Women Sleuths in
Historical Mysteries

San Francisco 1850s


Woman of Ill Fame

by Erika Mailman

It is hard not to like Nora Simms as she plies her trade from San Francisco’s notorious row cribs to the more lucrative and fashionable parlor catering to a different class of males. When she discovers that prostitutes being murdered at an alarming rate were all found with items of clothing which had been stolen from her, Nora realizes that she might be the sadistic muderer’s next target. San Francisco’s volunteer police force and even her fellow “soiled doves” dismiss her fears, leaving her to worry on her own about which of her many male “visitors” might be the one to fear.

Having Nora arrive fresh off the ship in the first chapter lets us experience the still primitive boomtown through the eyes of a newcomer. While goldrush era political events are interspersed throughout the story, Mailman’s descriptions of San Francisco’s physical and social life are better done - the harbor, the periodic fires, the windy ocean dunes, the multi-ethnic mix of people, the rising cost of scarce goods, the liberal use of opium, the accepted acts of violence revealed in vigilantism and cruel bear and bull baiting shows. Dominant, of course, is the problematic life of the endless supply of young women who swell the ranks of a group rarely written about - the women of ill fame. The reader even learns of the methods they used to satisfy their clients. As relevant is the extent to which the possibility of a quick accumulation of wealth (gold! gold! gold!) informs the sensibilities and actions of the city’s inhabitants. Perhaps lawlessness was an inevitable result.

A list of sources, or page of background information, would have been welcome.



Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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