Free access to the article here: https://doi.org/10.1093/jsh/shac018
What role did settler bawdy houses play in Canadian colonial expansion in the 1880s? The trial of “Big Nelly” Webb, a white bawdy house madam and sex worker who shot a Mounted Police constable on the doorstep of her brothel in 1888, offers critical insight into the world of these seldom acknowledged colonial institutions and the women who ran them. Far from simply “women on the margins,” Canadian officials in the North-West Territories permitted many white madams and sex workers to operate bawdy houses in emerging prairie settlements because they viewed them as essential workers. Drawing from the archives of the North-West Mounted Police, memoirs and testimonies of bawdy house sex workers and madams, and newspaper and court reports, this article explores the networks of influence that supported these houses, including local police and high-ranking colonial officials.
Image: A “French Madam” (with diamonds in her hair) from Denver’s red light district on Market Street. Between 1873 and 1900, a considerable number of white American sex workers migrated North for work in Canada’s North West Territories (now the prairie provinces.) They often did so with the encouragement of local officials who saw sex work as an essential economy and way of maintaining order in largely all-male emerging settlements. These arrangements reflected a larger attempt to displace workers of colour and cut off their access to one of the most profitable economies for women in the North West as the government imposed a strict system of racial segregation in colonial settlements. Photograph from Jo and Frank Mazzulla Collection, History Colorado Archives.