Brothel Owner Mrs. Lake and the “Big Dig”
Conceived in the 1970s, The Central Artery/Tunnel Project was the largest, most challenging highway project in the history of the United States. Also known as the “Big Dig,” the project was meant to reroute the rusting six-lane highway through the heart of the city of Boston, Massachusetts. Finally breaking ground in the 1990s, the “Big Dig” excavated a treasure trove of artifacts from Native American groups, colonial Massachusetts, and the late 19th century, including the city’s red-light district. In the 19th century, Boston’s red-light district was located in the city’s North End and was known as “the Black Sea,” as merchants, sailors, and immigrants filled the area seeking financial opportunity, vice, and other new life experiences. Brothels, bars, and boarding houses were commonplace along Ann Street (modern-day North Street and near the Paul Revere House) to Endicott Street, the Black Sea’s border.
Massachusetts only provided funding for analysis of the unearthed artifacts that originated before 1830; any objects created or used after that decade were boxed up and put away. Although census records reveal who lived with and worked for brothel owner Mrs. Lake, much of what we know about her isn’t from the historical record, but due to the shelved archeological finds that were examined by Dr. Mary Beaudry and her team of archeology students beginning in 2011. Dr. Beaudry and her team of students analyzed the artifacts found from the “Big Dig” site, specifically in the area of North Endicott Street on the North End of Boston. Among the late 19th century brothels in this red-light district was one owned by Mrs. Lake.
Brothel Owner Mrs. Lake’s “Parlor House”
Brothel owner Mrs. Lake ran a “parlor house” outside the Black Sea at 27-29 Endicott Street from 1852 – 1883. The brothel was fashioned as a middle-class home where patrons could gamble, enjoy a meal, and have sex for an additional fee. The women who worked for brothel owner Mrs. Lake included native Bostonians, rural women migrating into urban life for economic opportunities, and immigrant women arriving in the Black Sea, embarking on life in America. While prostitution was illegal, policemen often looked the other way. In fact, city records show that a policeman lived at Mrs. Lake’s property while it operated as a brothel. According to Boston city directories, Mrs. Lake married a homeopathic doctor by the name of William Padelford, who moved to 29 Endicott Street and began practicing medicine.
The “Big Dig” unearthed several objects from the house’s privy that tell us more about brothel owner Mrs. Lake, Dr. Padelford, and the women who worked at the Endicott Street location. In addition to hairbrushes, combs, and toothbrushes, Dr. Beaudry’s team analyzed thirty vaginal syringes and cleansing fluids such as mercury, vinegar, and arsenic, likely used for douching or the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and illnesses. The researchers also discovered medicine bottles of copaiba oil, made from a tree resin used in the 19th century to induce abortion. It’s not clear if Dr. Padelford was administering the oil or if the women employed by brothel owner Mrs. Lake were using it independently. Still, it does tell us more about the health care and hygiene practices of sex workers in the 19th century.
Questions Left Unanswered
How did Mrs. Lake and Dr. Padelford meet? Were they in love, or was the marriage rooted in business arrangements? We may never have answers to these questions. However, Dr. Beaudry wonders if their marriage was a way to blur the lines of respectability and class distinctions of the 19th century. The story of brothel owner Mrs. Lake will continue to unfold as Dr. Beaudry, and other archaeologists and historians continue to analyze and document the history of sex work. In the meantime, brothel owner Mrs. Lake serves as a vivid example of how history merging with other disciplines to shed light on the lives of people working within the oldest profession.
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
Dissertations and Theses
Johnson, Amanda B., “Booze at the Brothel: Alcohol-Related Artifacts and their use in Performance at the 27/29 Endicott Street Brothel” (2012). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. Paper 1539626684. Link to research here.
This thesis uses archaeological evidence from the Endicott Street brothel to explore alcohol consumption in the Victorian Era.
Mary Beaudry, “Stories That Matter: Material Lives in 19th-Century Lowell and Boston, Massachusetts.” In Cities in the World, 1500-2000: Papers Given at the Conference of the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology [April 2002], edited by Adrian Green and Roger Leech, 1-20. Leeds: Maney, 2006.
Timothy Gilfoyle, “Archaeologists in the Brothel: ‘Sin City,’ Historical Archaeology and Prostitution.” Historical Archaeology 39, no. 1 (2005): 133-41.
Amy Laskowski, “Revelations of a Brothel’s Trash,” Bostonia, Summer 2011. Link to article.
This article, published in the Boston University Alumni magazine, offers specifics about Mrs. Lake and Dr. Beaudry’s insights about the project.
Gayle Fee, “Digging that North End Brothel,” Boston Herald, March 4, 2011. Link to article.
Anna Goldfield, “Secrets of a Brothel Privy,” Sapiens: Anthropology Magazine, March 6, 2018. Link to article.
Heather Pringle, “The Brothel, the Madam and the Doctor,” The Last Word On Nothing, November 5, 2010. Link to article.
Healey Library, University of Massachusetts – Boston, Archaeology of Brothels LibGuide. Link to article.
A “LibGuide” is a curated set of academic resources about a particular topic. This particular LibGuide was created by the University of Massachusetts and contains sources about the history and archaeology of sex work, domestic labor, and gender and economics in the 19th century.