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(Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT)

Photographer Robert Morrison’s Montana

The artist’s eye for the off-kilter and unusual offers a distinctive portrait of the West at the turn of the 20th century

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Women posed together with drinks in hand in bedroom
(Maura McCarthy)

These women could be mistaken for a jolly group of sorority girls having some brazen fun. But look a little closer and you can detect a range of ages: the young women sitting on the floor seem fresher-faced than the trio in back (especially the woman standing). And then there are the keys dangling from the lock in the door, a chilling detail that Morrison clearly took care to include in the frame. Why?

The women were prostitutes, and they doubtless locked themselves in their rooms for business purposes. This is one of a series of photographs Morrison made inside a Miles City brothel, and the working girls were clearly not embarrassed to be caught on camera. Perhaps they knew the photographer—a 1904 map of the town indicates that his photography/sign painting business was just a block from a cluster of “female boarding” houses, the mapmaker’s euphemism for houses of ill repute.

Cowboys and sheepherders joined Fort Keogh’s soldiers in pursuit of Miles City’s illicit pleasures. The cowboy E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott wrote in his memoir, We Pointed Them North, that a local prostitute named Connie the Cowboy Queen sported a $250 dress embroidered with brands from all the cattle outfits that passed through town. Some of Abbott’s cowboy brethren would pick out a woman and “marry” her for a week, buying all her meals and squiring her about town. You couldn’t do that everywhere, he wrote, but things were different in Miles City.

Town officials collected lucrative fines from brothels while conveniently ignoring laws banning them. On the other hand, the Englishwoman Evelyn Cameron recalled that when she arrived in 1895 wearing a divided skirt—a fashion hitherto unseen in Miles City—she was threatened with arrest.

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