Sunday, November 16, 2014

Prostitution and Venereal Disease in the Civil War

by Amelia Cotter

During the Civil War, medical and ethical advances were helpful in developing a health care system that benefited both prostitutes and soldiers.

Low wages during the inflationary war period inspired many women, especially of the lower class, to take up prostitution, including women who were barely older than what we today consider to be children.

Dr. William Sanger of the Venereal Disease Hospital on Blackwell’s Island, New York, conducted a survey in 1858 of about 2,000 prostitutes. He found that 80% of them were under age 30, and 40% were under age 20. About 62% of them were foreign-born, with 57% being Irish, 20% German, and 8% English. Most of the prostitutes died within an average of four years due to venereal disease or alcoholism—an important insight into the lives of prostitutes at the time.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were common during the Civil War. A diagnosis of gonorrhea referred to any form of urethral discharge, and could have encompassed a number of other diseases not yet discovered, such as Chlamydia. Gonorrhea was diagnosed in 102,893 soldiers, and over 79,589 soldiers were diagnosed with syphilis. Of these cases, six white soldiers and one black soldier died of gonorrhea, while 123 white soldiers and 28 black soldiers died of syphilis. It should be noted that doctors were not yet aware of the more advanced forms of syphilis that affected the nervous system and heart, and likely caused numerous deaths years after the war.

Amazingly, only 426 of the men diagnosed with STDs were hospitalized, and the remainder were simply relieved from duty. The attitude towards illnesses and injuries was generally rather harsh, as demonstrated by the following quote found in a surgeon’s journal: “[Norris was] as well as any man in the regiment…diarrhea, swelling of the testicles, scabs, and a large running sore.”

Many soldiers, out of shame or embarrassment, tried to conceal their infections or treat them on their own. Remedies for these diseases included poke roots and berries, sassafras, and wild sarsaparilla. None of these were effective. Mercury, however, actually did provide some relief from pain, but no permanent positive effects—hence the saying, “A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.”

By mid-war, a licensing system was developed by doctors in Nashville, Tennessee that involved the regular inspection and possible treatment or hospitalization of prostitutes. The inspection fee for a prostitute—which involved checking if she was free of disease and otherwise healthy—was 50 cents.

By January, 1864, over 300 prostitutes were registered in the city, with 60 found to have venereal diseases. Similar systems were instituted in Memphis, Richmond, Washington, D.C., and several other cities. Interestingly, many of these licensing programs were established in the South, where sexuality and gender roles were traditionally more heavily guarded than in other areas of the States.

If a prostitute was found to have a disease, she would be placed under quarantine. Surgeon W.H. Chambers wrote in December of 1864 that early in the year, 10 to 20 of his officers would have had an STD at any given time, but by December, he hadn’t seen a single case. Unfortunately, in the same year, military personnel in some other cities were banned from visiting brothels, perhaps due to the prevalence of venereal disease.

Not everyone was a fan of prostitution, of course. In an effort to clean up the streets, everything from soliciting prostitution openly down to simply talking to men in public were banned in Memphis and other cities. Many women’s rights and temperance activists attempted to pinpoint links between prostitution and alcoholism in order to outlaw both. Some soldiers could be arrested or even discharged for soliciting prostitutes, though this was rarely enforced.

From: suite.io/amelia-cotter


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