Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Non-fiction review: Wicked Women: Notorious, Mischievous, and Wayward Ladies from the Old West 

Title: Wicked Women: Notorious, Mischievous, and Wayward Ladies from the Old West
Author: Chris Enss
Publisher: TwoDot (Rowman & Littlefield), 2015. 209 pages.
Source:  I purchased this book at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, CA.

Publisher's Blurb:
This collection of short, action-filled stories of the Old West's most egregiously badly behaved female outlaws, gamblers, soiled doves, and other wicked women by award-winning Western history author Chris Enss offers a glimpse into Western Women's experience that's less sunbonnets and more six-shooters. During the late nineteenth century, while men were settling the new frontier and rushing off to the latest boom towns, women of easy virtue found wicked lives west of the Mississippi when they followed fortune hunters seeking gold and land in an unsettled territory. Prostitutes and female gamblers hoped to capitalize on the vices of the intrepid pioneers. Pulling together stories of ladies caught in the acts of mayhem, distraction, murder, and highway robbery, it will include famous names like Belle Starr and Big Nose Kate, as well as lesser known characters." 

My Review:
I'm always hunting up books like this in the little museums and park bookstores around the West. I like to get insights into what the time and place was really like (as opposed to the permanent imprint left on my impressionable adolescent brain by Louis L'Amour) by reading journals and other accounts of real lives of the times. In this book, Chris Enss uses a touch of imagination at the beginnings of most of the biographies, in an effort to paint the picture more clearly. She backs up the brief scenes with plenty of research, however, so I forgive her the literary license. 
The women profiled are mostly prostitutes, so this is definitely not a book for young readers. Enss uses the expression from the period, and generally refers to the women as "soiled doves," though she is clear about what they are doing. I'm not sure how I feel about that euphemism; it does seem to contain a number of judgements, though for the most part there is no moral overlay on the book. In any case, the women's lives are interesting, and the research into the conditions that drove, or led, them into prostitution, gambling, and in a few cases outright outlawry are telling. Far too many of these stories contain the line "unable to find any other way to support herself..." That is an indictment of society that may still be too true today for some.

What I found most interesting were not the women who regretted their careers, but the ones who went into it with a clear and cold business sense. Many of the women portrayed were madams, and many made a lot of money running multiple brothels--maybe the one business women were allowed to run in the 19th Century, and the success many of them made of it suggests that they would have done even better if allowed to run legitimate businesses. Sadly, many of the women lost everything in the end, usually because they lost their hearts to the kind of men who frequented brothels and gambling dens. It did get painful to read that, time after time. The main variation was that they lost everything because the law shut them down, penalizing the women and ignoring the men who frequented the "bawdy houses."

In the end, the portraits felt a little too superficial, but I got a feel for their lives, and the bibliography provides lots of leads for further reading. I'd call it a decently done book of its sort.

My Recommendation:
Interesting reading for anyone interested in the history of women in the settlement of the US west. It makes a good companion to the women's diaries and letters (usually from more typical women) of the westward expansion that I have read in other sources.
FTC Disclosure: I purchased a copy of Wicked Women with my own money and of my own volition, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 


  1. Funny - the title of this got me looking up the difference between "mischievous" vs. "mischievious" (I thought the 2nd was correct, but I was WRONG!)

    Learn something new everyday :-0

    1. Ha! I think I looked that one up several years ago, after saying (and probably writing) it wrong for a few decades! I'm not sure it's the word I'd use for the women profiled in the book, though.

  2. Yes, I've noticed the pronunciation of the second creeping into UK parlance recently, picking up the emphasis from tv of mis-cheev-i-ous rather than my accent's mis-chiv-ous.
    Mind you I had to think about the spelling of pronunciation! That's often attempted with an extra o these days. Sigh... education isn't what it was :)

    When I saw the title I thought this would be useful for me as research for my wild west women of the Viridian System. Doesn't sound like it would give me too much inspiration, though. Although maybe the female outlaws and gamblers would be of interest.

    1. I might be able to suggest some titles that would help. Though this might also be of interest as you note.

  3. Hi! If you would be interested in another type of woman in the west, I highly suggest looking for the book Twenty Miles From a Match. It is a wonderful memoir of a woman who does everything in her power to provide for her family in the wilds of Nevada.

    I have a review on my blog:

    I think you might enjoy it. :)

    1. I went and read your review--that's just the sort of book I like to read. I'll see if I can find a copy.

    2. Glad I made a good suggestion. Happy reading. :)


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