Watch as Mary Beaudry, a CAS professor of archaeology, explains the artifacts found at the Mill Pond site in Boston. Slideshow by Amy Laskowski
Boston’s infamous Big Dig construction project, which rerouted the city’s Central Artery, unearthed a trove of archaeological treasures in a 19th-century brothel’s outhouse. Buried there were items of importance to the women who made their living outside the margins of polite society: hairbrushes, medicines, and vaginal syringes used for self-medicating and cleaning.
Now, a team of archaeology students from BU is studying these artifacts to find out what they reveal about how the residents of one Boston brothel lived. The building, long since torn down, existed on Endicott Street, near Boston’s North End, just two blocks from what was then the city’s red light district. The team hopes that by studying the more than 3,000 artifacts recovered from the outhouse and using old city records, they can gain insight into the day-to-day lives of prostitutes believed to have lived at the property between 1852 and 1883.
At first, little was known about the artifacts or the people they once belonged to. “Through our work and analysis, it came to light that this was an interesting, alternative household,” says Mary Beaudry, a College of Arts & Sciences professor and acting chair of archaeology, who is working on the project with her students. “It was a house of prostitution.”
In the course of their work, the archaeologists have deduced that personal hygiene was of great importance to these women—besides the hairbrushes, medicines, and syringes, items found included toothbrushes, hair combs, and tobacco-related items.
“This project is slowly piecing together the texture of everyday life,” Beaudry says. “The dig site is jam-packed with potential, and this collection has such a fascinating backstory.”
The Big Dig
During the massive highway project, construction crews excavated a site called Mill Pond, which in 1828 had been filled in when the city needed more space to expand.
Crews found a sealed, wood-lined privy (the under portion of an outhouse) filled with items that begged for further inspection. During the 19th century, before the advent of municipal trash collection, privies were used not only as toilets, but for general household waste disposal.
Because of limited funding, Massachusetts officials stipulated at the time of the Big Dig that the state would pay to study only those excavated items believed to have been manufactured before 1830.
Recognizing the items’ historical significance, archaeologists working for John Milner Associates, the firm that excavated the Mill Pond site, cleaned and stored them.
And that’s where Beaudry and her students became involved in the project. While not part of the actual excavation, Beaudry had heard about the surprising finds from former student Ellen Berkland (GRS’89), the archaeologist for the city of Boston.
“She kept talking about what a shame it was that nothing had been done with the materials because they were sitting in storage,” Beaudry recalls. “So when it came time to find projects for my students to work on in 2008, I asked my friend Martin Dudek, an archaeologist who had worked on the excavation for Milner Associates, if he would be willing to have us come and take some items to study. He was delighted.”
Mrs. Lake’s home
Beginning in 2008, Beaudry and several of her students began to study the excavated items for a research analysis class and as a thesis project for some of them.
Research into city records revealed that the privy had been attached to a brothel at 27 and 29 Endicott St. Records showed that the buildings belonged to a Mrs. Lake, whose profession was listed as “prostitution.” Mrs. Lake eventually married a Dr. Padelford, a homeopathic doctor “considered to be crackpotty at the time,” according to Beaudry. He prescribed unusual remedies for the women, most likely for treating sexually transmitted diseases and inducing abortions.
Beaudry and her team pieced together a fascinating re-creation. “The madam managed to create an atmosphere that mimicked the middle-class home,” she says. “This kind of brothel was referred to as a parlor house, because there were furnishings that sort of looked like a middle-class parlor.” The brothel offered special kinds of entertainment, like gambling, meals, and “special services,” which would take place in a private room for an extra cost. This the team was able to deduce from the many different dinner and tea sets, which suggests that the home was able to serve several different clients at once.
One of Beaudry’s students, Amanda Johnson (CAS’10), looked into old Boston census records to find out more about the home’s residents; among them were 21-year-old Eliza Thompson, from Rhode Island, 22-year-old Elina McMahon, from Vermont, and 20-year-old Mary Colby, from Ireland, all believed to have been prostitutes working for Mrs. Lake.
Johnson’s research showed that at the time, most of the young women who worked as prostitutes in cities came from predominantly rural areas, probably to find work in the city. “To them, it seemed like a place of opportunity,” Beaudry says. “But many of them were forced into the low-end brothel houses, or even worse, streetwalking, because that was the only way they could make any kind of a living.”
While prostitution was illegal, she says, policemen often looked the other way. In fact, city records show that a policeman lived at the Lake property while it operated as a brothel.
Most fascinating to Beaudry and her students is what the recovered items reveal about 19th-century prostitution.
“What I think surprises people is the fact that the artifacts point to the workers’ self-care and shows the attention they gave to personal hygiene,” Beaudry says.
Items found in the privy included hair combs, jewelry, toothbrushes, and even remains of tooth powder, which was similar to toothpaste. At the time, it was unusual for people to brush their teeth, suggesting these women took particular care with their appearance.
For Johnson, the most interesting item found at the site was a bottle filled with copaiba oil, a natural remedy used at the time to treat stomach cancers and ulcers. She brought the bottle to Richard Laursen, now a CAS chemistry professor emeritus, who was able to extract residue from the bottle and run conclusive tests on it. “The analysis revealed the type of medical treatments for venereal disease at the brothel,” Johnson says. “It is the only concrete evidence we have for what the women were using to treat their conditions.”
Diane Gallagher (GRS’11), a PhD student specializing in archaeoparasitology—meaning she studies bugs and dirt, among other things, to identify what diseases may have affected a population—identified both roundworm and whipworm at the Padelford home. These are very common parasites, and show a household that was not heavily infected. “It was similar to any urban household at that time,” says Gallagher.
Team member Katrina Eichner (CAS’10) studied 30 syringe fragments excavated at the site. At first glance, she thought they were hypodermic syringes, but upon closer analysis, discovered they were vaginal syringes, used for personal cleanliness, disease prevention, treatment of disease, and termination of pregnancy.
Eichner’s research found that prostitutes at other 19th-century brothels used similar syringes to inject mercury, arsenic, and vinegar into the body to induce abortions or treat diseases.
“Working on this site has been one of my favorite projects,” says Eichner. “I plan on studying brothels in the Caribbean for my dissertation, and I will use this work as a jumping off point.”
Beaudry and her students continue to unlock secrets from the items recovered in the privy. Students from other universities, including the University of Rhode Island, UMass Boston, and Brandeis University, have also studied the artifacts over the years. She hopes that one day the findings can be published in a book.
Progressive reformers wrote of brothels as dens of iniquity, vice, depravity, and filth, “but yet in this site we see a very high concern for personal health and hygiene,” Beaudry says. “This is understandable given the inevitable side effects of the sex trade, which is conception, disease, that sort of thing. These findings are the reverse of shocking; they show that these women were making a living as best they could.”
Amy Laskowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.