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"Geez! No wonder they didn't want to get married! If you were working you lost your salary. If you had money from your family, that went to your husband and you had no say on how to spend it. You had no control of your body. If he beat you, you had no recourse. If you split, he got the kids. You couldn't even leave your gold earrings to your sister in your will if you died. So, even though there were 10 men for every woman and you could probably marry without any problem it wouldn't be the wisest decision unless you were madly in love and found some guy that you felt would treat you well. And if you're up there stranded because your brother left you or drowned, you don't have that much time to look over all the would-be contestants."
The Alaska-Yukon gold rush has proven to be fertile ground for many authors. Robert Kroetsch mined the Klondike gold rush for fiction a few years ago in his wonderful Man From the Creeks. Pierre Berton remains a name that many readers link to the area and the era almost terminally through volumes like Klondike. Recent years have brought a relative rush of volumes that relate to this interesting period in history. From author Lael Morgan's view, it is somewhat understandable that one particular aspect of gold rush history has been largely overlooked. After all, Morgan points out, "we're talking about grandmother."
Morgan was a mini skirted cub reporter when she first got a peek of the subject that -- over three decades and mountains of research later -- would lead to her award-winning book, Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush, an engaging account of the women of the demimonde during that time.
While researching the history of the area, Morgan came across a scrapbook filled with lovely pictures of prostitutes from Fairbanks' early red light district. Morgan was intrigued. When she started asking questions, doors were closed in her face. It was 1965 and some of the women's former customers were still around and were respected members of the community.
Several of the photos Morgan found in that scrapbook have been reproduced in Good Time Girls. The photos of many of the "girls" are astonishing and utterly unlike you'd imagine. Almost all of the women have strong, resolute features and many meet the camera with the warm smile of the girl next door. According to Morgan, these women probably had a lot to be pleased about. At a time when it cost six dollars a day to live in Dawson City, the average working man could expect to make eight dollars. An unskilled woman, on the other hand, might be able to make four dollars a day: if she could find work. Which wasn't all that likely.
If a woman chose to marry, her problems might really begin. "If you were working you lost your salary. If you had money from your family, that went to your husband and you had no say on how to spend it. You had no control of your body. If he beat you, you had no recourse. If you split, he got the kids."
Some of the good time girls, however, literally made fortunes and many went on to either marry former customers or start businesses in other places. Some were legitimate entertainers: singing and dancing for -- and even with -- the lonely miners. Others -- less talented or fortunate, one would imagine -- turned to less legitimate pursuits. "Moralists tend to think of prostitutes as parasites on society," Morgan writes, "but that stereotype falls away in situations where men heavily outnumber women and are forced to share them, and where conditions are so difficult that all must fight to survive."
Morgan is a seasoned journalist with both the strength and charm necessary for success in that field. Currently editor of the Casco Bay Weekly in Portland, Maine, she is a former associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Morgan is the author of several other books, including Art and Eskimo Power: The Life and Times of Howard Rock.
Linda Richards: It must be very difficult to research a book like this. I would think that a lot of the women would have disappeared through marriage and other things that would make them hard to track.
Lael Morgan: These women had absolutely nothing to gain by keeping any records at all. There was so little out there when I started I feared I might never find enough to do a book. And for the first 10 years I wasn't sure there would be enough.
Of course in the beginning, I was new to Fairbanks and it was not a popular subject anyway, and you certainly wouldn't want to discuss it with someone who was from outside the state and blonde and 30. That was the day of the miniskirts and outsiders were always suspect in those old communities. So it took a long time to get people to trust me and also to figure out how to research beyond the interview. Because when I started -- thank goodness! -- there were still old timers around who remembered these gals. None of the girls themselves from the turn of the century, but...
It was the mid-60s when you started researching this book?
1965 I actually started and got interested. I was working in Juneau at my first newspaper job in Alaska and on rainy Saturdays I didn't have to work and I would go to Judge Wickersham's house. He had been a Federal judge and he was a Renaissance man. He had a great collection and he was studying language and everything about Alaska. I'd go through his papers and I found this scrapbook with beautiful pictures of the gals -- a lot of the pictures are in the book. I got interested then. Then the next year I went on to Fairbanks. They'd closed the line -- it had lasted through the 50s -- and they were doing urban renewal. And the guy in the lands office said, "Hey: the titles to this property is going right back to the first families, and they don't want to claim it. They don't want to admit they own it." And I was intrigued.
