Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/Elsie Craston

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This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories

Prostitute at a window during the Great Depression

Overview[edit | edit source]

Elsie Craston (Elsie) was a prostitute during the time of the Great Depression. She lived in North Carolina, traveling from city to city to do her work. She stayed in the business despite its dangers in order to support her son William, and keep him from working in factories. In 1939, she was interviewed by Claude Dunnagan for the Federal Writers' project.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Elsie grew up in a poor city in North Carolina. An uncle left her money for college when he died. During her freshman year of college, she worked and was involved in acting and the glee club. She started dating Donald Mason, a sophomore. At the end of her freshman year, Elsie got pregnant. Mason and Elsie dropped out of college and got married. They moved to the mountains of North Carolina to have and raise their baby. An uncle helped Mason became an insurance agent in Norfolk, Virginia. Elsie had her baby, William, a month after Mason went to work. While her husband was away, Elsie met Nina, who was from Wilmington. Nina was not married, but very well off for being single. A few months later, Elsie received a call from a hospital in Norfolk, informing her that her husband had been in a car accident. Nina drove her to Virginia, but her husband was already dead when they arrived.

Elsie returned to the mountains, but moved back with her mother after a few weeks because she lacked money. After coming home, Elsie began dating Allen Craston, who had a good amount of money. They got married and moved near Edgeville. A few months later, Elsie got pregnant again, but the baby died the night it was born. After that, Craston began drinking and having affairs with other women. Elsie divorced him and moved back to Alte Monte in the mountains. Craston later committed suicide after he went bankrupt.

Elsie went to Winston Salem in an attempt to find work. There were no job opening, and Elsie contemplated suicide. That day, Elsie ran into Nina, who confessed that she ran a prostitution business in a house she owned in Wilmington. Elsie’s son was hospitalized with meningitis, and Elsie had no choice but to work for Nina’s. After 6 months, the police shut Nina’s house down. After that, Elsie traveled to different cities and hotels, “dating” men and sending money back to her son for school and to prevent him form working in factories. At some hotels, police officers were bribed to not arrest prostitutes. Elsie knew 2 girls who attempted suicide, but failed and were sent to jail. In her interview, Elsie expressed her belief that there was nothing wrong with prostitution since it had been around for centuries and would most likely continue.[1]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Prostitution during the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

Prostitution became a growing problem during the Great Depression. Women could not find jobs, and they started turning to prostitution to support themselves and their families. Some women also participated in prostitution to have shelter, since “countless young women lacked not only jobs but shelter, and that many had little recourse but to sell their bodies.”[2] Elsie agreed to stay in Nina’s prostitution house because she got free housing and money for her son. Besides supporting themselves, “prostitutes typically supported male pimps, as well as corrupt police and city officials.”[3] Pimps received money from the prostitutes and police officials were often bribed with large sums of money to not arrest the prostituted. Prostitution became a common form of organized crime during the Great Depression and it continues today.

Suicide during the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

A common belief is that suicide dramatically increased during the Great Depression. Several studies have found “a significant link between unemployment and suicide.”[4] This could explain an increase in suicide during the Great depression, since roughly 1 in 4 Americans were unemployed during the worst parts of it.[5] Elsie’s second husband Allen committed suicide because of economic hardships and unemployment. Other studies have found, however, that unemployment might not directly cause suicide, and that both might be caused by other factors such as mental illnesses.[6] There were some protective factors against suicide as well, as seen with Elsie’s need to care for her son. Many people with families “tend to focus upon the needs of their family and loved ones. Such a focus upon the needs of others may protect against suicide.”[7] Few parents would commit suicide and leave their children without support. The need to care for one’s family and children often offset the desire to attempt suicide.

Issues of Historical Production[edit | edit source]

The Federal Writers’ Project was created in 1935 as part of the New Deal program. It employed writers and provide interesting stories about individuals’ lives that could be published. The papers were written about common, working class individuals from many different backgrounds.[8] Although the papers were meant to preserve the memory of many individuals, the papers of the Federal Writers’ Project have been criticized for over exaggeration. Many writers of the Federal Writers’ Project wanted to enhance the quality and detail of their stories in order to make the more marketable and to make a name for themselves. They have been described “in their heart of hearts begin to think of themselves as creative writers, and, most likely, in the innermost adytum, potential fiction writer.”[9] Though there was no evidence of exaggeration or made up details in Elsie Creston’s life history, these issues need to be considered when analyzing the validity of her story, as well as other stories from the Federal Writers’ project.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Craston, Elsie. “When Spring Comes.” Federal Writer’s Project. University of North Carolina Southern Collection. Print.
  2. Allen, Holly. "Prostitution." Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. Ed. Robert S. McElvaine. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 775-777. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Apr. 2013 p.776
  3. Allen, p.776
  4. Mishara, Brian L., and Bogan Balan. "Suicide." Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. Ed. Robert S. McElvaine. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 948-950. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. p.950
  5. Schenk, Robert. “A Case of Unemployment.” Cyber Economics. Saint Joseph’s College. February 2011. Web. 5 April 2013. para.2
  6. Mishara, p.950
  7. Mishara, p.950
  8. Current-Garcia, E. “American Panorama: (Federal Writers’ Papers)” Prairie Schooner 12.2 (1938): 79-90. University of Nebraska Press. Web. 21 April 2013. p.79
  9. Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast Among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review 7.1 (1979): 6-17. Oxford Journals. Web. 7 April 2013. p.14