Best Lil’ Ho House in Nashville

It was none other than the esteemed Thomas Jefferson, a founding father and Secretary of State (at the time), whom first directed that the United States should conduct a decennial census. His rationale need not be questioned, but for the conspiracy theorist friends of mine, it was, well, uhm, it was for reasons I can’t really disclose. Just kidding; I think we all know why.

That very first census happened in 1790 and we’ve conducted a census in every year ending in a zero digit since that date. Our most recent census, the second one we’ve conducted in the 21st century, marks 230 years of this kind of detailed record keeping. Now you know who started the whole thing.

As a person who’s been utterly transfixed in genealogy research for at least a couple decades now, I’ve often used old census records to either discover new distant relatives or establish birth years or even learn about occupations, birth states, and the countries or origin for a great many of my very distant relatives. For the most part, pretty much any census record you’ll find, of the same year, will look similar and hold the same types of information.

Although considerable care has been used from location to location and from decade to decade to promise some level of uniformity in the collection of these records, the vast number of people involved in the task has made complete consistency all but impossible. That said, sometimes you get lucky and find the good stuff; you know, the things you’d never expect to discover.

So fortunate for us were those rare individuals who took their census taker roles more serious, and undertook the collection of information no modern millennial would ever dream of going the extra mile to collect. Because of those wonderful mavericks and mustangs, we get to know some not-so-common knowledge about some pretty interesting ancestors. In rare instances, some census takers took it upon themselves to ask a few more questions than they were instructed to ask.

Some early census-takers, for example, took it upon themselves to completely alphabetize their local census. In at least one case, that of Wilkes County, North Carolina in 1820, the alphabetizing was done by first name! On other occasions certain record takers had recorded not only the state in which an individual was born but also the county. With such peculiarities and inconsistency in various censuses, the practices of individual census marshals have, on occasion, given us some incredible insights. Or, perhaps better said – highlights and unusual observations, which would have otherwise been denied to us had strict uniformity in census-taking been required.

Most interesting to me, a Nashville native, are the highlights recorded by Nashville census-takers in 1860, and a prime example of what I’ve been attempting to describe. In 1860, the city of Nashville was right-smack-dab in the opening crosshairs for what would soon become known to southerners as the War of Northern Aggression. War not yet begun, nor the city yet occupied by union soldiers, Nashville was brimming with its gentrified grey-uniformed military men, strategically positioning themselves for the inevitable, who had peculiar needs that couldn’t be properly dealt with while they were away from their more genteel homes. Those “needs” evolved into a thriving practice of the oldest profession indeed. Nashville, it seems, became a hotbed (pun intended) for prostitution.

Although I cannot imagine that the instructions given to census-takers that year, or as in previous years, ever referred to prostitutes at all. The Nashville marshals, for some strange reason no longer discernable, took it upon themselves in 1860 to count and catalog every soiled-dove and lady-of-the-evening it could possibly label, accuse, or identify.

Thus, the 1860 Nashville census included data gathered on the extent of prostitution in this city. In fact, venereal disease became such an issue in Nashville that in 1863 the city began issuing professional licenses for prostitutes and their respective bordello’s in order to help keep the soldiers – and ladies – healthy. Such a careful count of these ladies does not appear to have been made before nor since, nor does my research reveal any similar practices to have ever been attempted in other cities.

Little historical attention has been devoted to the world’s oldest profession. Almost nothing, aside from the obvious, is known of its operations, nor of the circumstances under which it flourished. My mind circles back to an Italian getaway where Emily and I visited the ancient ruined city of Pompeii.

There in Italy too, early houses of prostitution have actually been identified an excavated. Caricatures of erect penis’ carved into the basalt stones that line the ancient stone roadways, just as hard as in historical times, were and still are ever-erect and pointed directly toward the doorways of these historical ho-houses. It’s quite a humorous thing to actually witness but these archeologically important graffities tell us emphatically that it really is the oldest profession as these ancient houses of ill repute were already two thousand years old when they were covered with volcanic ash in 79 AD.

On the streets of Pompeii

It is, of course, impossible to know exactly how many prostitutes there were in my beloved Nashville in 1860, or at any other time for that matter. But, this otherwise beclouded chapter of Nashville’s past has in some ways been exposed by these census-takers/quasi-journalists whose unorthodox methods have managed to entertain the rest of us over 150 years later.

There were no doubt many ladies who, in describing their work activities to the “Gladys Kravitz” type census-takers, resorted to such euphemisms as “Seamstress,” “Tippling House Operator,” “Bagnio Keeper,” etc., or who just left the designation blank. It is also impossible to define some of these terms too specifically. There were undoubtedly then, as now, ladies of easy virtue whose income from legitimate sources was supplemented by funds received in return for services rendered, for favors bestowed, or in some other sense as a quid pro quo.

