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The Brothels of the Gem State - an Editorial Review of "Idaho Madams"

Book Blurb:

Fur, silver, and gold first lured men to Idaho Territory. Women soon followed. And what women they were! Molly B'Damn, Peg Leg Annie, Spanish Belle, Lou Beevers, Diamond Tooth Lil—the names alone promised excitement and intrigue.

In fact, these madams led complex, turbulent lives. Meet Maggie Hall, a devout Catholic whose husband used her to pay off his gambling debts. Working as a prostitute, Maggie made her way west and, as Molly B'Damn, became the guardian angel of an Idaho mining camp. Or Annie McIntyre, a young girl among the prospectors and ne'er do wells of Rocky Bar who amassed a small fortune as the local madam only to lose it all—along with both her legs.

Idaho Madams uncovers the enigmatic and salacious lives of 30 women who ran brothels in the Gem State from the 1850s to the 1980s. Here are the hedonistic and sometimes heroic exploits of Effie Rogan, Jennie Girard, Nettie Bowen, Ginger Murphy, Dixie Colton, and Dot Allen, but also the unsung sagas of Carrie Young, Grace Freeman, Willow Herman, Hattie Carlton, and many more. As told by author Milana Marsenich, the stories of these women come alive with voluptuous detail, historical photographs, and the social context of the times.

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Author Bio:

Milana Marsenich lives in Northwest Montana near Flathead Lake at the base of the beautiful Mission Mountains. She enjoys quick access to the mountains and has spent many hours hiking the wilderness trails with friends and dogs.

As a natural listener and a therapist, she has witnessed amazing generosity and courage in others. She first witnessed this in her hometown of Butte, Montana, a mining town with a rich history and the setting for Copper Sky, her first novel. Copper Sky was chosen as a 2018 Spur Award finalist for Best Western Historical Novel.

She has an M.Ed. in Mental Health Counseling from Montana State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. She has previously published in Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, The Polishing Stone, The Moronic Ox, BookGlow, and Feminist Studies. She has a short story included in The Montana Quarterly book: Montana, Warts and All. She has three published novels, Copper Sky, The Swan Keeper, and Beautiful Ghost, and one popular history book, Idaho Madams.

In addition to Copper Sky being a Spur Award finalist in 2018, The Swan Keeper was a Willa Award finalist in 2019, and her short story, Wild Dogs, won the Laura Award for short fiction in 2020. She is a member of Western Writers of America and of Women Writing the West.

Editorial Review:

Idaho has a long history of strong, independent thinkers who embody the gritty and vital spirit of the West. During the gold and silver rushes of the 1800s, adventurous, hardworking men flocked to Idaho Territory, many with the grand dream of “striking it rich.” Miners, railroad workers, loggers, and merchants made their money and were only too eager to spend it on alcohol, gambling, and pleasure. The women of vice who followed them West were happy to oblige.

It's not every day that one picks up a book and is transported to a time and place where the lines between right, wrong, morality, and necessity are blurred by the very essence of human survival. Milana Marsenich’s "Idaho Madams" offers such an expedition, into the lives of women whose stories were hidden in the shadows of history, only to be brilliantly brought to life by an author who deftly combines meticulous research with heartfelt storytelling.

Marsenich sets the stage from the very first line, immediately drawing the reader into a world of fur, silver, and gold, where the promises of riches attract both men and women. The allure doesn't wane as one progresses because despite being a nonfiction book, the compelling storyline keeps you turning the pages.

The power of "Idaho Madams" lies in the compelling narrative thread that runs throughout the book. Marsenich presents not just one, but thirty unique and evocative stories that uncover the lives of women who ran brothels in Idaho. The journey through these stories is an emotional rollercoaster, from the resilience of Molly B'Damn to the tragic losses of others. These tales don't merely recount events; they offer a deep dive into the hearts and minds of these madams.

Such was the case on the blustery, cold morning of November 27, 1905. A disgruntled patron was tossed from the cribs. Maybe he became rowdy or violent. Maybe he demanded services without payment. Maybe he simply refused to leave. Whatever his transgression, Grace wasn’t having it. She ran the man off.

The patron didn’t like being expelled from a house of ill fame, so he threw a fit, making his feelings known up and down the block. Chances are good that he hated being forced to leave by a woman—and a woman of the demimonde at that. His honor had been insulted and he threatened revenge.

At about 3 a.m. that cold, winter morning, shots from a night policeman’s gun, followed by a long blast of the fire whistle, woke the town. People came out of their homes to the spectacle of Grace Freeman’s row of cribs in flames, illuminating the night. The working women fled the small tinderboxes into the ice and snow just before the roofs crashed in, nearly trapping them. A howling wind spurred the fire on, carrying sparks and embers into the streets and across the town, threatening other buildings.

Life wasn’t easy for the Idaho Madams. Each woman profiled in "Idaho Madams" emerges as a fully-fledged character, with her dreams, desires, strengths, and vulnerabilities. Marsenich's skill in pulling out their stories is evident as readers will find themselves invested in these women, celebrating their victories and lamenting their tragedies.

The book benefits from a clear structure, with each madam's story presented in a manner that’s easy to follow. The attention to detail, right from the historical photographs to the comprehensive index of source materials, accentuates the seamless editing and formatting.

It also has great continuity that keeps you on pace as you work your way through the stories. Despite encompassing multiple narratives across different timelines, Marsenich maintains impeccable continuity. The reader is always anchored in time and place, making the transitions between stories smooth.

While each narrative offers a conclusion to the respective madam’s tale, the book as a whole leaves readers with an overwhelming sense of both melancholy and respect for these women who carved out lives in an era that wasn’t kind to them.

The women working in Sandpoint’s restricted district tended to be seasonal and transient. In the years between 1907 and 1911, they were required to pay a monthly fine. Starting in 1909, madams were mainly responsible for paying the $5 fine and $3 for court costs, as well as an additional fee for a doctor exam to monitor each woman for venereal disease.

Women faced the real dangers of syphilis and gonorrhea from unprotected sex. If a man exposed a woman and she didn’t know it, she could expose other men. The other men, in turn, could expose other women, including their wives. Reformers tried to protect the family and domesticity by attacking the prostitute, not the prostitute’s customers. Unlike the men, the women were required to undergo regular medical exams to reduce the spread of disease. In some areas, women who carried a venereal disease were jailed rather than hospitalized and treated.

"Idaho Madams" stands out in its genre. It’s not just a historical recount or a compilation of biographies. It’s a testament to the human spirit and the complex societal structures of the time. The book offers perspectives and insights rarely explored in other works. It was both heartbreaking and inspiring to read about these hardworking women.

Marsenich’s writing craft shines through every page. The prose is both evocative and informative, maintaining a balance between emotion and fact. The lyrical quality of her writing ensures that the stories linger long after the book is closed.

The collective story arc of "Idaho Madams" is one of resilience, survival, and, in many cases, redemption. Each individual tale contributes to this overarching narrative, painting a vivid picture of a bygone era.

In conclusion, "Idaho Madams" is a triumph of historical storytelling. Milana Marsenich has masterfully woven tales that are at once poignant, enlightening, and deeply human. For those who believe that history is not just about events but the people who shape them, this book is an essential read. Whether you’re drawn to the allure of the Wild West, intrigued by the challenges faced by women of the past, or simply in search of a beautifully written book, "Idaho Madams" promises to be a memorable journey.


“Idaho Madams” by Milana Marsenich receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company



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