Sex in the Old City
Updated: May 4
Bordello, cathouse, brothel, house of ill repute, call them what you will, but a story about early New York wouldn’t be complete without them.
In time, however, factors such as social reform, changing land use, and new (enforced) laws removed brothels from early twentieth-century New York in record numbers. Unfortunately for Sophia, Emily’s roommate in Dear Maude, they weren’t eliminated entirely, and worse, she's banished to one.
When Sophia is unable to fulfill her assignment in 2012—to get Emily engaged to her boyfriend, Gerd—her employer, Evergreen Research Corporation, offers alternative employment. In Dear Maude, this is where Emily finds Sophia in 1910, in a dark alley in the wrong part of town:
'How did you get here?'
'They promised me a job in the past, so I took it. I guess I should have asked a few more questions, right?'
'Soph, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize—'
'What can I do?'
'Just go along with them, Em.'
'No, I mean what can I do for you? I have money and jewelry. They can buy you a train ticket out of this place.' I reached up to take off my necklace.
She pulled my hands away from my neck. 'I have all I need here, Em.'
'Em, for the first time in my life, I’m in charge, and people need me.'
'What? I don’t understand.'
'I am the madam of my own bordello.'
'But you shouldn’t have to be here to do that. You belong in the future.'
'No, Em, it’s you who belongs in that time. There’s nothing for me there.'”
At the dawn of the twentieth-century, when women’s employment options were limited, wages were low, rents were high, and working conditions were miserable, prostitution was often viewed as a viable option. Insert a girl from the future who’s no stranger to money or its value, and whose views on sex aren’t governed by a moral code, and one may imagine how being a madam in a bordello could be a lucrative opportunity. In Sophia’s case, however, her gratitude for her new position has a more sinister twist in this excerpt from Dear Maude:
'I’m actually happy, Em.' She flashed me what looked like a genuine smile.
'You can’t mean that!'
'I do. Please, Em, we only have a couple of minutes, and there’s something important I need to tell you.'
'Whatever you do, don’t trust Lord Winston or anyone he knows. Also, make sure you succeed at whatever he asks you to do.'
'Well, he wants me to marry Mr. Beringer here, but now I’m sure that’s not going to happen.'
'Really? I wouldn’t be too sure. He obviously cares about you, or else he wouldn’t have brought you here.'
'Please, Em, for once in your life, don’t argue with me! I know you’re smarter than me at most things, but I obviously have some experience in this area.'
'I’m not. Actually, I’m one of the lucky ones.' She looked straight ahead at the dark alley in front of us.
'Yeah. It seems our friend Gerd won’t be inheriting his father’s vast estate after all. His younger brother is in line for that.'
'Because of me?'
'No. He went in search of his own fortune in the diamond mines of South Africa. Unfortunately, he arrived right in the middle of the Second Boer War, looking more Dutch than British. Poor Gerd didn’t last a week. He was never much of a student of history.'
I guess you were wrong about guys with money not losing. I felt too nauseous to voice my thoughts.
'Watch your back and trust no one, Em. This Beringer guy might be all right, but I’d still be careful.'
'Who is he?' I asked.
'All I know is that he works for the other side.' With that, she gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and stepped out of the car.
I scooted toward the driver-side door. 'Soph, don’t go! This can’t be it!'
'Sorry, Em, but we both have our false reputations to uphold.'
'Will I see you again?'
'Possibly but probably not on purpose.'
My eyes clouded with tears as I watched Beringer walk toward her while she made her way down the alley to her bordello door. He kissed her on the cheek and placed something in her hand before they went their separate ways.
For time travelers, change is often the only constant they can take for granted. Since learning to adapt to a new timeframe is part of the job description, being creative becomes second nature; especially when no one and nothing is what it appears. Just ask Sophia.
Read more in THE DEAR MAUDE TRILOGY!
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THIS is a great resource to learn more about prostitution in early New York.
Next time, I’ll explore how music plays a role in Emily’s time travel experience