Nonetheless and despite all those shy types, there were still quite a few – I’ll say “professionals,” who were not at all reluctant to call themselves exactly what they really were – which totaled 207 out of the 13,762 free Nashville residents who reported in the 1860 census. Virtually all of them were white, although nine of them were listed as mulatto. Nearly half were illiterate; eighty-seven listed themselves as totally illiterate, and eight others arrogantly said that they could read but could not write. Twenty reported that they’d been widowed.

These otherwise virtuous women of Nashville ranged in age from fifteen to fifty-nine, although the majority were in their teens and twenties. Three were fifteen, 9 were sixteen, 15 were seventeen, 14 were eighteen, 12 were nineteen, and 10 were twenty. The mean age for these girls, however, was twenty-three, and most of which were home grown.

One hundred thirteen were Tennessee born. Kentucky and Alabama were tied for the dubious honor of second place, each furnishing 12 girls to the Nashville trade. In lesser numbers were women who hailed from Indiana, Massachusetts, Georgia, Virginia, Missouri, North & South Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Foreign born ladies were also represented; one woman hailed from Canada, and three came from Ireland where the potato famine was very recent history. Who ever said Canadians haven’t accomplished much doesn’t know their history.

Emaline Cameron was among the thousands of refugees who poured into Nashville during the civil war. Born in Smithville, 50 miles to the East, the strains of war must have caused her to cross through dangerous territory to Nashville from an imploded marriage back home.

Her husband Toy Hayes divorced her on the grounds that he was not the father of their eldest child. She admitted as much in court: working as a chambermaid in the Smithville Hotel, which was run by her parents, a hotel border inconveniently left the 15 year old Emaline pregnant. Her parents swiftly married her off to the naïve Toy Hayes before she began to show signs of her ill-fated condition.

Emaline was not only one of those statistics of those uncertain times in Nashville, she was also one of the first such women to get a professional license for the much vilified vocation when licenses became mandatory in 1863. Pretty Lula Suares, born in Pennsylvania, may have been of Spanish ancestry, and Jinnie Tante may have been French, but the other 205 had such names as Richardson, Scott, Johnson, Fox, Armstrong, Graves, Thomas, Harris, Patterson, Walker, Wilson, Webb, and Martin. The Browns were by far the most prolific, furnishing eight girls to the immodest trade.

In some cases it is very tempting to assume relationships such as Sarah Morgan, age 38, with whom worked Rachel Morgan, 21, Mary Morgan, 18, and Nancy Morgan, 16, all in the same household. Given names run the full gamut of nineteenth-century respectability, and there were Anns, Nellys, Mollys, Pollys, Sarahs, Sallys, Alices, Rachels, Harriets, and Carolines. There were ten Elizas, thirteen Marthas, fourteen Nancys, seventeen Elizabeths, and twenty-nine Marys.

Some of Nashville’s brothel’s reflected significant affluence, while others showed signs of abject poverty. The largest house was operated by Rebecca and Eliza Higgins at 101-103 North Front Street. Rebecca owned real property valued at $24,000 and personal property amounting to some $1,500, which were very large sums in those days. Twenty-eight people lived in the house, of whom seventeen were prostitutes, one was a carpenter, one was a brick mason, six were children in school, two were pre-school age, and one was twenty-two year old black guy named Tom Trimble.

Eleven prostitutes worked at Mag Seat’s place, address unknown. Mag was a twenty-five year old Tennessean who seemed to be able to keep a more youthfully staffed workshop than some of her other Nashville competitors. Six of her eleven girls were in their teens, and the oldest was twenty-four. At 72 North Front Street was Martha Reeder’s house, where ten ladies of the night and two pre-school children lived. This thirty-one year old Tennessee-born madam reported owning personal property totalling $15,000.

Large houses, however, were the exception rather than the rule. Most of the houses were either one-woman cribs, or at most, two or three-woman operations. Nineteen of the sixty-nine houses in the city were operated by one woman, twenty-five had two women, and twelve had three women working in them. The smallest houses appear to have been the most pathetic – often sheltering one prostitute, widowed, in her late twenties or early thirties, with two or three children under ten years of age. Its times such as these most certainly were, where I could almost pick any house and write a story of tragedy and hardship that would depict with fair accuracy many situations in Nashville during that contemptuous time period in American history.

Another useful tool used in genealogy research are the old city directories. Old census records don’t often list addresses but you can determine many of them, as is occasionally done here, by researching those city directories. Twenty-four of Nashville’s sixty-nine houses of ill repute may thus be located upon an old city map, and they constitute a very definite sector of the city.

Eighteen were located in a quarter only two blocks wide and four blocks long, being the first block north and the first block south of Spring (now Church) Street, on Front, Market, College, and Cherry (now First, Second, Third, and Fourth Avenues) Streets. The location was no doubt excellent for the river trade of the day, of which there was a great deal and it is said that the four by two block red light district enjoyed a famed nickname of “Smokey Row.” Five of the houses, including those of the Higgins sisters, were practically adjacent to the upper steamboat landing on Front Street. Other houses were clustered in the same general vicinity.

