A Tale of Two Prostitutes-Notes on the Victorian Social Order

In the nineteenth century, a woman who owned property, made high wages, had sex outside of marriage (or outside the missionary position) and was not ashamed may well have been involved in nineteenth century sex work. These “public women” challenged and subverted the Victorian cultural universals that upheld traits of purity, piety, domesticity and submission as the cornerstone of “true womanhood.” Indeed sex work in the nineteenth century was considered the “gilded highway to hell” by many reformers and polite society as a whole. In spite of the opprobrium associated with this trade, certain women would find that it suited them. The shadow economy of selling sex provided beautiful clothes, theater tickets and above all a livelihood independent from another person. This essay highlights the experiences of two nineteenth century prostitutes, Dorcas Doyen and Goldie Williams. Though these women lived in different spatial and temporal regions during the nineteenth century their experiences reveal the high cost of resisting the Victorian social order. Their experiences are then brought in conversation with John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty and the Subjection of Women” to further flesh out the limitations that gender imposed on women of the nineteenth century. Examining these women’s lives reveals how the moral imperatives deployed on them by the Victorian social order created excess chaos that defeated the purposes of its controlling ideology.

Nineteenth century prostitutes were represented overwhelmingly by women of lower social stations; a social category that guaranteed limited access to upward mobility. It was this low social status that set in motion the circumstances that led to many of these women to becoming “fallen women.” In the case of Dorcas Doyen, her being a servant girl made her particularly vulnerable to predatory, licentious designs of men whose intentions were less than honorable. Doyen’s beauty and lack of advocacy made her a prime target for unfettered lust. Whether Doyen initiated her first encounter or not it changed the trajectory of her life. Victorian ideals made a woman’s virginity her sole gift to her potential husband. Her primary virtue was her chastity; with it gone she ventured away from her birthplace and began life as a new woman, a public woman. Doyen’s life is captured in the book “The Murder of Helen Jewitt”, where the author Patricia Cline Cohen weaves together the life and death of a mysterious prostitute who is eventually murdered by one of her lovers. Cohen is able to write Doyen’s(alias Helen Jewett) life because of extant letters and newspaper accounts detailing the murder and later trial. Doyen’s tenure as a prostitute according to Cohen’s research was from the time she left her position as a servant in a Maine family’s household in 1818 to 1836 her life cut short in a New York City brothel.

Nearly sixty-two years later in Omaha, Nebraska another woman, an African-American woman Goldie Williams (also known as Meg Murphy) was living the life of a prostitute. Williams was booked for vagrancy on January 29, 1898 and listed her occupation as prostitute; her mug shot shows her defiantly crossing her arms while grimacing her face.[1] She adorned herself that night with hoop earrings and a hat with a pretty satin ribbon. An unknown person had attacked her cutting below her right wrist and breaking her index finger. The arrest record listed all of these details regarding Williams. Unlike Doyen there are no letters that provide a glimpse into the inner workings of Williams’ mind. In fact Williams is not listed on census records in Omaha nor Chicago, the place she listed as her original home on the arrest record. Goldie Williams arrival to Nebraska remains a mystery.


Omaha, Nebraska experienced sharp increases in population growth after 1880, with railroads and stockyards providing work opportunities for African Americans.[2] It is this migration perhaps, that Williams followed from Chicago that lead her to Omaha.  The railroads provided the largest number of job opportunities for African Americans with many of them finding employment as porters, cooks, and common laborers.

Vagrancy, the charge Williams was booked under is an ambiguous, catchall type of “crime” that has a troubling history that served a monumental purpose in maintaining the social order:

“Two features of vagrancy laws made them especially attractive. First, the laws’ breadth and ambiguity gave the police virtually unlimited discretion. Because it was almost always possible to justify a vagrancy arrest, the laws provided what one critic called “an escape hatch” from the Fourth Amendment’s protections against arrest without probable cause. As one Supreme Court justice would write in 1965, vagrancy-related laws made it legal to stand on a street corner “only at the whim of any police officer.”

Second, vagrancy laws made it a crime to be a certain type of person…where most American laws required people to do something criminal before they could be arrested, vagrancy laws emphatically did not.”[3]


Social control during the nineteenth century was a major influence in the prescriptive literature on Victorian manners. This form of social controls deals more with deviance and vice. Since these matters are personal and very private in nature it was important to inculcate such ideals into people so that it would be self-enforced.  “Commanding oneself” was essential. The rules governing sexual behaviors between the genders had the greatest weight as unwed mothers, illegitimate births, and victims of venereal disease bled the country of its resources if they hadn’t the resources to remedy the situation. Exchanges of glances, location of people on the street, method of gait, speed of walk, color of clothing and many other things could presumably create havoc between the sexes or risk shame (usually for women).

For middle class white women of the nineteenth century the centers of their worlds were in the private sphere of the home. It was in this fragile space where free white women were relegated to perform the ideals of republican motherhood – an ideology that gave white women a political function, that of raising children to be moral, virtuous citizens of the new republic, without their engaging in political activity outside the domestic realm.[4] What is important in the function of republican motherhood is the determinism of marriage and how this characterizes the only pathway to white women’s chosen role as republican mothers. In this limited scope of utility white women must satisfy the “litmus test” for marriageability- appearing demure, chaste, hopefully comely, ultimately possessing the Victorian qualities of what made white women the “perfect bride.”

