Immediately following the announcement of Alice Smith's story in the San Francisco Bulletin, a flurry of letters to the editor poured in before the first installment of a "A Voice from the Underworld" even ran. Eventually over 4,000 letters were sent into the paper, with nearly 300 of them published alongside the serialized memoir. Clubwomen, clergymen, bankers, laborers, anarchists, house wives, philosophers, vigilantes, and social scientists all wrote in to the paper, eager to give their two cents on the "prostitution problem" that had riveted the Golden State. What made the Bulletin stand out from its rival papers was the inclusion of the voices of sex workers in the letters to the editor; all in all nearly half were written by sex workers or working class women who were contemplating sex work. While we were only able to publish twelve of the letters in Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute, we long planned to publish online the letters that we were unable to include in the manuscript.
The following letter is from a remarkable woman who wrote several times into the paper, becoming one of the more controversial voices of the entire series. Alma Greene, a 21 year old sex worker in San Francisco, roiled the readership of the Bulletin by refusing offers of charity and assistance. The dominant narrative at the time (one still prevalent today) was that prostitutes and dance hall girls were victims of the criminal underworld kept alive through police graft. Recently empowered clubwomen, who had flexed their political clout during the fight over the Red Light Abatement Act, wrote into the paper with offers of help for their "poor red sisters." Alma Greene upset the "victim" narrative by claiming full agency for herself and her choices, spurning the offers of the clubwomen. This stood in stark contrast to other voices of sex workers published by the paper, such as Babe of Bartlett Alley who wrote into the paper pleading for assistance, arguing that Alma Greene's stance was damaging to sex workers in the long run. We shall explore Babe's story, and her relationship with the Bulletin and its staff, more fully in upcoming blogs.
Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute includes one of Alma's letters. We plan on printing all of them eventually; here is one of them.
Alma Greene Describes Incidents in Her Life
June 26th, 1913
Mr. Fremont Older—The letters you are receiving as a result of Alice Smith’s story are the greatest human document I have ever seen, and the story itself, I am sure will be even greater as a picture of our phase of human life. I have a book of proverbs which I like to read from when I am tired because there is so much wisdom in so few words. The weakness in writing and speaking is too many words. We think a thought in one second, but in expressing it we are clumsy. One proverb, in particular, has helped me a lot. It is to the effect that what we see in others is a reflection of ourselves. I have pondered that a great deal. I wonder how many others will ponder it, or have? It has softened my outlook and made me think. I am daily learning that it is true. If we see good in others, no matter whom, we are good accordingly; if we see bad in others, no matter its nature, we are accordingly bad. Isn’t that true?
Several nights ago a clean-cut young fellow came into this house. He was a Gibson type. His clothes were tailor made and he was educated, gentlemanly and considerate. So many men come here who think they own a girl’s soul if they spend $5 for drinks.
Ordinarily I would have exerted myself to “get him,” but I was all upset—I was thinking of your proposed story. I don’t really know why it should affect me so deeply, but it has.
The young fellow had lots of money, and money is our God, just the same as it is the God of everyone else. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to enter the fray. His suit was grey, as were his eyes. His hair was fluffy—evidently just from the hands of a barber—and he was genial. He had all the characteristics of an “easy mark.” In the common language of this life he was a “swell kid.”
For two hours we danced for him while he bought the wine, and threw dollars on the polished floor. Other parties came in, and vanished—upstairs, or down—but I remained in the parlor. I was interested in studying him. Finally, after a whispered conference and a quick kiss, one of the girls assisted him from the room with his straw hat in her hand.
The next afternoon she showed me a $50 gold note and informed me that he was a bank cashier from ____, well, of course, I cannot name the place—a small Southern California city. She also told me something that shocked me—used as I am to such things. After he had gone to sleep she had searched his pockets because he had been so reticent and she was curious to learn who he was. What she learned was that he was a married man and that his wife was enceinte. A letter he had received that morning contained the information.
