Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. in History


Arch Dalrymple III Department of History

First Advisor

Elizabeth A. Payne

Second Advisor

Chiarella Esposito

Third Advisor

Jeffrey Jackson

Relational Format



The “Bawdy Bluff” is a study of prostitution in Memphis, Tennessee, between the city’s founding and the end of the nineteenth century. Its focus is on the relationship of prostitutes to the wider community as well as their lived experience. The bulk of scholarship on prostitution in nineteenth century America examines Northeastern cities and Western mining camps. Outside of New Orleans, there is a dearth of research into prostitution in the urban South. This dissertation seeks to correct this oversight. By examining prostitution through the lenses of race, class, and gender, the “Bawdy Bluff” illuminates the ways power operated in Memphis. Chapter One traces the rise of prostitution in Memphis from the city’s founding to the eve of the Civil War. During this period, Memphians attempted to drive prostitutes from town through vigilante action. By the late 1850s, merchants, city officials, and the police began to make comcause with prostitutes, thus ensuring brothels would remain a fixture of the city’s landscape. Chapter Two addresses the Civil War, a time when prostitution expanded rapidly. The primary focus of this chapter is on the ways in which military authorities regulated prostitution. The Union military’s program of regulation failed to stop the spread of venereal disease or improve the lives of prostitutes. The end of the war lifted pro-prostitution merchants into political power, ensuring prostitution would grow over the coming decade. Chapter three addresses the lives of prostitutes and is divided into four sections: the prostitution of children, interactions with reformers, relationships, and health. The intent is to present the multivalent and often contradictory experiences of women in the sex trade. Many women entered prostitution through coercion or lack of resources, but others embraced it for the excitement and participation in youth culture it promised. The final chapter discusses madams and the business of prostitution. Memphis madams are popularly remembered as martyrs or ostentatiously bejeweled women of wealth. This chapter challenges these notions and presents madams as entrepreneurial figures who possessed business acumen and managerial skills.

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