Then I was doing my beat and I talked to Father Warren at the Episcopal Church. I mentioned it to him. And he said, "Well, you know the line was started by Arch Deacon Hudson Stuck of the Episcopal Church. And he started it because he was a latent homosexual and he was feeling sorry for the boys." And with a start like that, how could you not want to know more? [Laughs] I mean, Stuck was the most highly profiled churchman Alaska ever had and he was brilliant. I'm not much on churchmen and missionaries, but he was a really good one. I was just fascinated.
This churchman that I talked to had read Stuck's diary about starting the line, but the church had destroyed it. But I had brains enough -- even though I was a beginning reporter -- to write old timers from the church and ask if it were true. If there was such a diary and had Stuck started the line, and they wrote: Yes.
So 1965 I took those two letters and stuck them in my safe deposit box and still have them right there.
In later years when I broached the subject with other people in that church they don't care to discuss it even today.
That's understandable, I think. Considering the focus of the book.
The reception has been far better than I ever dreamed. I think if I'd done the book 10 years ago someone would have blown up my home because it was still a sensitive subject. But I've learned to handle the subject so that people don't throw things at me anymore.
The first time I talked to the public about it I had my pictures and I hadn't written the book yet but I [did]... a series of lectures. I needed to go to different archives around Alaska and it's expensive to travel there so I thought, well, I'll get them to pay my way and I'll give a little speech and then maybe the audience will help. I got good stuff from the audience. But the first time it was a luncheon and some far right Christian got so angry at the subject she threw a dinner roll at me.
And then I'd get comments like, "You're just talking about sex for the sake of sex."
How long ago was this?
Not that long ago. It was probably 1989 or 1990. And then when you speak for the Humanities Forum they give the audience a form to fill out afterwards about what they thought about the talk. And I would get comments like, "Why is she talking about sex?" and "She's talking about sex to get our attention."
It wasn't until I looked at the economic stuff. That the cost of living in Dawson was six dollars a day and a working man could make eight dollars a day but an unskilled woman could not make more than four dollars a day and indeed would have trouble getting work. Like, a normal thing you could do was cook, but they didn't want to hire women cooks because the cook had to also chop all the wood and haul all the water. So these gals who got up there and for some reason found themselves on their own really had to do something just to stay alive and just a regular job wasn't going to do it.
Have you had any feminist comments on the book? I know the book has been well received and well reviewed.
I won historian of the year for Alaska.
It's the only thing I ever wanted to win and I'm a reporter and not a historian and they're always saying they hate reporters and I thought: I've got no chance of winning this, ever. And for them to go out on a limb on a book of this type and from a reporter... well... it was nice.
I'm not a feminist myself. It was perhaps the last month that I was writing the book that I actually looked into the laws to find out what a woman lost if she got married. Geez! No wonder they didn't want to get married! If you were working you lost your salary. If you had money from your family, that went to your husband and you had no say on how to spend it. You had no control of your body. If he beat you, you had no recourse. If you split, he got the kids. You couldn't even leave your gold earrings to your sister in your will if you died. So, even though there were 10 men for every woman and you could probably marry without any problem it wouldn't be the wisest decision unless you were madly in love and found some guy that you felt would treat you well. And if you're up there stranded because your brother left you or drowned, you don't have that much time to look over all the would-be contestants.
Anyway, the feminist press has kind of taken to this book because of the independence of the women and the fact that they struck out and -- even by today's standards -- they were incredibly independent.
Yes. You've included photos of them traveling through the water on the trail.
With long skirts and high-buttoned shoes.
How much time did you spend in actual research?
In the beginning when I started finding out about stuff I worked for a couple of years and then I changed jobs. I went to work for National Geographic and I did shoots in exotic places, so I was out of Alaska for a while. And then I'd come back and in the second stage I couldn't get in to the old guard: they wouldn't talk to me. I had a friend who was paralyzed from the neck down. She was my own age. She'd been born there. She was a writer. And she agreed to work with me, but we never got very far because she died. I was so depressed for a little while I just didn't get going again. And then off and on if I came onto something, you know.
I looked at a few archives. But I wasn't quite sure how to tackle it and I wasn't sure what I wanted and I wasn't finding much material. In 1988 I went back to the town of Fairbanks where I'd lived for a long, long time. And I really decided I was going to do it. Come hell or high water. I knew I might not have a book, but I thought it was worth a try because it's interesting. If nothing else I could do a small article.
By then the archives in Whitehorse and Fairbanks had grown up. When I first started they were beginning archives. There wasn't much there. They had just moved into a new building from a little wretched hole downtown and they were really spending some money to acquire things and because of the move and having built a new facility they'd gotten a lot of attention so old timers were turning in their records. There was new material. So I thought: Okay. I can't get people to talk to me but I can look at what they used for records and so on. It began to be pretty productive. By that time I'd been long enough in Alaska that the people talked to me.
