My paternal grandfather’s sister, Mandy Foster, was a madam in Eureka, California during prohibition.
Family history says she worked out of The Vance Hotel, but this is highly unlikely and honesty requires me to confess that I come from a family of notorious liars and storytellers. I’m not apologizing for this genetic trait. On the contrary, I’m thankful for the tendency, but I have learned to fact-check before I put something on paper and claim it as truth.
So, on a recent trip to Eureka, I spent a few hours at The Humboldt County Historical Society in the hopes of coming up with proof of family legend. Linda DeLong, the gracious and helpful curator of the genealogy room, pulled collections and books on that era of Eureka history. There was even a booklet specifically about prostitution in the county. A thin collection of newspaper articles and personal accounts to be sure, but good information and, really, prostitution might be the oldest profession but it’s never been one written about or recognized by polite society.
Unfortunately, the only reference I found to Mandy Foster, was her obituary. And, as you might suspect, the family did not see fit to supply the newspaper with information about how she earned her living. She died, by the way, in a sanitarium in Petaluma. The newspaper doesn’t report that she died of syphilis, but that’s what I’ve always been told.
So, while I did find entertaining articles about Mandy’s grandfather, Merritt Curtis Foster, the stage coach driver and early settler in Freshwater, California, I found no written evidence of my Aunt’s line of work.
It doesn’t matter. I have proof.
You see, as a young woman, I resembled Mandy. Looked enough like her that, four or five times in my twenties, rheumy-eyed men approached me with the same tired line.
“You look like someone I knew a long time ago.”
Now, even in my twenties I wasn’t THAT gullible and the first couple of times it happened I asked, “Ah huh. And who might that be.”
The answer was always a variation of, “A beautiful, generous young woman name of Mandy.”
At that point I would share my maiden name with the old guy. Three of the five times it happened, tears actually ran down the wrinkled cheeks of these old men. They always bought me a drink or two, three of them kissed my hand graciously before saying goodbye.
The second proof of Mandy’s profession is the monkey fur coat that was reportedly a gift from Tom Mix. No, we don’t still have the coat in the family. It was cut into squares and made into throw pillows. (Yes, that’s right, we’re the family on Antiques Roadshow that paints over the Rembrandt and reupholsters the priceless chair) My mom had one of the pillows on our coach when I was a kid. It smelled like pee and Dad’s dog, Tricksy, ate it.
So, while I did not find written confirmation of the family stories that my great-aunt Mandy was a madam on the Eureka waterfront during the wild and wooly days of prohibition, I do have tears of nostalgia in the eyes of old men and the clear and smelly memory of a monkey fur coat.
Really, what more proof could I want?