Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute

Winner of the 2015 California Historical Society Book Award

In 1913 the San Francisco Bulletin published a serialized, ghostwritten memoir of a prostitute who went by the moniker Alice Smith. “A Voice from the Underworld” detailed Alice’s humble Midwestern upbringing and her struggle to find aboveboard work, and candidly related the harrowing events she endured after entering “the life.” While prostitute narratives had been published before, never had they been as frank in their discussion of the underworld, including topics such as abortion, police corruption, and the unwritten laws of the brothel. Throughout the series, Alice strongly criticized the society that failed her and so many other women, but, just as acutely, she longed to be welcomed back from the margins. The response to Alice’s story was unprecedented: four thousand letters poured into the Bulletin, many of which were written by other prostitutes ready to share their own stories; and it inspired what may have been the first sex worker rights protest in modern history.

For the first time in print since 1913, Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute presents the memoirs of Alice Smith and a selection of letters responding to her story. An introduction contextualizes “A Voice from the Underworld” amid Progressive Era sensationalistic journalism and shifting ideas of gender roles, and reveals themes in Alice’s story that extend to issues facing sex workers today.

Published in collaboration with the California Historical Society

Advance Praise

“With its unflinching honesty, the political relevance of Alice's story and analysis resonates today. By speaking out from 'the underground,' Alice's narrative predicts contemporary San Francisco sex worker discourse, motivating political action against all odds. An important book.”—Carol Leigh, artist, author, filmmaker, and sex workers' rights advocate

 

“Skillfully contextualized by the editors, Alice demonstrates the power of the press in the Progressive era to rouse diverse communities into public sphere debate and political activism....Should be essential reading for anyone interested in the rich history of sexual commerce in the United States.”—Gretchen Soderlund, author of Sex Trafficking, Scandal, and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885-1917

 

“Not only for Bay Area history buffs, Alice will enlighten all readers to early shifts in gender roles and societal correlations today.”—Cassie Duggan, Literary Hub

About the Editors

Ivy Anderson is a San Francisco–based writer who focuses on issues of ecology and radical history. Her reportage on water management issues was published in Water Efficiency Magazine and and her poetry in Poecology. She holds a B.A. in environmental studies with a minor in geography, runs a community garden, and is on the board of a bookstore collective in San Francisco.

Devon Angus is an artist, activist, and historian based in San Francisco. He composed and performed a conceptual folk operetta based on San Francisco history, The Ghosts of Barbary, throughout the Bay Area, Switzerland, and Italy. He organized and published a series of oral histories of immigrants in the Catskills region, and was the recipient of an arts grant through the New York State Council on the Arts for his show Songs and Stories of Old New York. Angus is currently pursuing a history M.A. at San Francisco State University.