In spite of this departure from convention, nineteenth century prostitutes still managed to construct identities in tandem with public sympathies. Doyen’s origins of being a young orphan and “seduced” after being ardently pursued created a narrative which allowed strangers to empathize with her situation. Securing sympathy and a possible friend undoubtedly helped Doyen as she ventured into new places. As Patricia Cohen informs, Doyen reinvented herself to enhance her prospects. In Goldie Williams’case the limitations of mobility in America during the so-called Progressive Era provided even less possibilities for any aspirations she may have had making prostitution even more of an eventual vocation out of mere necessity for survival.

And what can be made of the “prospects” that a prostitute could find? For Doyen in her four years in New York she lived in a succession of brothels as well as private rooms paid for by lovers. At one point she was a highly paid courtesan with her own private maid, jewelry, and ornate clothing. Enviable as such possessions may have seemed her life was still a chaotic one: Doyen was scratched in the face by a former madam, kicked at a theater as well as other indignities. These events exemplify the turbulent nature of life in the shadows of sex work.


John Stuart Mill mused that a woman’s life “depended upon obtaining a good master…”[5] It is doubtful that Doyen could ever have found a “good master” since the caliber of people that frequented the brothels were not men to be depended on for their magnanimity. In this it can be seen that a middle to upper class clientele at brothels did not provide protections from terror. Brothels were still raided by ruffians, shunned by polite society, and as time progressed their legal standing diminished. The tyrannical public opinion plus the dogma of moral reform steadily marginalized nineteenth century prostitutes even more. For Williams even less was in reach. Aside from the ornaments and hat she wore in her mugshot and the change of residence from Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska, it is not clear what “fruits” she may have enjoyed from the trade.

The tyranny of public opinion that John Stuart Mill writes of in On Liberty informs how prostitutes may have come to the fateful decision to enter a life working in sex. Mill reminds that, “the means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates.” Doyen’s first employer, The Weston family were pillars within the community and whatever misconduct associated with her “fall” would have gave way to reproof from the Westons. It would have been a daily reminder of her lowly status- the disapproving looks, disdain shown in direction of tasks, and overall contempt would have been a never-ending trial. By leaving Doyen sought to develop an alternative lifestyle elsewhere against the prevailing Victorian culture- a culture that shunned her deliberately and conspicuously and compelled her to venture off into the world of sex work. In so doing Doyen placed herself in direct opposition to the dominant culture. Similarly, Goldie Williams left Chicago following some prospect of opportunity that landed her in Omaha, Nebraska. Whatever life she had in Chicago must have been of a quality that Williams was not willing to endure.

Because women engaged in prostitution during the nineteenth century challenged and subverted cultural mores by being “public” women and not remaining in the private domestic sphere they imbued themselves with masculine features. By challenging men in court who assaulted, robbed or threatened them they were asserting themselves in ways that seemed unnatural for nineteenth century society. What society did not realize was that such agency was par for the course in the world of sex work.

On agency Mill would write that “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs…” In the case of prostitutes their services to her clientele were hurting no one. The Harry, Dick, and Toms who served as clients seeking the charm, beauty and liasions that prostitutes were willing to provide through discreet encounters were not hurting anyone per se.  But in the world of Victorian ideals, this “hurt” society  as it tarnished the convention of Victorian manners- this would make organizations like the Magdalen Society attempt to bring to the fore, the evils of the “whoreocracy.”

For nineteenth century prostitutes, the “whoreocracy” may have seemed a far cry better than the drudgery of menial labor. Occupations as servant girls in wealthy households meant that they knew the extent of “freedom” such a vocation enjoyed. Limited by lowly family origins, but blessed with a comely appearance and mental aptitude, nineteenth century prostitutes aspired to the same individualism as the young clerks that crowded into New York City during the market revolution. Prostitutes wishing for an appearance of gentility however was on the fast track to the veneer of gentility: fancy clothes, knowledge of fine works of literature, and poise. As nice as these attributes were it was still not enough to enter into actual gentility. Prostitution’s alternative lifestyle provided the money to attain the props of gentility, but would never afford for them becoming “proper” ladies.

Goldie Williams’ arrest and Doyen’s tragic end signifies Mill’s assertions on the societal tyranny of public opinion as well as the limited freedom of the individual in a socially controlled world. Had Doyen and Williams been able to lead their lives without the judgment of others they may have been able to realize much more of happiness than just the frills of finery.

[1] Historic Nebraska Mug Shots.Goldie Williams January 29, 1898. Nebraska State Historical Society    Lincoln, NE (accessed August 15, 2015) https://history.nebraska.gov/visit/goldie-williams

[2]Clare V. McKanna Jr.  Seeds of Destruction: Homicide, Race, and Justice in Omaha, 1880-1920, Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 14, No. 1, African Americans (Fall, 1994), pp. 65-90

[3] Risa Goluboff, The Forgotten Law That Gave Police Nearly Unlimited Power. Time

Feb 01, 2016  http://time.com/4199924/vagrancy-law-history/ (accessed 9/7/2017)

[4] Linda Kerber mThe Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment-An American Perspective: American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2, Special Issue: An American Enlightenment (Summer, 1976), pp. 187-205 The Johns Hopkins University Pressm  83

[5] John Stuart Mill and Alan Ryan, On liberty and the subjection of women (New York: Penguin Classics, 2007)3