Sex and the City of Richmond: Prostitution on Second Street

Jackson Ward in the twenty-first century is not a place whose history seems significant. As it stands now, small brick homes line the streets of this small Richmond neighborhood, and only a few insignificant shops make their livelihoods here.  In fact, it is difficult to fathom what sort of industry would choose to ever make its home in its dozens of gravel-lined lots, car shops and residences.  Over the years, the streets of Jackson Ward have retained their historical usage as residential property; however, the way by which many of the residents spent their time in the small neighborhood has drastically changed through time.  Brothels and recreation areas for soldiers populated some of the many streets of this small portion of the capital during the time of the Civil War.

Second Street, like many other areas of Jackson Ward, did not house the elite and  prosperous. Census data indicates that it was in fact a common-ground for the socially disadvantaged: free black families, newly-settled German and Irish immigrants, and large working-class families settled among each other here during the 1860s [1].  Few shops were maintained on this street: a hardware store, general store and a carpentry store have been accounted for, as well as a tannery, a small church, and a hospital. During the time of the war, Confederate soldiers patrolled its length, and the southern boundary was often used for assembly; the Richmond Daily Dispatch contains reports of soldiers being transported to the street’s hospital after battle, but otherwise, the site was not a host to war [2]. It seems that upon this stretch of residential area there was no avenue for recreation, but instead only the home for men (and few women) to return to after a day’s work. No tavern space was allocated close to home for these working-people and soldiers who may have craved a more carefree pastime. Other options for amusement, perhaps a pavilion or a community hall, were either non-existent in Henrico during the time of the Civil War or not situated close enough to the neighborhood to be a pragmatic option. [2]

It is through the examination of opportunities for recreational activity that one may understand why residents and guests of Second Street might turn to illicit endeavors not only for pleasure, but also as a reasonable business enterprise. The case of one Jane Jones, a schoolteacher, is an example of such a venture:

            Jane Jones, is a white person, and proprietor of an ill-governed and disorderly house. Jane lives on Second street, between Duval and Jackson streets, in the big yellow house called “Noah’s Ark.” The Commonwealth succeeded in establishing the fact that Jane was given to drunkenness, the use of vulgar language in the street “in a loud voice, ” and that her tenement was used as a place of resort by lewd characters.  Security in $150 for her good behavior was required of her (Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 19th, 1862). [2]

Jones managed an “ill-governed” house, the polite 19th-century euphemism for a place of clandestine activities, the least of which would include social drinking (a suspicion alluded to in the report when Jones was accused of being “given to drunkenness”) and at its most extreme, but not most uncommon, would refer to prostitution [3]. It is likely that both were practiced in “Noah’s Ark”, as the two activities would collectively bring in great income to Jones. Due to the proximity of Duval and Jackson Streets to the point of assembly for soldiers, which could be anywhere between Canal and Broad Streets depending on the day and time during the war, it seems that a brothel only a half a mile up Second Street would be a great vantage point for soldiers leery of being caught in such an establishment by a commanding officer. Likewise, community members could frequent the house as often as they could manage without being considered by others who live on the street as a “lewd figure”.

The boom of the prostitution profession in the United States occurred as a reaction to the Civil War [4].  Confederate and Union soldiers alike were often stranded in foreign cities, in barracks with no women to be seen or with which to interact. They had strained their relationships with their small towns that could easily track any illicit activity they may indulge in, and their unfamiliarity with any local church oftentimes resulted in a declination to restrain themselves from lustful indulgences. Thus, the sale and trade of pornographic imagery became a common happening in barracks across the country, and prostitution, which during the war was not a crime, skyrocketed as a profitable business venture, particularly in Richmond in which “prostitution…[and] drunken rowdiness, too, increased with the influx of Richmond’s defenders” to the point where the city came to be known as a large center of prostitution in the Civil War [5].

