Once you have a clear understanding of the location of your town’s red-light district, and you have made a list of the names of madams and working girls, you can use the information to access many other records.
Part 4: Digging Deeper
Newspapers are a wonderful source for information about the daily lives of the women. Just like local news reporting today, you will mostly find stories of fights, murders, suicides, and fires. Many newspapers are being scanned and can be searched online. Some sites include Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank.com, and Footnote.com.
Depending on the local government’s policies for record keeping, you may be able to find transcripts of trial records relating to the red-light district. Start with the records of the state supreme court, then look into local courts, particularly the city court or superior court.
Although criminal trials are more common, civil trials involving madams provide information about the business side of the operation. If a madam purchased items on credit, did not pay, and was sued, the court record will list the items.
Many madams were wealthy women. Most died without heirs and their estates were divided amongst their creditors. Estate records often include inventory lists of property owned by the madams.
This research can be challenging for people who are not experienced, but deed records can be used to determine who owned the houses. Often, the owners were men of some consequence in the community who rented the houses to the madams for a hefty profit.
Property owners paid taxes. If a woman owned the house, she will be listed in tax digests.
These records only represent the beginning for any historical research project. Of all the record sources I have used for my research in Atlanta, the most elusive record so far has been photographs. I have found exactly one photograph of one street that was a red-light district for only eighteen months. I know there are pictures out there, but I have been unable to find them.
The fifth and final part of this series will address vice campaigns and reform efforts.