With charming Victorian mansions looming over quaint brick streets, it is hard to imagine that this town was once a booming and vibrant city. People from all kinds of backgrounds wandered the streets, especially down in the business district. Many different accents and languages would have been heard as Irish and German immigrant families climbed down off of steamboats to build a new life in Marietta and Washington County. The Ohio River was the most important and fastest way to travel at the time and it brought other, less permanent, people into town as well. Steamboats were often staffed by young, single men. They worked away from home for months at a time, had money in their pockets and were ready for a good time. Being so close to the river, Ohio Street and Historic Harmar were the fun places to be for these transient workers. After the Civil War, oil and gas production turned Marietta into a boom town and suddenly transient railroaders, steamboat workers and oilmen became a huge and important source of income for many businesses. Hotels sprang up to house them, the number of restaurants and saloons doubled and tripled, and of course women of an independent mindset from ‘virtuous’ Victorian women soon arrived to entertain the men as well.
At times, it even gave the papers cause for merriment, showcasing how widespread prostitution had become and reads like something out of the Wild West.
It is hard to say exactly how many brothels operated in Marietta, as it was one of those things that existed but was, for the most part, ignored. In Census Records, no Lady of the Evening was going to list her occupation as a ‘prostitute’; instead they often reported that they were laundresses, or seamstresses, something that many of them did before earning a higher wage as a prostitute. So if a group of ‘laundresses’ or ‘seamstresses’ were reported living together on a census, it is possible that the house actually served a very different purpose. Another thing that makes it difficult to identify brothels was that the house actually doubled as the private home of the Madame. Saloons, theatres and gambling houses often also operated a brothel onsite or nearby, but there were also private homes that had prostitutes living and working on the second floor of the home. Nan Hayes, a 35 year old woman, operated such a brothel out of her home in Harmar in 1881.
Though never truly an accepted occupation in Victorian times, it was often easier ignored than corrected. At times, it even gave the papers cause for merriment, showcasing how widespread prostitution had become and reads like something out of the Wild West. For example, in 1866 a local Marietta newspaper reported that two ‘bawds’ and ‘notorious women of the town’ engaged in a desperate fight. The two women, who are even named in the article as Kate King and Mary McCoy, started their fight out in the street with brickbats, before chasing each other into Gerkin’s Grocery Store (once located on the corner of Gilman and Fort Street). Once inside, Mary brandished a large knife and struck out at anyone getting in the way. Kate immediately pulled a revolver from her stockings and stated she would make daylight shine through Mary’s carcass “if she didn’t mind”. Seeing she was at a disadvantage, Mary slowly backed down and the situation eased, for the time being.
The article makes no mention of this being a ‘once in a lifetime event’ and seems nonchalant in its reporting of it, indicating that sights like this may once have been quite common in certain areas of the city. So as you enjoy a delicious dinner at the Levee House café, or wander through the pleasant shops of Historic Harmar Village, stop and remember a time when the streets were a little more boisterous, a little more dangerous and very different from what we see today.