Elevate Difference

Prostitution, Polygamy and Power: Salt Lake City, 1847-1918

My first publication, in 1987, resulted from a grad school term paper. Jeffrey Nichols’ highly readable monograph resulted from taking a Western History seminar. Thank Goddess for grad school! Big Love fanatics: listen up!

Nichols’ original paper sniffed at the documentary trailhead he explores by way of newspaper stories, photographs, court cases, church records and other forms of documentary evidence from mid-late nineteenth century Utah about prostitution. He tells of the exploits and exploitations of Mormon businessmen, their gentile partners and antagonists, the latter’s outraged wives, the Anglo female brothel owners, and the Anglo, African American, Japanese, and Chinese women who toiled sexually in different labor forms of prostitution. Nichols traces many decades’ worth of “fight over polygamy and the struggle for political, social, and economic power in [Salt Lake City].” He thus deepens considerably our understanding of the social history of sex and gender in the American West and of Mormon-Gentile relations. This text will go over poorly in Utah households and classrooms. (I can imagine a Quorum of the Twelve Apostles being convened in nothing but apoplexy.) Nevertheless, those who pursue the comparative study of sex industries will not be disappointed, although it represents the accounts of judges and politicians more than clients and purveyors of sexual services.

Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power is comprised of five chapters that, combining the usual marks of good scholarship with black-and-white photographs and maps and notes, bring this Frontier West sex industry to life. The title of Chapter 1, “'Celestial Marriage’ vs. ‘Polygamic Lascivious Cohabitation,’” suggests just how far apart were Mormon and gentile viewpoints about polygamy. Those who have read Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven will appreciate Nichols’ marshaling of documentary evidence not presented there.

Nichols lays out the structure and function and racial politics of Salt Lake City’s sex industry, examining in close detail not just the political-economy of prostitution during this time, but the madams, brothels, cribs, piano players, landlords, and politicians. He shows that the growing secularization of Salt Lake City was shaped less by Mormon theology than by the question of prostitution. Prostitution was “good” for business, both Mormon and gentile, which is to say, the judges, courts, landlords and policemen who profited so handsomely from it. Eventually, even the federal government joined forces with proto-feminist organizations to clamp down upon prostitution.

The absence of perspective on female sexuality is glaring. I wanted to learn about the sexual desire (or lack thereof) of monogamous housewives versus that of those sharing a husband with co-wives and “sister-wives.” Trading the search for meaning, feeling, and relational outcome for emphasis upon frequency, price and location doesn’t advance our understanding of what should also be an intimate social history. Nevertheless, Nichols has woven together archival and documentary evidence to write a compelling account of a little known period of American history. Neither capitalism, the Frontier West, the Latter Day Saints Church, nor prostitution itself, of course, are gender neutral, and on this contradiction is balanced a fascinating story.

Written by: Lawrence James Hammar, Ph.D., February 18th 2009

This is about a year too late, but I appreciated your review. Nichols is a professor at my school so I used his book as inspiration for a big research project I did on women in Salt Lake City. One of the other books I stumbled onto as I was digging around the archives was 'Wife No. 19' by Ann Eliza Young, one of the wives of Brigham Young. It's definitely worth a read if you want to look at the same era from a woman's perspective.