“Definitely a screwball.”
— Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office file #474
“Do not let Betty return until she understands she is going to have to behave herself.”
— SCSO file #546
One of the items on my research to-do list: type up my hand-written research notes. Most of the work I did over the summer already made it into typed notes, but these haven’t yet.
Background: The Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) regulated the women who came into town to work in the brothels by keeping records on their activity. The women worked on what was known as “the circuit,” moving into and out of town in a transient way, traveling from one town to another like many of the miners did.
Before I gained access to the SCSO records this summer, I knew the circuit existed because too many of the oral histories and firsthand stories confirmed it, but I didn’t know which other towns were on the circuit, or how much time the women tended to spend in Wallace, or whether or not they moved around amongst the houses while in Wallace (a circuit within a circuit). I thought I was going to have to request the files through the Freedom of Information Act from the FBI, but instead Mitch Alexander donated them for research and preservation purposes. These records give me much of that information, but I haven’t even begun to code it yet, beyond taking preliminary notes by hand as I scanned them.
My collection now contains files on 530 women who worked in Wallace from 1952-1973. I have rap sheets for most of them (and thus records on prior offenses and previous towns), mug shots (or portrait pictures taken by local photographer Nellie Stockbridge in the earlier days), and some extra materials, like aliases and information on spouses, pimps, or in one remarkable case, an intake form from a mental hospital.
What kinds of questions can these files answer? SO MUCH. It’s hard to know where to start. So as I was taking my notes, I began by looking at what the police officers wrote about the women in their notes, and I also got caught up trying to make a list of towns that kept coming up over and over and therefore should be considered part of “the circuit” (which is actually more informal and plural, like circuitry). By looking at the disposition (how the charges were resolved), and especially whether or not the women were FMR (fingerprinted, mugged, and released), it is possible to say whether or not sex work was regulated by the police, decriminialized, or considered to be illegal in these other towns. It is also really interesting to see what other names prostitution was given. For example it was common to see the charge of “immoral woman” and uncommon to see the charge of “taxi dancer,” which appears to be Oakland and San Francisco specific.
Then it occurred to me that I might also be able to find crime patterns. 530 records across 21 years in a town never bigger than 4,000 people (according to Riley Moffat’s data) is a pretty significant dataset, right? Women don’t commit (or get convicted for) as much crime as men, and the large majority of offenders are nailed for prostitution (better source needed here too–I am pretty sure I heard this on a program like Freakonomics or some other radio journalism like that). I began to make note of the kinds of crimes the women had been charged with in the past that went beyond prostitution charges, to see where that would lead. I can’t draw any conclusions yet, in part because my approach has been more qualitative and instinctual than quantitative and scientific…
I’m out of time now, but in the future, I’ll start posting some of these research notes up, because I have to type them anyway. Here is a quick sampler of a few police notes:
“Do not let back in town.” (845) [Yes, that’s right, the police used this language a lot. This is probably the most common notation, along with “Not to come back to town.” or “Don’t let back in.”]
“She’s nuts.” (808)
“Told to check out.” (515) [Meaning, told to leave town.]
“Tried to roll a guy. Keep out.” (958) [Keep out underlined in original.]
“Trouble Maker” (967)
“Had a dose [gonorrhea].” [Underlined in red.] Also, “Very thin lips.” (607)
“Check alias above for clap.” (492)
“If she comes back talk to her about promiscuous calls on telephone.” (712)
“Watch out for this one.” (838)
“Lots of straight slash scars on both lower arms–inside.” (1112)
And here’s an example of a file, with the identifying information blurred out: