Prostitution has long been described as “the world’s oldest profession” and has led wags and wits to describe other professions as “the second oldest.” Ronald Reagan, among others, was fond of quipping that politics is the second oldest profession but “bears a remarkable resemblance to the first.”
Just how old is the oldest profession? The Bible mentions it more than 30 times in the Old Testament and nine times in the New Testament, with references to “harlotry,” “harlots” and even “male cult prostitutes,” which makes the practice at least as old as any written language.
In Idaho, prostitutes were mentioned often in our earliest newspapers, usually as “nymphs,” or in French as “nymphes du pave” for street-walkers. The 1870 U.S. census lists six female prostitutes, all in Boise County, but none in Ada County or Owyhee County. Does that mean that there weren’t any prostitutes in Boise City or Silver City? The newspapers tell us otherwise, and of generations of ineffective anti-vice campaigns to stamp out “the evil.”
The Idaho World of March 10, 1866, reported “A Couple of Nymphs, not having the fear of God nor the respect of men very high, were brought before Judge McGound on Wednesday, charged with profaning the atmosphere with loud and obscene language; whereupon the Court fined one of them $50 and the other $5, and sent them on their way with the injunction to keep the peace hereafter.”
In Boise in August 1866, “A slippery, red haired and whiskered villain named Benjamin W. Bloomer robbed the house of a Spanish courtesan living at the corner of Idaho and Sixth streets last Friday of $2,000, and decamped with his haul.” Madame Isabel Roques advertised in the Statesman that same day a $500 reward for the apprehension of Bloomer.
In September 1871 the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman quoted the World: “The editor of the Statesman made a flying visit to the Basin last week, in company with Deputy Marshal Rube Robbins, for the purpose of interviewing Mr. Hawley at Granite Creek. Reynolds informed us that there was a riot among the demi-monde (prostitutes) the night he was in Quartzburg. Nobody killed, though considerable whiskey disposed of.” The “Mr. Hawley” mentioned was Attorney James H. Hawley, later elected mayor of Boise and governor of Idaho.
The Owyhee Avalanche of Silver City reported in June 1871, “Some of Silver City’s frail sisters got into a muss on Wednesday afternoon. Damages: Several windows broken and a smashing up of things in general. The affair is likely to furnish some business for the Sheriff and Justice of the Peace.” A few weeks later, “A brace of nymphes du pave had a lively game of fisticuffs in town last Saturday. On that occasion their little hands tried to tear each other’s eyes out.”
Suicides and attempted suicides were all too common in the brothels of early Idaho. The Avalanche reported on Sept. 23, 1871, “A fair but frail occupant of one of the numerous gilded haunts of infamy, situated on Washington Street, attempted self-destruction on Wednesday night by taking a large quantity of chloroform. Preparatory to crossing the dark river that laves the shores of eternity, she set her house in order and arrayed herself in robes of spotless white, strangely in contrast to the life she had led. Cold, pale and pulseless lay the fair one of sin for more than two hours, and she was looked upon as dead. But Dr. Colmache at length succeeded in fanning the feeble spark of life into a vigorous blaze, rescuing her, at least for the time being, from a suicide’s grave. Cause: love disappointment and jealousy.”
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.