Backlash against this new form of wartime recreation was strong: prostitution was explicitly immoral and unholy in all Christian churches, and was simply violent in nature. It attracted walks of life with which a typical Southern gentleman would not want to associate himself; Northerners who visited Richmond were disgusted that “the capital of an overwhelmingly rural country supposedly based on conservative social values became the epitome of urban disorder and immorality…[many] recoiled at the brothels, faro banks and saloons that lined the city’s streets.” [6]  However, the demand for brothels was so enduring that public outcry could not overshadow the wants of the soldiers. Houses of prostitution were kept far from upper-class communities and confined to the streets of the proletariat, where crime was less irregular and the citizens had less political sway.  Its new district, however, did not keep the industry free from the public eye: police, who would fine or cart away management of brothels on the grounds of “keeping a disorderly house”, have been noted to have met with and punished the owners of a notorious brothel on three separate occasions in one month [7].

Second Street became a victim of this newly established societal trend. Men from the Richmond Ward area, including Second Street, often left behind large families of a wife and many children. In order to feed their families, it became necessary to take on a source of income. There are reports of many women from the Union and the Confederacy donning the position of nurse on the war front, a breakthrough in traditional gender role assumption as this was in previous wars the job of male volunteers [8]  However, working-class women who received practically no education could not fathom taking on such a task, and were confined to more typically feminine tasks, such as working in other homes as caretakers or maids. Immigrant communities, especially the Irish, suffered a great amount of xenophobia in 19th century society, and regardless of sex were often barred from working anywhere for more than meager pay. Irish, and at times German families, therefore, had a difficult time finding employment with which to sustain their home, even if the male head of household had not gone to war [9]. It became necessary that to feed their families, women find work anywhere, even if it meant becoming a prostitute. Second Street families may have benefitted greatly from “Noah’s Ark” as it gave many of them an opportunity for recreation as well as employment; women like Jane Jones, a former school-teacher in her thirties, who could previously not leave the home without the accompaniment of a male escort, were in wartime given more liberation than previously recorded in unexpected ways [10] [11].

The Civil War is famed for having brought Richmond to its feet during the war by creating a necessity for industries like Tredegar Iron Works, but its most obvious import, men, changed the landscape of the city in a social manner so intricate that it affected even how illicit activity was proliferated in the capital.  Despite the polite reputation of the average Virginian man in the 19th century, the real average man – the factory worker, the shopkeeper, the soldier – is something akin to the average man today, a quintessential feature of American society: a human being who works hard but is not without his own vices, who might drink and flirt for recreational activity.  It is uncertain whether this average man has transcended the confines of geographic stereotypes in the face of lower-class hardship during war, or if the war itself has transformed the landscape into something radically different than what once had been, the man becoming caught in the current; no doubt, the two options had coincided during the Civil War, and, as the layman stays stagnant through history, they always will.

1. Ancestry.com, 1860 United States Federal Census. (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2009) < ancestrylibrary.com>
2.  IMLS, Richmond Daily Dispatch Online. (DLXS) <http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/&gt;
3.  William J. Novak, The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth Century America. (UNC, 1996) 159-160
4.  Thomas P Lowry, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War (Stackpole, 1994).
5. Emory Thomas, The Confederate of Richmond: A Biography of the Capital (Louisiana, 1998) 39.
6.  Gregg D. Kimball, American City, Southern Place: A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000) 249-250.
7.  The Confederate of Richmond: A Biography of the Capital (Louisiana, 1998) 39.
8. University of Virginia, Hearts at Home: War Work. UVA, 1997. < http://www2.lib.virginia.edu/exhibits/hearts/warwork.html&gt;
9. Charles Hirschman, The Impact of Immigration on American Society: Looking Backward into the Future (2006). http://borderbattles.ssrc.org/Hirschman/&gt;
10.  Gregg D. Kimball, American City, Southern Place: A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000) 48-49.
11.   The Richmond directory, and business advertiser, for 1856.

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