In 1913 the San Francisco Bulletin published a serialized, ghostwritten
memoir of a prostitute who went by the moniker Alice Smith.
“A Voice from the Underworld” detailed Alice’s humble Midwestern
upbringing and her struggle to find aboveboard work, and candidly
related the harrowing events she endured after entering “the life.”
While prostitute narratives had been published before, never had
they been as frank in their discussion of the underworld, including
topics such as abortion, police corruption, and the unwritten laws
of the brothel. Throughout the series, Alice strongly criticized the
society that failed her and so many other women, but, just as acutely,
she longed to be welcomed back from the margins. The response to
Alice’s story was unprecedented: four thousand letters poured into
the Bulletin, many of which were written by other prostitutes ready to
share their own stories; and it inspired what may have been the first
sex worker rights protest in modern history.
For the first time in print since 1913, Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary
Coast Prostitute presents the memoirs of Alice Smith and a selection
of letters responding to her story. An introduction contextualizes “A
Voice from the Underworld” amid Progressive Era sensationalistic
journalism and shifting ideas of gender roles, and reveals themes in
Alice’s story that extend to issues facing sex workers today.
Edited by Ivy Anderson and Devon Angus