Sunday, February 28, 2010

A look at the good old days, part 1

America in the 18th Century:
Holy Ground was a violent, murky place where one might easily find, as Bangs wrote, two soldiers "inhumanly murdered & concealed, besides one who was castrated in a barbarous manner." (Their mates returned the next day to the brothels where the men were rolled and "leveled them to the ground.") Another time, "an old whore who had been so long dead that she was rotten was this day found concealed in an outhouse."

Killing "cracks," the slang for nymphs du pave, was rarely punished by either army, partly because it was so difficult to catch the murderer. So it was that a naval officer thought he could get away with stabbing a madame after one of her employees cheated him, and how in the local taverns, "fireships" - prostitutes known to have venereal disease - were set alight as punishment.

The rest of the Holy Ground slum as a nest of rotgut joints, pawnshops, and questionable taverns, with a sprinkling of molly-houses (gay brothels) and astrologers' stands, and populated by assorted swindlers, hoods, and tallymen - loan sharks who could harry you into prison (or an early grave) if you didn't pay on the nose. Abortionists, unsurprisingly given the number of prostitutes, set up shop there, as well. These were mainly midwives and nurses, often German, working for extra pin money, but some men, usually failed doctors, were known to provide "cures for ladies." Abortion rates were high at the time: One in four children was born either dead or prematurely, both euphemisms for the practice. If a woman hadn't the desire to abort, she could leave her child somewhere - a church usually - as a foundling and hope he was adopted, hand him over to the almshouse (effectively a death sentence, as few infants survived a year there), strangle him, or rent him out to beggars for use as a prop. And in the gloomier recesses of New York's underworld there were always the baby farmers, who bought attractive babies and discreetly sold them to barren couples. It was a cash business and babies that the farmer overstocked and weren't adopted were terminated to keep down expenses.

That excerpt comes from pages 144-145 of Washington's Spies, The Story of America's First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose, published in 2006 by Bantam Books. It is one of my favorite non-fiction books, providing not only a captivating history of our country's first attempts at espionage, but also showcasing an interesting look at life in revolutionary America.

I hope you enjoyed that little taste of the time of America's birth, full of wholesome people going to church, praying to God, and selling babies.


Gorilla Bananas said...

Selling the babies to infertile couples sounds like the most humane option to me.

ChrisV82 said...

GB - It does sound better than drowning the baby, although I've never drowned a baby so maybe that is really a lot of fun. I guess it depends on the perspective. From the baby's sake, it's probably better to be sold.

Chinese guy - 许多妇女不是光滑的