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Settler Sex Work and Big Nelly is My Hero: How prostitution held society together on Canada’s frontier

So, I was listening to this podcast on the Klondike gold rush, because what did you expect I do with my spare time, and, perhaps surprisingly, they mentioned something interesting. According to this guy on the internet, the Yukon’s mining hub, Dawson City, had had a thriving sex trade around the turn of the nineteenth century. Now, you know us men, we reach emotional maturity at age 45 or whatever, so this information jerked me out of the early morning stupor I had to have been in to think that a podcast about the Klondike gold rush was what the doctor ordered. 

But Dawson City would’ve been your classic frontier town, and a pretty remote one at that, so the presence of a healthy population of working girls is to be expected. It’s what the podcast men told me next that I found genuinely fascinating: apparently, the North West Mounted Police (precursor to the RCMP), which patrolled the area, had a monthly quota of fifty or so women whom they would fine for prostitution, then turn the money over to the local hospital for funding.

Sex workers in the "streets" of Dawson City

I should mention that I couldn’t independently verify that wild little anecdote, but in my googling I came across several other examples of sex workers acting as powerful social and economic engines in the frontier towns they served. That’s what this story is about — some of the women I came across were legendary and I can’t wait for you to meet them. But I think you know what has to come next. Say it with me y’all: c o n t e x t.

The first thing to get straight is that the proliferation of frontier towns as white European settlers crept Westward like gray goo happened differently in Canada than it did in America. You may be familiar with the Wild West, that lawless period of American history which Californians and Italians have dedicated decades to brainwashing us into thinking wasn’t the excruciating, racist, disease-ridden horror show it definitely was. It didn’t happen in Canada. I mean, I’m sure there was plenty of racism, disease, and horror to go around, but before there were ever any white settlements bigger than trading forts in Western Canada, there were white cops. 

See, in the summer of 1873, a group of American and Canadian hunters and (illegal) whiskey traders lost their horses in the night while they were camped. The racist-by-default men were convinced that their steeds had been stolen by the local indigenous people, and on June 1, after alcoholic escalation, the group opened fire on an Assinibione camp in Cypress Hills near the border between modern day Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Montana. Until the shooting in Portapique, it had remained the worst mass shooting in Canadian history. 

As word made its way east, the violence was shocking, but what really unnerved Ottawa and the political establishment was the encroachment of fucking Americans onto sovereign “Canadian” soil. So, partially in response to the massacre, John A. Macdonald, the crafty bastard, rounded up a group of a hundred or so men from the Orange Order, a powerful protestant white supremacist organization, of which Macdonald himself was a member. He christened them the North West Mounted Police, and sicced them on the West, a paramilitary force with a mandate to bring law and order (read: enforce British law and order) to the plains. 

We all know how that went (*cough* ethnic cleansing), but this is all to say that by the late 1800s, anywhere a gal went to get some sex work done, there were likely equal opportunities for some state-sanctioned thuggery as well. Prostitution was illegal, and the abuse of sex workers, as you might expect, went largely unchecked by the mounties. On the other hand, despite the loud protests of religious leaders, much of the establishment felt that the sex industry was critical to the social fabric of their precious white settlements and by consequence, the endgame: the Canadian Pacific Railway. Upscale so-called “houses of ill repute” catered to elite clientele and as a result, their madams obtained an unusual amount of clout for the time. Reportedly, some even held influence over elections, long before the Famous Five and Kaiser Wilhelm managed to stir up enough shit for women to get the vote.

What you ended up with in these frontier towns was a very shaky power balance between an overtly criminal industry — brothel owners were also often bootleggers on the side — and an explicitly repressive police force, playing out in the middle of fuck absolutely nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if the two institutions were equal. The arrival of the NWMP in Dawson City effectively saw the legalization of lynchings, which the first prospectors had already warmed up to when dealing with Indigenous peoples there. And it wasn’t as if the average Jane sex worker was particularly insulated from the law — your privileges as a prostitute depended on who you knew, and brothels paid frequent bribes. 

Yet, from what accounts we do have (remembering of course that these were women and therefore less important to history for some reason), there were a handful of occasions when sex workers flexed some pretty disproportionately swole political muscles. I’m gonna focus on one woman in particular for the sake of space, but I encourage you guys to look up more examples because there are some fascinating stories out there, like sex workers who invested in real estate, or the Black couple who paid rent for their house of ill repute directly to Toronto mayor William Henry Boulton. The woman I would like to tell you about has a slightly more sensational story, however. 

Ethel Neile, better known as Oregon Mare, Dawson City "dance hall girl"

On an October night in Edmonton in 1888, a local madam named “Big Nelly” Webb achieved what I imagine is most sex workers’ dream: She shot a police officer. Side note: why did everyone in the 1800s have sweet fucking nicknames? Seriously, Skookum Jim Mason, Big Nelly Webb, Diamond Tooth Gertie, Bombay Peggy, The Oregon Mare… That’s just a sample of the names I’ve come across researching this story, was everyone just born a folk hero back then? Anyway, I’m gonna let a 2019 article in the University of Toronto Magazine explain what happened.

“The night of the shooting[,] her brothel was probably busy. There had been a dance at the local barracks of the North West Mounted Police, and brothels were known for their “after parties.” She may have been welcoming guests or pulling liquor out of the cellar when she heard the arrival of two drunk and ornery off-duty constables: [Thomas] Cairney and Thomas Rogers. Big Nelly, like many other madams, knew that very drunk men were bad for business. [...] Big Nelly and other women in the sex trade tried to prepare themselves for encounters with such men. They employed “bullies” (bodyguards) and off-duty police to protect their houses. Women and their allies also avenged crimes against sex workers, sometimes murdering assailants and framing the death as an accident or suicide. They kept knives and guns and were trained to use them. Big Nelly called to the men outside, told them she was armed and asked them to leave. Cairney threatened to kill her and began beating down the door. When a leg came through the splintering wood, she fired her five-chambered, double-action .38. Local men summoned a doctor for Cairney, who had been shot in the hip, and Big Nelly was placed in custody.”

Tell me that is not the most gangster shit you have ever heard. Like, she hears a commotion at the door, sets down her bottle of bootleg whiskey, fetches the strap from behind the bar and shouts down two cops at the door. One breaks it open and without hesitation, she just fucking blasts him. Doesn’t even wait for old Tommy to get all the way through the door, just sees boot leather and lets loose. Absolute legend. 

The best part? Nobody afterwards is on the cop’s side. The Edmonton Bulletin published a full defense of Big Nelly, and that paper’s owner became a federal minister later. Big Nelly was declared innocent at trial, in a courtroom presumably filled with her clients. The UofT magazine article even mentions that she got along with many of the men’s wives — she happened to be the town midwife. 

Big Nelly is the closest I got to the image I had of frontier sex workers going into this article: respected, successful, powerful, and damn near untouchable. Not only an economic force, but to the extent that Canada had a Wild West, she embodied that spirit entirely. Plus, she shot a NWMP officer, and at that point those guys were a propaganda campaign removed from straight-up government death squads. She built the city of Edmonton just as much as any railroad exec or politician or “legitimate” businessman, and the fact that we don’t know more about her is what’s wrong with this country, I’m convinced. I think I had some point to tie this whole thing together, but fuck it I want Big Nelly to be what you took away from this thing. I love Big Nelly. 


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