Wanton West: Madams, Money, Murder and the Wild Women of Montana's Frontier

Chicago Review Press, 2011
ISBN 978-1-56976-339-4

From the time of the gold rush to the election of the first woman to the U.S. Congress, Wanton West brings to life the women of the West's wildest region: Montana, famous for its lawlessness, boomtowns, and America's largest and longest-enduring red-light districts. The state was a beacon for independent women who refused to accept traditional roles, and prostitutes and entrepreneurs flocked there to make their own money, gamble, drink and raise hell just like men. Author Lael Morgan chronicles the highs and lows of these adventurous women—people like Chicago Joe, with her addiction to finance and handsome men; the enterprising black prostitute Lizzie Hall; and Carmen, just as likely to stick a stiletto in a man as have a drink with him. Moralists wrote them off as "soiled doves;" reformers warned that these women faced an inescapable hell of disease, violence, and alcohol and drug addiction. Yet a surprising number prospered, flaunting their freedom and banking ten times more than their "respectable" sisters.

A lively read providing new insights into women's struggle for equality, Wanton West is a refreshingly objective exploration of a freewheeling society and a re-creation of an unforgettable era in history.


"Poignant, sometimes hilarious, and always compassionate."
 —Elizabeth Lowell, New York Times best-selling author

"Riveting. . . .The same state that tolerated bordellos and their legions of 'painted hussies' also elected the first woman to Congress in a gesture of reform and equality."
 —Kevin S. Giles, author of Jerry's Riot: The True Story of Montana's 1959 Prison Disturbance

"With prodigious research and agile prose, Lael Morgan charts the lives and fortunes of women and men who seized their best chance in the cribs, brothels, dance halls, and boxing rings of Montana's frontier. Prepare for a rollicking read."
 —Mary Murphy, Professor of History, Montana State University and winner of the Montana Book Award

"Lael's lively book aptly describes a modern problem, too. Prostitutes continue to be targets of legal and criminal actions to redistrict us for gentrification purposes. [They are] still tolerated only at the whim of the city fathers"
 —Maxine Doogan, founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union San Francisco

"Morgan's subject, improperly treated, could easily devolve into a lascivious catalog, but she has an important larger point: The independence of these women inspired the independence of women who did not engage in the sex trade, and it's no accident that women had the right to vote and served in political office in the West well before they did in other parts of the country...A useful addition to Western Americana and women's studies."
 —Kirkus Reviews

Less touted in the history books are the colorful stories of some of the prostitutes who shaped local history.

Author Lael Morgan's entertaining new book, "Wanton West" released this June corrects this oversight in the historic record. Within its engrossing pages are captured the stories of some larger-than-life women who saw a last chance of their own to strike it rich and grabbed it.
 —Marga Lincoln, Helena's Independent Record


Wanton West


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