution. They argued for registering all brothel owners and prostitutes, enforced medical visits, and keeping the trade limited to certain districts where it could be kept under police surveillance. But the profits were too large, the business too decentralized, and public opinion too divided for legal regulation.