Mollie “The Lost Chicken” Wisner was one of the most well-known musical performers in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, but she only knew one song. In 1849, nearly forty thousand fortune-seeking men flooded the streets of San Francisco, up from 1,000 the year before. Given the transitory, perilous nature of boomtowns, women were scarce; some historians estimate a 50:1 male-to-female ratio at the time. The lonely miners, sailors, trappers, and pioneers who frequented the nine-block-long red-light district of the Barbary Coast hardly cared what the Lost Chicken sang, just as long as she was there.
Not all of the Lost Chicken’s shows were performed on a stage. Her street act–which may not have been an act at all–involved a public display of her pimp’s brutality. She would prevail upon passersby, begging for assistance, all while helping herself to the contents of their pockets.
By the 1870s, little had changed to balance the population of the sexes in San Francisco. Women were still in the minority, with limited economic options. Many had arrived with husbands or fathers who succumbed to cholera or yellow fever, which claimed nearly a third of the travelers along the California Trail. Some of them became laundresses, cooks, and homesteaders, but many had come to the West in order to become entertainers, and more than half of the women eventually became prostitutes.*
The Wild West offered perfunctory acceptance of the world’s oldest occupation, but this veneer of tolerance rarely benefited women in dire need of income. A commonly-held contemporary belief was that prostitution would prevent men starved for female companionship from raping “respectable” women. But sex work was not a particularly lucrative endeavor for most “soiled doves,” as they were called at the time. Most prostitutes did not work independently; the house proprietor–madam or pimp–took at least half of the women’s proceeds, and offered very little in the way of protection or security in return.
Prostitutes regularly suffered brutal assault from johns, and often contracted venereal and other communicable diseases, including tuberculosis and diphtheria. They endured medically dubious remedies and received painful, expensive abortions that were not always successful. Few were cured of whatever ailed them; many ended up dead, and those who lived found themselves in debt. Some drank themselves to death, and others overdosed on laudanum, a tincture of opium that was popular at the time. The most enterprising became mistresses to successful miners–at least while they stayed in town–but that was no guarantee of stability, either. Juanita, perhaps the most famous professional mistress of her day, was also the first woman to be hanged in California, lynched by an angry mob after killing a white man who attempted to sexually assault her.
And if they survived all of that, they were still out of the game by age 28.*
At the time, the Barbary Coast was largely populated by criminals looking to escape British penal colonies; the amount of wealth to be had only amplified the lawlessness and desperation of the day. It was not uncommon to see a carton of eggs sold for ten dollars; those caught stealing sometimes lost an ear to the affronted storeowner. There were no formalized civil services to regulate the new residents, who, far from their native communities, felt freed from moral and social constraints. Men committed murder in broad daylight on busy streets, and jailbreaks were frequent, as were public hangings by vigilantes. Police officers were in short supply, and there was little to no regulation of their training and behavior.
It was easy enough, then, for cross-dresser Jean Bonnet to lure prostitutes away from their difficult existence in to join her gang of lady pickpockets.
Many of Bonnet’s recruits came from Madame Johanna, whose brothel specialized in girls as young as fourteen, and never older than seventeen. Bonnet had frequented Johanna’s peep shows, but she knew plenty of other women on the Barbary Coast who would do just about anything to escape prostitution. She set up the gang’s headquarters in a shack on the waterfront, but when Blanche Buneau’s pimp threatened to disfigure her with acid, Bonnet moved to McNamara’s Hotel at the San Miguel Railway Station.
Most of the female pickpockets worked alone, often while pretending to be prostitutes. There were plenty of wealthy targets to be found inside the many casinos and saloons of the Californian frontier, which were numbered at over 500 by 1850. Miners and trappers would leave their claims for a few days and head south to the Barbary Coast, pockets heavy, looking to gamble and socialize. The house allowed, and even encouraged, women to circulate about the gambling tables. They served as a distraction when the house was up, and sometimes utilized the makeshift bedrooms, set aside for the purpose of prolonging a flush patron’s business.
There were a number of women thieves working independently at the time, many of whom avoided escape and capture for years. Annie Green was never convicted, policeman Jesse Brown Cook wrote in his journals, because no white man would admit to the police to having slept with a black woman. Rose Cady (pictured right) and Josie Stocking (pictured below left) only targeted married men, trusting that most would rather suffer a financial loss than publicize their infidelities.
Arrests were infrequent and rarely resulted in convictions. The common use of aliases, as well as inconsistent official bookkeeping, made it difficult to keep track of a lady pickpocket’s career. The majority of police log lacked corresponding mug shots, while taking down only the most basic biographical information. Mary Dugan was apparently “rather good looking,” and sentenced to four years for grand larceny in 1872, but officials did not note what she stole, where she lived at the time of her arrest, or where she went after she was released.
Other lady pickpockets, including the Lost Chicken, skipped town to avoid paying fines. Mary Ryan’s last known whereabouts was the county jail. After being released on charges of petty larceny, Gertrude Smith and Dolly Mickey left San Francisco entirely. Quite a few simply disappeared without a trace, and had probably planned on leaving San Francisco all along, just as soon as they managed to scrape together enough money or their luck ran out.
On the evening of September 14, 1876, Jean Bonnet was killed by a bullet meant for Blanche Buneau, a warning to other women who considered leaving their pimps for Bonnet’s protection. Without a leader, the gang broke up just a few short months after it formed.
We know very little about the fate of the rest of San Francisco’s lady pickpockets. Some of the most notorious went missing after the 1906 earthquake, which destroyed nearly 80 percent of the city’s buildings and killed around three thousand people. Fires blazed for days in the aftermath, and many survivors fled the city for good.
Old San Francisco became known as “the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind,” and the women who ended up in the rapidly growing city were particularly vulnerable, outnumbered and faced with few, often harrowing options. It seems highly unlikely that lady pickpockets pilfered from jacket pockets in hopes of becoming rich. They were just trying to survive.
Asbury, Herbert. The Barbary Coast: an informal history of the San Francisco Underworld. (Indiebound | Amazon)
Butler, Anne M. Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West, 1965-90. (Amazon)
Chidsey, Donald Barr. The California Gold Rush. (Amazon)
*Enss, Chris. Pistol Packin’ Madams: True Stories of Notorious Women of the Old West. (Amazon)
Taniguchi, Nancy J. “Weaving a Different World: Women of the California Gold Rush. California History, Vol. 79, No. 2, pp.141-168.
Madams of the Barbary Coast, documentary film by Michael Rohde.
Images used gratefully with permission from Maria Forde and the SFPL.
Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.