‘Women of bad repute’ were major part of 1890s

We signed off last week by noting that Boise City Marshal Nicholson had all he could handle in 1890, rounding up drunks, stopping fistfights and escorting tramps out of town with orders not to return. He also fought a losing battle against what Rudyard Kipling once called “the world’s oldest profession.”

That prostitutes had plied their trade in Boise City since the 1860s was regularly revealed in items like this in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman of March 10, 1866: “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 January 1890, a woman named Nettie Bowen, who had been convicted of “keeping a house for the purpose of prostitution within the limits of Boise City” asked the Idaho Supreme Court to consider reduction of her sentence. She had been fined $150 and sentenced to 4 months in jail. The court remitted her jail sentence, of which she had already served 3 weeks. The Statesman complained, “For years the best portion of one of the principle streets of the city has been given over to houses of sin.” (The area to which the paper referred, often called Levy’s Alley, is now occupied by City Hall.)

In April 1890, “Several affidavits have been filed by the city attorney with the police justice designed to prosecute houses of ill fame.” Later that month the paper reported, “Two women of bad repute hired a house on the alley between Main and Grove and Sixth and Seventh Streets yesterday, but gave it up on being told by the city marshal that they were in a neighborhood where they were not wanted.”

In June 1890, Nettie Bowen was in the news again. She had moved to Nampa since being released from jail and had been forcibly thrown out of Anderson’s Restaurant after becoming disorderly. Soon afterward, she returned with a gun and shot Anderson. The small-caliber bullet was deflected off a suspender buckle under his vest, or he could have been killed or seriously wounded. Nettie was fined $100 for assault and battery, and on her counter complaint Anderson was fined $50 for having assaulted her. District Attorney Edgar Wilson told the Statesman on June 16, 1890, that she should have been held on a charge more serious than mere assault, and ordered her rearrested.

When Sheriff Rube Robbins went to Nampa with a warrant for her arrest five days later, he found that she had skipped — no doubt alerted by the Statesman article of the week before. Robbins “used the telegraph wires freely to have the fugitive intercepted, but all efforts failed.” On June 27, 1890, Nettie was captured and returned to Boise, where she was put in the county jail. This time her bail was set at $1,000 and she was held for the next grand jury. On July 24 somebody tried to burn down Nettie’s house in Nampa, but it was put out before much damage was done.

In August, Nettie tried to commit suicide. “Remedies were promptly applied and no fatal effects occurred. We are not advised of the motive for such an attempt.” Early Idaho newspapers reported with some frequency suicides or attempted suicides by prostitutes, especially by Chinese slave women brought to America by Chinese companies. In April 1892, the Statesman reported that “a woman of the town” had attempted suicide by swallowing “poison enough to kill an ostrich.” She survived.

In March 1892, the irrepressible Nettie was still in business “in one of the ‘cribs’ in the alley between Main and Idaho and Sixth and Seventh Streets.” She stabbed a man named Jim Turner but was not arrested — perhaps because he had it coming. On Aug. 4, Chief Nicholson and Officer Howry raided the brothels of “Contrary Mary” Linnens and Nettie Bowen and arrested five prostitutes. “The lewd females each gave bonds in the sum of $20 and were released from custody.”

In all, 11 women were arrested in raids that week, and all paid fines, albeit “with sullen expressions.” Police told the Statesman that “more of these lewd females, who have been altogether too bold of late, will contribute to the city treasury before long.”

Prostitution was a tough and degrading way to make a living, but reformers and police have never been able to totally shut it down.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.