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Wanton West: Madams, Money, Murder, and the Wild Women of Montana's Frontier

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From the time of the gold rush to the election of the first woman to the U.S. Congress, Wanton West brings to life the women of the West's wildest region: Montana, famous for its lawlessness, boomtowns, and America’s largest red-light districts. Prostitutes and entrepreneurs--like Chicago Joe, Madame Mustache, and Highkicker—flocked to Montana to make their own money, gamble, drink, and raise hell just like men. Moralists wrote them off as “soiled doves,” yet a surprising number prospered, flaunting their freedom and banking ten times more than their “respectable” sisters.

          A lively read providing new insights into women’s struggle for equality, Wanton West is a refreshingly objective exploration of a freewheeling society and a re-creation of an unforgettable era in history.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2011

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Lael Morgan

14 books5 followers

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5 stars
9 (10%)
4 stars
28 (33%)
3 stars
31 (36%)
2 stars
13 (15%)
1 star
3 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews
Profile Image for Jenny Brown.
Author 5 books46 followers
November 8, 2011
Very superficial with an odd lack of emotion that put me off. The author discusses sexual slavery, suicides, pimps, corruption, etc. in a way that makes me wonder what exactly she was trying to do in this book. Occasionaly she gives the impression she thinks prositution was wonderful and it was a shame the authorities cracked down on it. The way in which some women exploited others to become wealthy did not strike me as being the triumph for feminist aspirations the author seems to hint it was, and her chapter on the first woman elected to congress had nothing at all to do with prostitution or red light districts and seemed like an odd inclusion.

Not recommended unless you are desperate for a read and find it at the library as I was and did.
Profile Image for Marissa.
7 reviews
January 3, 2012
I was disappointed with this book. I was hoping for much more and was left unfulfilled. I did not like the way it was constructed and there was not much flow to the story. Potential was there, but it just did not come together to create something fascinating and engrossing.
Profile Image for Angie.
206 reviews3 followers
February 19, 2014
Less of a story about people after the first chapter. It turned into more of a listing of what happened.
Profile Image for Amber Ray.
853 reviews
September 22, 2017
For a book on wild women, this gets a bit dry in places. When discussing wild women who aren't prostitutes, it gets dull. Someone else noted a "remote" feeling to the writing and I have to agree...Calamity Jane sounds downright boring at times!
Some of the stories are indeed interesting, and the parts about Chinese prostitutes is appalling. I do wish though more books about "stray women" would discuss what happened to these women when they were no longer young enough to be attractive....this book does talk some about that. Drink, drugs and disease killed most, with hints of some marrying and some smart ones becoming madams...but I'd like to read a book with a serious discussion of this topic instead of just talking about wild frontier women in their heyday.
421 reviews7 followers
April 3, 2020
A well-researched book about Montana's history- from the mining (gold, copper,silver) to the railroad building to the cattle ranching - and how the "mens" work brought prostitution to the west. Morgan cites pages and pages of references - which complete the history but over-shadows the story.
There is little about the lives of the madams or workers, little about their houses, little about the place of prostitution in those societies. Nothing within the covers supports the idea of wild women of the west.
Profile Image for Maddie Jensen.
13 reviews
November 1, 2017
There were some really interesting stories in this book, and it was awesome learning about both women you hear about and women you don't, but also for a book all about the wild women of the wild west, I found it was lacking. Especially when many of the stories later in the book revolved around men.
Profile Image for Meredith.
335 reviews20 followers
February 24, 2020
It's too dry and so many of the stories are more focused around the men than women, which defeats the ENTIRE PURPOSE of this book! I wanted to love this, I really did. But 108 pages I and it is so bland some of it I just can't justify reading anymore.

Three stars because I love the stories and the content, but the writing is just...eh.
Profile Image for Cynthia Marcano.
Author 17 books53 followers
September 10, 2014
What do a President, English Aristocrat, Former Slaves, Soldiers, Cowboys, Ranchers & Journalists all have in common? In the lates 1800s Montana, they affected the lives of many prostitutes; not necessarily by being their John.

Wanton West blew my mind for a few reasons. First, I love history so I was very glad to read lots of factual information. The author listed actual quotes and sometimes number figures for properties acquired and bank account info.

Second, the author didn't seemed biased, but just a person recounting the story of many women who survived & thrived by selling themselves.