What is the answer? Is it that someone told him of this house while he was semi-intoxicated and therefore semi-responsible? I don’t know, because I know so-called respectable men who come here sober and refuse to take a drink, though they treat all hands repeatedly before going upstairs. Most men like to talk, like to boast, like to show their cards to impress one with their standing. Lots of bank clerks become “cashiers” and even “presidents” when they are here. I recall one young fellow who was working as a bookkeeper for a coal yard. He told us he was private secretary to the Mayor, and thought we believed it. He is now “doing time,” poor youth.
But quite a number of prominent men do come here. It is really surprising how many of them apparently like to make confidantes of shadows, and almost invariably a shrug of incredulousness brings documentary proof in the shape of cards, letters or a check book. A check book!—maybe that doesn’t look good! It means that a little extra “sweetness” to this particular visitor may result in a rest for a few days—a furlough from disgrace.
At this moment I have four steady “friends,” each of whom is prominent professionally. Each one thinks he has made a “hit.” Each one trusts me, and yet each one has falsified. Each one has offered to “take me out of this life,” but I have declined the offers. Why? Because experience and the comparing of notes with other girls has made me “wise.” In other words, I am not gullible. Few men are themselves—intellectually—while in this atmosphere. They may be themselves, in character, however.
I have established that two of my four “steadies” are married, one with children. Another is betrothed to a “local beauty.” The other is still an enigma, but I shall—to use a vulgarism—get his number eventually. Why shouldn’t I do so? He got mine the moment he saw me. I have as much right to know what he is as he has to know what I am.
One Sunday last year I went to church. I got up that day feeling blue, and was consumed with a desire to revert to my childhood. I entered the first church I came to, but I didn’t remain for the benediction. Instead of keeping my eyes on the preacher I permitted them to rove, and they discovered two men in the congregation—both of whom buried bowed their heads during the prayer—whom I had seen in our reception parlor, one of them in our dance parlor several times. Until that moment I had refused to believe what the other girls had tried to tell me—that men from all walks of life were alike. Now I know for myself. Do you blame me for being dubious about what will be accomplished by the Alice Smith story? To tell the truth, I feel the uselessness of thinking. If the world only knew men as they are, and women also, we should fold our tents and silently steal away. I’ve forgotten which poet wrote that, I have read so many. He may have gotten the idea in a bagnio, who knows? Poets have gotten ideas amid such surroundings, and poets will. I am not cynical, but truth is truth.
All this is preliminary to what I started to write. Despite the fact that I am skeptical as to the good the Underworld story will accomplish, I feel that so long as it is being published it should cover every possible angle of the subject so far as that is possible. I have only been in the life sixteen months. I know a little, just as many other girls who have written to you indicate that they know a little. It is only that the little I know may help to get the subject before the public that I am moved to write. Instead of writing this letter I could have taken a spin through the park—as a chattel. It is good to get out in the sun and air, but I feel free at this moment, free in soul and body. That also is good. It is the greatest goodness in the world.
But it is now time to take my piano practice. My maid is French and is teaching me that language. I also take painting lessons. You perhaps wonder why. I’ll tell you:
Quite often a girl in this house gets an “offer” to accompany some rich “guy” to Europe. The more accomplished a girl is, the better her chances for such an offer. It means comparative furlough from promiscuousness, a chance to see the world, and “good money” without effort. Only the other day a girl came back from New York, whence she had gone with a local business man as his “wife.” The five weeks trip netted her nearly $1000. But she refers to the man now in language unfit to use. She was his slave for five weeks and had to pretend to like him when he was positively repulsive. There is one advantage in remaining “at home.” It is that you can refuse. I shall write to you again; in fact, many times, so long as you may wish it.
It is interesting to hear the comments in this house about “Alma Greene’s letters.” Of course, that is not my name. No one in this part of the country knows my name, and my name here is much more poetical than