“They are devoted to debauchery and probably carry it to a greater length than any other people.” — Josiah Quincy (of Boston), commenting about the Charleston lifestyle in 1770
There was a saying about what various nationalities did upon settling a colony: the Spaniards build a church; the Dutch a fort; and the English a tavern. Welcome to Charleston, an English colony founded in 1670.
In 1692, William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, wrote to the English Lords Proprietors that Charles Town had become “a hotbed of piracy.” As a Quaker, Penn was also outraged by the behavior of the wayward women who frequented the taverns; he urged civic leaders to address the situation. The Carolina state assembly ignored Penn’s complaints. However, one year later there was an entry in the 1693 Journal of the Commons House of Assembly that ordered three women “who frequented a tap room on The Bay (East Bay Street) and infected a goodly number of the militia with the pox” to be deported from the state. They were sent by boat to Philadelphia. Take that, you Quakers!
Deitrick Olandt’s tavern was described as “an improper and disorderly house” because he maintained several females “in the upper portion of his house.” Cornel June’s brothel at the corner of State and Guignard Streets (near the current location of Palmetto Carriage’s Big Red Barn) was denounced for keeping “between six and fifteen white women in service against their will.”
Gentlemen were encouraged to drink; in fact, part of being a gentleman meant holding your liquor. Having the reputation of being a “three-bottle man” was a mark of excellence. A “three-bottle man” consumed at least three bottles of whiskey or wine per day. Again, that did not include beer, which was consumed in the same manner as modern soft drinks.
Grace Piexotto was “a notorious woman who kept the worst kind of brothel for years, where harlots of all shades and importations break the quietude of night with their polluted songs.” She was also the daughter of Selomoh Cohen Peixotto, the chazzan (music leader) of Beth Elohim synagogue. A good Jewish girl opened the most notorious brothel in the history of Charleston. After all, a Jewish girl is not supposed to give it away. Grace’s business, The Big Brick, was “openly tolerated by leading men in of the city.” Grace’s girls at The Brick serviced white gentlemen, lower class sailors and ruffians, even free black men and slaves. In the capital of slavery the most integrated place was a brothel.
By turn of the twentieth century, Charleston street walking prostitutes had picked up the nickname “mattress girls” for the simple fact that they carried mattresses slung over their shoulders to accommodate their customers. They would find a dark corner of an alley, abandoned building, or a secluded spot in a nearby graveyard to lay out the mattress, conduct their quick business, roll up the mattress and go in search of another waiting customer. The more enterprising girls actually fashioned their mattresses to be worn over their shoulders with straps like a backpack, which alleviated the necessity of rolling and re-rolling the mattress, giving the girls more time to procure customers.
For more scandalous and wicked history, buy the Wicked Charleston books, or schedule the Wicked Charleston Walking Tour with Mark through Black Cat Tours.