They were sort of a closed community to new people?
They're receptive to new people, but when you're talking about the old guard -- like anywhere else -- they're not. Especially something like this where we're talking about grandmother.
But, you know, in all the interviews I've done, only one person ever looked me in the eye and said he patronized one of these gals. Everybody else was, "A friend of mine did," or "I knew someone..." It's a wonder they made a dime if all of the people I talked to had never sampled any of those wares. [Laughs]
Good Time Girls leaves one with the impression that the women you wrote about -- many of them prostitutes -- were considered an integral part of their community.
The prostitutes were pretty much left alone. In addition to the fact that married women -- even as Fairbanks and Dawson began to settle -- did not object to the red light district. And the prostitutes had really great amounts of money. People didn't trust banks and they [prostitutes] were trustworthy: miners would leave their stuff with them. And the prostitutes were great about investing in the community. They bought locally. If there was a fire and a house was burned out, the girls on the line would take up a collection to get that family on its feet again. They staked a lot of businesses. So they were somebody you didn't mess with: they were a real economic power and socially they behaved themselves. But they had to, it was too small a town to be outrageous.
Tell me a little about the research process you went through.
What I did was in 1988 I started a computer list alphabetically of every name of every girl I had that was a prostitute or was rumored to be a prostitute. Then I stuck in every piece of information I got about them subsequently, with the source. Then I put all these things together and I began to get a profile.
So whether or not you knew on a conscious level that you were doing a book, you were setting up like you were doing a book.
I hoped I was doing a book and for 30 years I hoped I was doing a book, but I didn't know. But I'm a great one for just throwing things in envelopes and let's wait and see. I truly didn't know until about two years before I wrote the book that I had a book. Then I had no idea how to approach it. And it's a funny mix. At first I didn't think I had enough to do profiles of very many girls. Then when I discovered that I had good profile material I realized that it was useless unless the reader understood gold rush history. And so I ended up doing some chapters that are just kind of a history overview and then individual chapters on the girls. So it's an odd format.
I think it works very well. I can see you were really excited by the material and you've put it together in a way that reflects that excitement.
It was fun, but there were so many loose ends [to put together]. For instance, Gussie Lamore was a high profile, well known vaudeville performer. Yet there's not a photo of her I can find anywhere. She got lots of press and there's sketches from the San Francisco papers but no photos. And, this gal, after the gold rush, was still working five years on the vaudeville circuit. Five years! No photographs. I couldn't find anything about the family. Then I got a call one day -- or a letter. I can't remember which -- from a family in Seattle saying: I think you may be writing about my aunt. And this guy is a direct descendant of three sisters who went to the gold rush and all came home with rich husbands. The family isn't sure, so the girls must have covered up like mad.
I'll tell you something funny. Tom Marquam was such an odd name and I knew that he was from Oregon and I knew the family came from Portland so I just took a flyer. It was the early days of the Internet and I found all the Marquams in Oregon and I called and was triumphant on the very first call to get a relative who was into genealogy. And they said, "Yes, that's our uncle." And I said: Great. Well, I'm writing a book about... and then I realized I had to tell them what I was writing about. [Laughs] Luckily, they did know. But some of the other relatives I contacted didn't have a clue. Sort of like when, as a reporter, somebody dies and you get to be the one to break the news.
But if that happened to me, I would think it was the coolest thing. To find that granny had had this whole other life.
I once worked for the Tundra Times in Fairbanks and we had a new secretary come up and I was right in the middle of doing some heavy research. I'd just found the land records. And she said, "I just got here and I'm going to find out all about my grandmother. She was up here during the gold rush and I even have her address." And I said: what was it? And she gave me the address and it was on Fourth Avenue in Fairbanks which mean she could only have lived in the red light district. And I said: sit down. [Laughs] You may as well hear this from me, because you're going to find out sooner or later.
It surprises me that people would find that upsetting.
You've got to remember that most of this was 10 or 15 years ago and the general concept is much more liberal than it was even [that long] ago. People are more open than they were.
Are you working on another book?
I haven't started one yet. I think I may because a lot of contemporary prostitutes have contacted me. I went to San Francisco and about a dozen of them got together and threw a luncheon for me. I'd met them all individually, but I'd never sat down with 12 or 13 of them and just listened. That was fascinating. I think that perhaps doing something along those lines might be kind of fun. | February 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.