S.F.'s First Sex Workers Led a Different Gold Rush: Madams of the Barbary Coast

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​Part of San Francisco's charm is its vibrant history of colorful characters. The city has survived multiple earthquakes in addition to cultural and political upheavals. From the beginning, our enticing Baghdad by the Bay has attracted free spirits and entrepreneurs, perhaps no more so than during the Gold Rush. And sure the '49ers were full of pluck and determination, but what of the women who came to San Francisco to seek their fortunes?

Yes, we're talking about the city's original sex workers, the prostitutes who plied their trade at a time when men outnumbered women in the city 50 to 1. (That bears repeating: 50 to 1.)

Revel in the salaciousness of their stories at Meridian Gallery on Friday evening at a screening of Michael Rohde's film Madams of the Barbary Coast, hosted by local historian and tour guide extraordinaire Daniel Bacon, a man who intimately knows the secrets of this debauched district. There's a video trailer online; we can't embed it here (that function has been blocked) but you can see it for yourself by following this link to YouTube.

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An image from Madams of the Barbary Coast

Hear about Chinese madam Ah Toy and the infamous Tessie Wall, who gunned down an unfaithful lover in broad daylight. The movie also gives screen time to the female reformers who were keen on ending the slave trade then prevalent in Chinatown. One was Donaldina Cameron, who often risked her life to rescue underage prostitutes. It was a wild and dangerous time but also an exhilarating one, when traditional class, race, and gender lines were a little blurry. These are the enterprising women who took full advantage.

Madams of the Barbary Coast starts on Friday (Oct. 21) at 7 p.m. at Meridian Gallery, 535 Powell (at Bush). Admission is free.

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Meridian Gallery

535 Powell, San Francisco, CA

Category: General

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Elizabeth Frantes
Elizabeth Frantes

Talk about historical revisionism . ... most prostitutes in SF's Chinatown didn't live to age 20.  Women were shanghaied from all over the world, and even hardened dockfront whores would prefer to go overboard rather than end up on the Barbary Coast.  These women had no choice in being hookers, none at all, and to celebrate the few women who survived by sacrificing other women is a case in point in why feminism failed, to wit:  Women will always well out other women to save their own skins.  If you call what those women suffered "exhilarating" then you probably also believe that women like being raped and only those women who "deserve" it are abused by men.  Sad thing is that this sort of abuse of women still goes on in the world, and may you be reborn as such  yourself.  Feh.

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