Alaska writer uncovers history in Gold Rush whorehouses

Posted: Thursday, June 18, 1998

ANCHORAGE - Lael Morgan knew she was on to something when she stood up for a luncheon talk a few years back, began describing her idea for a new book and got pelted with a dinner roll.

``I learned that some people find this a very offensive subject,'' says Morgan, author of the recently published ``Good Times Girls,'' a Gold Rush centennial history told through the lives of Alaska and Yukon prostitutes.

``I knew this was a just a fact of life in Alaska where there have always been more men than women,'' the Fairbanks writer says. ``I didn't think of it as offensive at all.''

Booksellers and historians agree. The book, published in April by Seattle-based Epicenter Press, is featured on the cover of May's Alaska magazine - accompanied by a blowup photograph of a bosomy good-time girl with cleavage to rival any Cosmo model.

For Morgan, the days of flying dinner rolls are gone.

``People are buying multiple copies,'' says Mark Weberof Anchorage's Borders bookstore. ``That kind of word-of-mouth (recommendation) is what makes a book take off.''

``People know Lael is solid academically,'' says Bruce Merrell, curator of Loussac Library's Alaska collection. ``I respect that.''

The book is a blend of journalism and footnoted history tucked among 90 vintage photographs revealing street scenes of Livengood, Fairbanks and Ketchikan, turn-of-the-century apartment interiors and a crowded Dawson ballroom photographed at 4 a.m.

Other photos are simply revealing, including a nude ``tableau'' dating to around 1915 and featuring noted Circle madame Ella Joseph-de-Saccrist and five other women.

``To escape `blue laws' that forbade rowdy stage shows on Sundays, enterprising club owners often enlisted performers from the demimonde to pose in tableaux reproducing famous paintings,'' Morgan writes. ``Ella was known to be cooperative for fee.''

A University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism professor who moved to Anchorage as a bride in 1959, Morgan was raised in New England, far from the chiffon-clad dancers, saloon keepers and dizzy boom-to-bust-to-boom gold miners who fill her book. She has a soft spot for them all.

``They were beautiful, their motives for coming north were as varied as the men's and they spent an enormous of amount of money,'' Morgan says. For instance, in an era when frocks were going for $11.95 apiece, prostitutes could afford a hundred dresses or more a year.

``They backed miners and invested in people that banks wouldn't,'' Morgan says. ``These women kept whole cities alive.''

Morgan got her first glimpse of territorial Alaska's ``restricted'' districts 30 years ago when she pedaled her bike past brothels as a shortcut to her job as a department store advertising manager.

Those sights, not particularly menacing, came back to her years later when she was given access to Gold Rush-era photographs collected by renowned territorial Judge James Wickersham, known for a no-nonsense stance on crime who - Morgan writes - ``spoke surprisingly well of the Far North prostitutes.''

``The sporting women were of a more robust class than usual among their kind, hence there were fewer cases of venereal disease among them,'' Wickersham wrote in a memoir. ``The women were also younger, more vigorous and independent than those of the same class in the older, more crowded communities in the states.''

Morgan says she realized early in her research, which included poring over Canadian government databases, that prostitution in Alaska offered unique advantages - including a relatively caste-free society that allowed good-time girls to marry well and advance to the social register.

``A lot of fiction and giggly stuff has been written,'' says Morgan, whose research took her throughout the state. ``But no one had ever taken a serious look at these women.''

``Good Time Girls'' traces the history of Alaska and Yukon prostitution from the 1890s - when a Fairbanks minister first proposed a red light district to relieve violence in an outpost dominated by men, gold and boredom - to the 1950s, when entrenched prostitution ``Lines'' in Fairbanks and Anchorage ran afoul of new federal laws that made solicitation illegal.

University of Alaska Anchorage history professor Steve Haycox says Morgan's book helps explain Alaska's social fabric, which he says mirrored other Western states where frontier settlements made their peace with prostitution in exchange for its economic benefits.

``The book's contribution won't be its prurience - that certainly isn't what Lael intended,'' says Haycox. ``There's no book like it. People will be wanting to know who's mentioned.''

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