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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

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

Posted By on Wed, Oct 19, 2011 at 10:00 AM

madams.jpg

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.

click to enlarge An image from Madams of the Barbary Coast
  • 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.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Heidi De Vries

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