The profile, therefore, of the average Nashville prostitute in 1860 would show that she was a white, Tennessee-born, twenty-three year old. There’s a very good chance that she was illiterate, and that she worked in a house with two or three colleagues.

Her name was something like Mary Brown, and, since the law of supply and demand no doubt controlled her market as it does everyone else’s, the number of her competitors in the city would seem to indicate that business was humping…ughm, maybe brisk is a better word. Her impact upon the community was probably considerable as were her activities deserving of closer examination than historical research has thus far devoted to them or than these brief paragraphs have been able to render for you.

But, by 1862, after the Union Army occupied Nashville in February then moved thousands of troops here, the number of prostitutes exploded, that number believed to be as high as 1500 – more than 10% of the entire population of Nashville. Major General William Rosecrans (Old Rosy), a Roman Catholic from Ohio, had a real problem on his hands.

At least 8.2% of his Union soldiers were infected with either syphilis or gonorrhea and the mercury treatments of the day could sideline a soldier for weeks. These mostly unprincipled Union soldiers from dreadful sounding places like Pittsburg and Chicago were responsible for a sexual plague in Nashville like nothing that had ever been seen anywhere. In fact, there were local shortages of mercury wherever the union army occupied…well, I just made that part up.

At first Rosecrans ordered George Spalding, provost marshal of Nashville, to “without loss of time seize and transport to Louisville all prostitutes found in the city known to be here.” The obedient Spalding did exactly that. Finding them was easy but how he would carry out the order is quite amusing.

Spalding soon met John Newcomb, owner of a brand-spanking-new steamboat christened the Idahoe (can you see the irony?) Much to Newcomb’s dismay, Spalding ordered Newcomb to take the Idahoe on its maiden voyage northward with its soiled maiden passenger list.

All 111 women aboard the Idahoe had three things in common, their profession, they’re unfortunate collective cases of syphilis, and that they were all white. Almost immediately upon their departure, their black counterparts took their places in Nashville’s brothels. The local press delighted in the story. The Nashville Daily Union:

“The sudden expatriation of hundreds of vicious white women will only make room for an equal number of negro strumpets. Unless the aggravated curse of lechery as it exists among the negresses of the town is destroyed by rigid military or civil mandates, or the indiscriminate expulsion of the guilty sex, the ejectment of the white class will turn out to have been productive of the sin it was intended to eradicate…. We dare say no city in the country has been more shamefully abused by the conduct of its unchaste females, white and Negro, than has Nashville for the past fifteen or eighteen months.”

Nashville Daily Union – cir. 1862


It took a week for the Idahoe to reach Louisville, but word of the unusual manifest list had already reached the city’s law enforcement. Newcomb was forbidden from docking there and ordered on to Cincinnati instead. Ohio, too, was uneager to accept Nashville’s prostitutes, and the ship was forced to dock across the river in Kentucky – with all inmates required to stay on board, reported the Cincinnati Gazette:

There does not seem to be much desire on the part of our authorities to welcome such a large addition to the already overflowing numbers engaged in their peculiar profession, and the remonstrances were so urgent against their being permitted to land that that boat has taken over to the Kentucky shore; but the authorities of Newport and Covington have no greater desire for their company, and the consequence is that the poor girls are still kept on board the boat. It is said (on what authority we are unable to discover) that the military order issued in Nashville has been revoked in Washington, and that they will all be returned to Nashville again.

Cincinnati Gazette – cir. 1862

It was reported that by the time the Idahoe made it back to Nashville, the ship’s stateroom had been badly damaged and the beds were badly soiled leading to a request for $1,000 in compensation for damages. It’s not known whether Newcomb ever got his money or not but what we do know is that Spalding’s ultimate solution was to legalize prostitution in Nashville so that licenses could be issued and medical supervision required. Girls paid $5.00 for a license and fifty cents to physicians to sign off on the licenses.

Thus making Nashville, Tennessee the first city in the United States to have legalized prostitution – not Las Vegas. Of course, in 1865 when the war was over and the unprincipled Northern occupiers gone, Nashville quickly left it’s restraints of martial law and did away with legalized prostitution.

While this early experiment in legalized prostitution may not have had lasting social repercussions for Nashville, it is possible that improved medical conditions in the dangerous profession delivered women like Emaline through the hardships of a horrible war. Emaline survived her time in Nashville to ultimately return to Smithville, where she lived out her days in the home of her son and there are generations of her family living today that have no earthly idea how or with whom they came to be born into this crazy world. But you know because of my crazy addiction to genealogical research.

13 thoughts on “Best Lil’ Ho House in Nashville

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