“Three of the frail sisters, Jennie Greer, Emma Sherwood, and Jessie Simpson were arrested by the police while uproarious in a hack on one of the principal streets.”
Galveston Daily News (April 29, 1877)
The three arrested women resided in Vinegar Hill, a neighborhood of northwest Houston in the 1870s. It was not really a hill, only the left bank of Buffalo Bayou, the sluggish stream that runs through that city; but many say it was in those days pungent with the fumes of a vinegar factory. Because they feared the miasma that they believed rose from the bayou, and recoiled from the fumes that wafted from that factory, the burghers of early Houston did not live on Vinegar Hill. This is why the land was available, and cheap, when manumitted slaves began streaming into the city after the Civil War.
Those manumitted slaves took possession of Vinegar Hill and made it their center of vice and villainy. By the late 1860s, Vinegar Hill was a shantytown buzzing with trade in drugs, alcohol and vice.
“Frail sister” is an old euphemism for prostitute, so Jennie Greer, Emma Sherwood and Jessie Simpson were three Black prostitutes who got uproariously drunk in a Vinegar Hill groggery and then scandalized the burghers of Houston by making a loud scene in a hired hackney carriage.
Not that Houston burghers expected better from Vinegar Hill.
“A colored demoiselle, yclept Caroline, a resident of Vinegar Hill, made an assault on another party with a hatchet . . .”*
Yclept is an archaic word that means named. Like the French word demoiselle, yclept here serves as a mark of erudition that puts some comforting distance between the newspaper’s readers and the hatchet-wielding harpy of Vinegar Hill. Like the three rowdy harlots in their hired hackney carriage, this harpy does not seem to have been particularly frail. She may indeed have been none other than one-eyed Caroline Riley, later known as the Queen of Vinegar Hill, who reigned over that hell’s half-acre with the help of a horrible henchwoman called “Big Foot Jen” (possibly the Jennie Greer who so loudly enjoyed riding in that hackney carriage).
The euphemism “frail sister” seems to have grown from the sentimental belief that all prostitutes were women ruined by faithless men. Their frailty was the weakness that caused them to yield to that first and fatal seduction, and all of the vices into which they subsequently fell were therefore the fault of scoundrel men. The euphemism “frail sister” was, however, quickly appropriated by unsentimental ironists who knew that frail was not a word you could easily stick on the likes of Big Foot Jen.
Or “Castor Oil Betz.” That was the name given by one “frail sister” when she was brought before the judge in Sherman, Texas.** It is not clear whether Betz was connected with the oil as a laxative or a lubricant, but she seems in either case to have been what a later age would call one tough baby.
Vinegar Hill was built for Blacks, but its bars and brothels were open to Whites who liked that sort of thing. A couple of years before the three frail sisters took their uproarious carriage ride, one “white and not very fastidious Lothario . . . essayed to engage in a brief amour” with “a young mulattress, yclept Anna Topsey,” and was in a moment of inattention relieved of his wallet. This Lothario was fastidious about money, however, so he “had the cyprian arrested.”***
Cyprian was another nineteenth-century euphemism for a prostitute, the connection being that the cult of Venus, goddess of love, flourished especially on the island of Cyprus. The devotion of these later day cyprians to love was, however, intermittent and opportunistic. For instance, a few months after Anna Topsey extracted that wallet (and Castor Oil Betz declared herself before that judge), “two disreputable white females of the demi monde . . . appeared at Union depot and began using profane and indecent language in the presence of ladies and passengers.” When a policeman “interfered and attempted to make the cyprians go home,” one of them “drew a keen and glittering knife from her dress and stabbed the officer.”†
The literal meaning of demi monde is “half world,” and in the nineteenth century it denoted all of the shady characters who live on the fringe of respectable society. As a social category, denizens of the demi monde were similar to bohemians. As a Houston newspaper explained in 1866, they “live a careless, devil-may-care, unsettled and hardly reputable life.”††
Female denizens of the demi monde were therefore “wild women” who didn’t give a damn about burgher rules and respectability. Such, for instance, were a pair of cyprians who boarded the train for Houston in Austin, one day in November, 1873. The newspaper describes them as “a couple of the demi-monde who persisted in ‘doing as they durn’d please’.” To this end “one of them bought a cigar and refused to pay for it,” and when a brakeman objected to her breach of the rules, “she and the brakeman had a fight, and scrambled themselves all over the car platform.”†††
When this cigar-chomping, brakeman-stomping daughter of Venus reached Houston and stepped out of the train station, it just so happens that she must have looked out across the street at Vinegar Hill. And so, I have brought this rambling post back to the very place where it began.
*) Galveston Daily News (Aug, 28, 1874).
**) Denison Daily News (Aug. 27, 1874)
***) Galveston Daily News (Aug. 26, 1874)
†) Galveston Daily News (Nov. 1, 1874)
††) Tri-Weekly Telegraph (July 13, 1866)
†††) Houston Daily Mercury (Nov. 18, 1873)