Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/BessieMaeBoatwright

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Bessie Mae Boatwright
Man enjoys a beer after the end of prohibition


Bessie Mae Boatwright was a prostitute living in Henry County, Tennessee during the early 1900's. She was interviewed by the Federal Writer's Project in 1938.



Bessie Mae Boatwright was a prostitute born in Kentucky during 1920 to Cora Boatwright and her husband.[1] Boatwright was the oldest of five siblings. She had three younger sisters and one younger brother. Boatwright’s parents’ marriage was one of constant arguing and infidelity.[2] Both of her parents were alcoholics and worked in the bootlegging business. Their frequent altercations with the law lead them to enlist Boatwright at a very young age to deliver their illegal liquor to customers. Boatwright’s father was murdered when she was a young girl, leaving the mother to financially support five children.

Early Life and Road to Prostitution[edit]

The first account of Boatwright as a prostitute is when neighbors informed authorities of a young prostitute in the Boatwright household. Boatwright was sent to an institution at thirteen where she lived for years. While at the institution she took Business courses. This was her only schooling past her eighth-grade education. As soon as she was released from the institution Boatwright began working as a prostitute again. Boatwright discriminated against no customer. As long as they could pay (anywhere from a quarter to sixty dollars) she would take any man in her bed no matter their age, race, or whether or not they had a sexually transmitted disease.[3] This set her apart from other white prostitutes of the time who would not accept black customers. Boatwright was not afraid of the legal repercussions that tended to come along with her profession. She did not mind her work and realized that she would always have a meal, a ride, or spare change from one of her clients. Boatwright never married and worked as a prostitute for all of her known life. She died at an unknown age.

Prostitutes in the South await customers.

Social Issues[edit]

Fight Against Prostitution[edit]

The fight against prostitution was just as strong during the early 1900's if not more so, as it is in today’s society. The need to stop prostitution was more urgent during this time because medical advances of today were not available to treat the common sexually transmitted diseases spread through prostitution nor were safe abortions as accessible. During a time when women’s rights were just beginning to be seriously discussed, many saw prostitutes as the bottom of the barrel when it came to women because of their carless spreading of such diseases. Many people, like Jean B. Pinney, believed this was not only doing a disservice to the men who contracted the disease, but the sex workers themselves who were not living up to their full potential. Jean B. Pinney expressed her view of prostitutes; “It is a shameful thing that many of the young women who spread these infections themselves got syphilis as one more incident in a sordid career into which they slipped through lack of home training or of otherwise guidance, or lack of a job, or because wholesome good times never came their way.”[4] Pinney’s view stood parallel with many other southern conservatives during the time period. The ideal that women should be “wholesome homemakers” was very relevant to the time because women were starting to challenge those norms in more than one way – not being shy about a life of prostitution being one of them.


Though Prohibition ended in 1933, many counties in Tennessee remained dry, continuing the boot legging profession. Ann-Marie Szymanski states in her Journal, Beyond Parochialism: Southern Progressivism, Prohibition, and State-Building, “As part of its extensive organizing efforts, the national ASL sent field agents to found state affiliates in the South, most of which furthered the growth of dry sentiment and ultimately sponsored campaigns for state prohibition.”[5] The Nation-wide end of prohibition did not mean that bootleggers were no longer in business. The continuing fight against liquor in the South kept many criminals at work, delivering liquor to dry counties across the South. This demand is expressed in an article by Edward Angly in which he states, “Nearly a year after the restoration of legal alcoholic beverages, the bootlegger is supplying the country with more than half its hard liquor.”[6]

  1. Ancestry.com. 1940 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.
  2. [[Folder 969: Toler, Nellie Gray (interviewer): Bessie Mae Boatwright] in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  3. Ibid., 2
  4. Pinney, Jean B. "How Fares the Battle against Prostitution?" Social Service Review 16, no. 2 (1942): 224-46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30013891.
  5. Ann-Marie Szymanski. "Beyond Parochialism: Southern Progressivism, Prohibition, and State-Building." The Journal of Southern History 69, no. 1 (2003): 107-36. doi:10.2307/30039842.
  6. Edward Angly. 1934. "Taxes Save the Bootlegger." Forum and Century (1930-1940), 11, 269. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/90848174?accountid=14244.