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If noise were light, the bullpen would be bright as day: coughing, whoops, and curses, the occasional tossed bottle breaking. But the area was dark, shrouded in a low red fog. Ramshackle board-and-batten cribs had few windows, no ventilation, and no water. A lone faucet in the center of the compound provided “hard” water for the 50 or so women, their pimps, and the bouncers outside — large men, some wearing shoulder holsters, others with long white-ash clubs, milling around, bored to tears.

Two greeted visitors. “Private grounds,” they’d say. “No one permitted.”

Almost every crib had a prostitute outside and a name over the door: “Rosie,” “Dolly,” “Tamale Fanny.” Some had horseshoes or other good-luck charms above the name. Faded red, white, and blue ribbons added a smidge of color.

Each crib had one chair, a wash bowl, and a pitcher. But few had beds or even mattresses. Most women used a thin layer of matting over rough-hewn planks. A round, wooden headrest was a luxury.

Some decorated with tinsel. Several had an illuminated copy of the Lord’s Prayer hanging from a wall; others, small statues of the Virgin Mary or a cherub; in another, a photo of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting, “The Angels.” Fumes of booze and cheap perfume couldn’t mask more fetid odors.

Two women shared a crib. When one was occupied, the other walked the streets. Each paid $14 in rent per week. Their pimp or madam took half their earnings, and the bouncer took a fee. “Cribs represent the bottom rung of the prostitutes’ ladder,” writes Theodore W. Fuller, “the final spot when looks and pride had gone and tricks were sought for 50 cents.”

In 1888, Flora West told the Union that the Stingaree’s dark shacks and “smelly quarters” were the worst place she ever lived. “I am 28 years of age and I would be glad to quit this sporting life if I could find a way.” She had to care for her crippled mother and younger sister. More than half of the Stingaree’s “scarlet women,” she said, were the sole supporters of very poor families. Flora tried working at a department store, but “the wages they paid me would not have kept me alone, no matter how economically I might have lived.”

A Purity League woman’s husband visited the Stingaree too often, said Flora. “If this pious woman devoted a little more time at home to her husband, then he wouldn’t wander down the wrong path.” But she’s so wrapped up in her “own silly beliefs” that she neglects “that which someone else consoles.”

An unnamed woman told the Union she was “ready to return to the upper side,” but feared it was too late. Others left before their time.

In the early 1880s, they called pimps “lovers.” Charlie Gordon lived off the earnings of a prostitute named Margaret — and may have loved her as well. Reports disagree about her last name. Some say “McCutcheon,” but the Union spells it “McCutebeu.” Everyone knew her sporting name, though. She went by “Maggie Bangs.”

In early June, 1881, Maggie began drinking heavily, the result, many thought, of her frequent spats with Charlie. He’d become jealous of her wealthy clients, who promised a finer life in whispers. Charlie threatened several with trouble if they wouldn’t back away.

At 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, June 18, Charlie came to Maggie’s brothel, where they shared a room. An hour later, restless, he went outside for a smoke. As he paced the backyard, a muffled pistol shot punched a hole in the darkness.

Charlie didn’t flinch. Guns going off in the Stingaree were as common as rolled blue jackets.

Charlie came inside and found Maggie asleep. But a red line trickled below her left ear — and she held a strange, short-barreled pistol in her right hand. She was dead.

Charlie dropped to his knees. As he raised her head, blood gushed from entry and exit wounds like twin spillways. He shouted.

Police arrested Charlie. That afternoon, a coroner’s jury heard testimonies. Though trials usually took much longer to convene, no one noted the railroading urgency of this one. The reason: a suicide — just a whore.

Charlie told his version. Then Flora Asher and Myrtle Howard, who worked with Maggie, said Charlie’d become “a rather expensive ornament.” Maggie wanted to dump him once and for all.

A young, unnamed man who frequented the crib told the jury that Charlie had “too soft a thing” with Maggie, “to relinquish it without a struggle.”

On Wednesday, Coroner Stockton ruled out suicide. The pistol was a brand-new pocket revolver: a five-inch-barreled Smith & Wesson. It was an improvement on the .44-caliber “British Bulldog” favored by the English gentry and by Charles J. Guiteau, who used one to assassinate James A. Garfield less than two weeks later, on July 2, 1881.

A gun fired at such close range would have coated Maggie’s head with powder burns, the coroner said. She had few, and they were inches apart. In addition, she was right-handed and couldn’t have held the weapon far enough away from her left ear. The Smith & Wesson, which made a hole the “size of a musket ball,” had such a recoil that Maggie couldn’t have hung on after impact.

On Tuesday morning, Stockton came to court with Maggie’s skull. His index finger probed the trajectory. The bullet entered behind the left ear here, he said, went “crashing through her brain,” and came out here: his finger wormed itself out a walnut-sized hole in the right temple. This gunshot wound could not have been self-inflicted.

On Friday, June 25, the coroner’s jury delivered its verdict. Charlie Gordon was in the room before the killing. He was the first to find Maggie dead. She wanted to get rid of him, and he was “adverse to separation.”

“Putting all three things together,” writes the Union, “the jury considered themselves justified” in rendering a guilty verdict. Charlie Gordon went to jail for the murder of Maggie Bangs. Case closed.

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Comments

rickeysays July 9, 2009 @ 1:53 p.m.

A “soiled dove” hallooed.

“Ma’am,” he replied, “I have ten reasons why I cannot do that — and the first is money.”

“Then,” she said, waving a dismissive handkerchief, “never mind the rest.”

That's funny. Good writing. Looking forward to more.

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