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.

  • KatielovesTomWJ

    Oh Kevin, I get that Eva is your friend. You turned to her a lot in the first season, but seriously out of all the girls in NYC…..out of all the Irish lasses who flirt with you…..you hop straight into bed with pregnant Eva IN HER PRISON cell, TWO weeks after Ellen’s wake? Seriously? There isn’t anyone else in the entire city? I really like Franke Potente as an actress, but let’s not pretend she’s gorgeous. Find a more emotionally stable “Ellen,” have another “Maggie” and stay the heck away from Eva’s Paradise unless it is strictly police business.

    • bikracer

      I think Eva is beautiful, personally. Kevin is very vulnerable right now and just needs comfort, Eva is also very vulnerable right now and needs comfort as well, they are perfect for each other in their need.

      • KatielovesTomWJ

        I wanted him to have five minutes of happiness this season, with a potential for romance. Maybe with the widow of the boy he rescued from being shipped off to the war. BTW – I think that Franke Potente is attractive, but the show does her no favors with make-up and wardrobe. To me, the hat…the makeup….they are making Eva separate herself as a business woman from the other women. Let’s just say she looked like Lola…. men would constantly be putting their hands on her, etc. I think that Eva’s look on the show is meant NOT to attract men on purpose. But I get what you say about them both being vulnerable. Neither of them communicates weakness very well, so I can see them turning to each other in the way they really relate.

  • CooperFan

    I like Kevin and Eva together, it is believable. They are both broken people who when they are together feel whole. I hope Annie is not really gone for good. I liked her character. And KatielovesTomWJ beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    • KatielovesTomWJ

      That’s why this is a comment board. Substitute “opinion” and there you have what we are ALL doing here.

    • KatielovesTomWJ

      That’s why this is a comment board. Substitute “opinion” and there you have what we are ALL doing here, CooperFan. And when Kevin was courting Elizabeth, just how many times did he refer to Eva as a wh0re to her face? (“Annie needs a mother Eva. Not a wh0re. Maybe I’ll see you tonight.”) Enough times for me to do without him if I were her. Their friendship is believable. Their sexu@l relationship is believable. Both are mutually beneficial. But a romance….no way. You’ll notice that Keven is generally only around Eva when he needs her, be it se x, information, or a nursemaid for his wife. He sees their sexu@l relationship as a business transaction. She’s the anti-Ellen. He doesn’t even have five minutes for her to tell him she is pregnant back when we were led to believe that Kevin could be the father. When Eva helped Kevin with the very sick Ellen, Kevin said something about the bedroom and Eva made a very pointed comment that she had never SEEN Kevin’s bedroom. Apparently the sofa was OK for the “wh0re.” We know they’ve been together at Kevin’s house but the bedroom was the sanctuary of Kevin and his wife. But I am happy to see Robert, Matthew, and Kevin have some scenes together again. I have missed their bond this season.

  • Amanda

    I’M IN LOVE WITH KEVIN….but nex season I see Kevin falling for Francise’s new lass…she’s pretty and on top of that karma’s a beeoch :)

    • KatielovesTomWJ

      POTENTIAL SPOILER – Maybe I am wrong, but it appears to me that she dies in the previews for the last three episodes. At least, it looks like Maguire is carrying a female body like a baby and crying. Remember Donovan does NOT want this investigation to go any further. But I love Francis. I was hoping that Kevin and Ellen could get an annulment so that Ellen and Francis could be together. So I HOPE I am wrong about the new love interest.

  • Lisa

    Best show on TV, thanks for a fabulous and well done program.

  • iris

    I love the show “best” on BBC America. However I don’t understand the charter of Kevin Corcoran, when it comes to his relationship with women. He seems to either love them (Eva and Annie) or hate them (Ellen and Elizabeth). I wish he would have shown more compasion to his wife.

  • Another fan

    I think Copper is the best show on tv and i for one think kevin and eva are great together….he couldn’t have stayed with ellen because she had been imperfect by finding comfort with francis and not waiting forever for him to return ( or not?) from the war. At least in the second season i felt it was evas company he felt the most comforted by but the last widow appeared to be a fairly big comfort too.
    is it a fact that it is cancelled?