But mostly I was surprised to read about how these women didn't just sell themselves, they strived to make a better life for themselves by buying property and building businesses. Granted most of the time the businesses were in the red light district doing more of the same, but there were times where they built legitimate businesses and chose to live a life that their children could benefit from. Many women sent their children to private and Ivy League schools from their earnings.

The two things that shocked me the most was that Montanta, a state that I picture so wholesome (not sure why), has a past where prostitution ran rampant and made more money that most legitimate and "moral" businesses. Lastly that former slaves where not just prostitutes, but Madams running their own houses. The lack of education provided to former slaves would have made it difficut to buy property and keep accounts, but Montana boasted a few former slave Madams that have very lucrative and expanding businesses.

If you would like to know how all of the above mentioned men contributed to the life of a prostitute, you must the read book.

I gave it 3 stars because the author introduced so many characters that it was confusing trying to keep track of every person he named.

NOTE: I in no way approve the lifestyle that these women lived. I do however have a better understanding of why some women felt led to this life and I am amazed that they not just survived the wild west but trie to cultivate it. I believe this book shouldn't be meant to inspire any woman but to caution. These women thrived but they also pais a heavy price for such a lifestyle. Many were addicted to drugs and alcohol, were murdered, committed suicide and so poor they were practically providing their services in dungeons.
1 review1 follower
February 15, 2012
Lael Morgan is the author of the classic book on prostitution Good Time Girls of the Alaska–Yukon Gold Rush (1998). In this new book she has turned her attention to early Montana and prostitution, as well as the suffrage movement in that wild and sometimes untamed part of the American frontier.

This is a well researched and most interesting book. The author presents an objective and candid view of Montana with which few in the twenty-first century are familiar. Ms. Morgan sheds new light on Montana women during the latter 1800s and early 1900s.
There are a number of important topics covered by the author. This reviewer was particularly interested in the general Montana suffrage movement, the Chinese sex trade, new information on Helena’s famous madam, Chicago Joe, the great western artist C. M. Russell’s connection to Chicago Joe and new revelations about prostitution in Miles City.
Ms. Morgan has reproduced a number of prostitute and brothel photographs from Miles City. These never-before-published pictures are a fine addition to the few surviving photographs of Montana’s red light ladies.
The author has included a very helpful timeline of Montana’s history titled, “From Brothels to Congress.” This timeline shows events as they unfolded in the territory and later state of Montana. It greatly complements the history as presented in the book.
Ms. Morgan knows how to tell a good story and she has done so in this book. Be prepared for an interesting, enjoyable and lively romp into Montana’s history.
Profile Image for Krista.
156 reviews4 followers
January 22, 2012
I bought this book after hearing Lael Morgan speak at the Montana Festival of the Book. Her anecdotes made everyone laugh, and once I got into the book store section of the Festival, these books were all sold out.

I would recommend this book to people, especially women, who are interested in Montana history and are prepared to be pleasantly surprised and at times disgusted with the nature of the "wild west." Morgan created an interesting structure for her book, focusing on the rise of Butte but ending with women getting the right to vote. She said in her own talk that at that point women had more options to think and do for themselves, and she didn't feel as though she could write after women's suffrage was successful.

The book goes into extreme detail and has a large cast of characters, namely prostitutes, so if you do not enjoy the historic, almost textbook, look into the growth of the women's trade in early Montana, I imagine it could be found lagging at times. I was caught off guard by the chapter entitled "The Celestials," and I think all Montanans should be aware of this part of their history.

Morgan does a good job of writing in the "spirit of the times," being careful not to pass judgement on anyone who had uprooted and was making their way in the Montana territory. Although Montana has moved forward, these are stories that should not be forgotten, because many of them are undertones of how present-day Montanans think and act politically and socially.
1,490 reviews20 followers
March 29, 2012
Interesting view of history of the west, particularly Montana. The focus of the research done by the author involved how prostitution shaped the early inhabitants of Montana. Because the early settlement of the region was in response to mining the settlers were single men. Where there are large concentrations of single men there will come women intent on making a living. The living they chose was prostitution as it paid the most. The book was supported by lists of research topics and substatiation.
Profile Image for Katie.
559 reviews8 followers
July 19, 2011
Who knew a book about prostitution in the Wild West could be quite so dry and clinical?
Profile Image for Casey Quick.
4 reviews
January 8, 2014
I loved, loved, loved this book. Entertaining at all the right points and wildly informational. I'm not normally big on nonfiction but this book was glorious.
Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews

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