Unvirtuous Findlay: How My Unlikely Master’s Thesis Topic Found Me

Posted on January 4th, by risser in Joy Brown. 1 Comment

Joy presenting her project at the Hancock Historical Museum“Who wants to learn about prostitutes?” That’s the question I enthusiastically ask at the beginning of my presentation on the topic. From their reactions, I can immediately tell which audience members are likely to be interested in what I have to say. Regardless of whether they consider the theme distasteful, I at least have their attention.

Let’s get right to it: along with presenting to groups ranging from senior citizens to Hancock Leadership candidates, I’m writing about Findlay prostitutes for my master’s thesis, which I’ve tentatively titled “Unvirtuous Findlay.” Some rhetorical scholars write about pedagogical practices, some about government surveillance, some about methods of memorializing, and so on. I, for one, am researching a contingent of 19th century women who chose the sex trade as their profession.

You may be wondering why, and if so, I completely understand your confusion. When I gravitated toward this topic, I asked myself that same question. For the record, I despise this line of work for moral and ethical reasons. The practice grosses me out. And so, at this particular moment, you may feel like I did – a bit discombobulated as competing thoughts duke it out with each other for supremacy. I get that the binaries and irony inherent with prostitution studies at an educationally advanced level are significant. You may also be wondering what this has to do with rhetoric.

It all began with a fall 2016 assignment for Contemporary Rhetorical Theory – choose an artifact/artifacts at the Hancock Historical Museum, conduct in-depth research, publicly present your findings, and to top it off, write a honking big academic paper on your subject that applies a rhetorical lens. After all, every artifact, from the lowliest bar ashtray to the most elegant wedding gown, has a story to tell us. It was my duty to find and share one of those untold stories. With rhetoric academically defined as effective communication, this would be research and application at its best, a thought-provoking assignment designed by Christine Denecker, Ph.D.Joy's Night at the Museum Presentation

Some projects from other students who have taken this course have focused on hair art, baseball, blacksmithing and the Masons. The accompanying “Night at the Museum” presentations each December are justifiably becoming quite popular. But they’re not easy to pull off.

Last October, after an hour of wandering amidst the museum’s vast trove of stored items not on exhibit, I was at a loss. Nothing was speaking to me, so to speak. Then suddenly, I heard a voice from behind me state, “Findlay had a lot of brothels, too.” It was Joy Bennett, the museum’s curator and archivist, who was offhandedly mentioning this little tidbit to some of my classmates who were considering researching the city’s Prohibition-era taverns. I whipped around to face her. “Brothels in Findlay?” I incredulously asked. My years of newspaper reporting and living in this staunchly conservative city had evidently shaped and limited my understanding of it.

Suspected location of a turn of the century Findlay brothel

This circa 1950 photo from the archives of the Hancock Historical Museum shows the location of a suspected turn-of-the-century Findlay brothel.

Further digging revealed that there were indeed brothels here, a lot of them, as it turns out – Joy mentioned 10, but one historical account estimated there had been upwards of 50, which is no small thing, considering that Findlay in 1887 had a population of just over 10,200 (about the size of Kenton, Ohio today). So I zeroed in on that timeframe, which (no coincidence) also happened to be when the city’s natural gas and oil boom was occurring.

What I discovered was fascinating. Not only were there numerous brothels located throughout town in the late 1800s and very early 1900s, but the women who operated and worked in them generated an enormous amount of money for city government, paid via exorbitant fines incurred by the madams, other prostitutes, and patrons. For instance, Katherine “Kitty” Brown, a notorious madam whose “house of ill fame” was regularly raided, was typically fined $52, which she plunked down at the police station every night she was arrested before going on her merry way. In today’s dollars, that equates to approximately $1,200. As it turns out, prostitutes not only were some of the wealthiest residents in Findlay, but contributed in no small way to its foundational success.

My primary artifacts consist of newspaper accounts of brothel raids and legislation that outlawed the profession here, along with original police and mayor’s court records. Supplemented with historical biographies, archeological findings from locations where brothels in larger cities such as New York existed, statistics, and first-person accounts from big-city madams such as Nell Kimball, this topic is laden with rhetorical insight that is waiting to be told.

Findlay’s Victorian prostitutes played a significant role within this community, and even through the patriarchal language of newspaper and court reports, they still have much to tell us. I therefore hope to do justice to their story by sharing it in a way that’s contemporarily meaningful, and, in the process, end up with a master’s degree.

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