Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 023/Bessie Mae Boatwright
Bessie Mae Boatwright
|Bessie Mae Boatwright|
|Known for||Interviewee for the Federal Writers Project|
Bessie Mae Boatwright was born in in Kentucky in 1920. Her father was an alcoholic who often fought with her mom. Her parents illegally sold liquor around their neighborhood. Her parents would send Boatwright on errands sometimes to deliver this liquor. She has four younger sisters and one younger brother, but presumes her siblings may all have different fathers since none of them look alike and her mother often cheated on her father. One of her mother’s misters killed Boatwright’s father by driving him down a river bank in a truck, then jumping out at the last second. When she was thirteen, she was sent to juvenile court after neighbors reported her for prostitution. It is not completely clear, but it appears she was caught by contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). The juvenile court sent her to the “Institution” (it is unclear if this was a juvenile detention center or some other type of institution), which is where she made up her mind to become a prostitute. She was introduced to contraceptive methods and was given medicine for her STD. During her time at the Institution she took a few business courses to expand on her eighth grade education.
It is unclear when Boatwright moved away from Kentucky, but she lived in Paris, Tennessee when her Federal Writers Project interview was conducted on December 8, 1938. In Paris, Boatwright worked as a prostitute in a place called Buzzard’s Roost. She had bleached hair and was 140 pounds. She often would get drunk with her family members, including her seven year old sister. Boatwright said one of her long-term clients was helping her buy her own place to live; however, a 1940 US census shows her mother claiming Boatwright as part of her household. At the time of her interview, her future plans were to finish business school so she could work at an office to meet an old rich man who she could marry and then stop working. She did not plan on having children until she was much older. It is unknown what happened to Boatwright or when she died.
The Prohibition of Alcohol
In the late 19th to early 20th century, cities across the United States began banning the buying and selling of alcohol. Prohibition mainly came to fruition for religious reasons. Alcohol was viewed as ungodly and tied to violence against women and children. In 1877 Tennessee passed the nation's first law regarding prohibition. Keebler described the specifics of this law in the article Prohibition in Tennessee: "Tennessee proceeded under the principle of what is known as the “four-mile law" -that is the prohibition of the sale of intoxicating liquors within four miles of any school-house.” These four-mile laws continued to escalate to a broader prohibition across the United States.  When the US entered World War I, the first federal act banning the manufacturing of alcohol was placed in order to save grain resources for food. This 1917 act gave power toward the prohibition movement and the fuel needed to make them achieve what they believed, would be a more permanent solution. In 1919, the United States amended the Constitution to outlaw the making, transporting, and selling of alcohol. The amendment, overturned in 1933, was difficult to enforce and caused an increase in bootlegging as a means to make a living.  Boatwright, born at the beginning of Federal prohibition, lived under this law until she was thirteen, oftentimes aiding her parents in bootlegging. Boatwright describes herself hiding liquor underneath clothes in a basket to look like she was delivering laundry, then going to houses to sell the liquor. Due to the legal risk associated with bootlegging, liquor during the prohibition was costly, and therefore, prosperous for those involved in the selling. Bootlegging also represented the widespread failure of prohibition in eliminating alcohol consumption, which led to the amendment's overturn.
Prostitution in an Economically Depressed South
Throughout different periods of the South’s history prostitution has varied in popularity. In Tennessee, the first system of registering and inspecting prostitutes was created during the Civil War. Although this was very short lived as a legal process, it represents a history Tennessee has with prostitution. Prostitution grew in popularity across America during the Great Depression. Many women had trouble finding other jobs and saw prostitution as an easy way to make an income. Contraceptives and sexual protection methods were rare at the start of the Great Depression, but as the rest of America’s economy was suffering these businesses started flourishing. Andrea Tone, in “Contraceptive Consumers” states, “Capitalizing on Americans' desire to limit family size in an era of economic hardship, pharmaceutical firms, rubber manufacturers, mail-order houses, and fly-by-night peddlers launched a successful campaign to persuade women and men to eschew natural methods for commercial devices.” Female contraceptive sales rose higher and faster than male condoms. Due to the use of protection that was now becoming more available, prostitution was, too, becoming safer. Boatwright discusses her use of “Zeptabs” in reference to protection against STD’s. It is unclear what these are, but the most common type of female contraceptive and sexual protection method during the thirties was a diaphragm. Prostitution’s popularity also lead to increased knowledge of these methods between prostitutes and brothels. Boatwright discusses learning from her fellow prostitutes about how to treat STD’s.
- Bessie Mae Boatwright Federal Writers Project Interview, December 8, 1938, Folder 969, 03709, Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.
- US Census Burea. (n.d.). 1940 US Census. Retrieved from http://1940census.archives.gov/search/?search.result_type=image&search.state=TN&search.county=Henry+County&search.city=Paris&search.street=#searchby=location&searchmode=browse&year=1940
- History.com Staff. “Prohibition”. Last modified 2009. http://www.history.com/topics/prohibition.
- Keebler, R S. 1917. “Prohibition in Tennessee.” National Municipal Review 6 ( 1–11): 675–688.
- Sharp, S. A. (2009). Sexuality. In T. Ownby & N. Bercaw (Eds.), The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (pp. 260–261). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.
- Encyclopedia.com. “Encyclopedia of the Great Depression”. Last modified 2004. http://www.encyclopedia.com/article-1G2-3404500430/prostitution.html.
- Tone, Andrea. "Contraceptive Consumers: Gender and the Political Economy of Birth Control in the 1930s." Journal of Social History 29, no. 3 (Spring, 1996): 485. http://search.proquest.com/docview/198958346?accountid=14244.