Lena’s Scarlet Letter

A young woman going by the name of Lena Duarte was sent to prison on Halloween day in 1901. Her crime? Sending an “obscene letter” via the US mail to her friend Mabel Smith when she was in Fresno. This was a felony and Lena’s conviction earned her a sentence of six months in San Quentin.

According to The Los Angeles Times, Mabel and some friends went to visit Lena one evening, but Lena was not in the mood for visitors. When Lena wouldn’t let them in, Mabel kicked down the door and a fight ensued between the women.

Lena, described by the newspaper as a “Mexican señorita of no reputation at all,” reported the incident to the police. Mabel retaliated by handing over Lena’s letter, which allegedly was full of “the vilest parlance of the tenderloin.”

Naturally the press didn’t publish the contents of the letter, other than to state that it opened “My Dear, loving Mabel.” However The Times implied the argument was a lover’s spat, stating that the letter was “all affection, but the language was something awful. It was written a month ago, and the green monster, jealousy, must have cut their love in two since them.”

Evidently sex workers weren’t allowed to express love for others, particularly for each other.

Lena lived and worked at a brothel located at 219½ Ferguson Alley in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. Two months before the argument with Mabel, she and two friends, Belle Landers and Nestor Levy, had been charged with disorderly conduct after being arrested while engaging in “conduct declared to be indecent, and in language that was boisterous and disturbing.” For this each woman was fined $14 by the court (approximately $435 in today’s dollars). The choice was pay up or sit in jail. Lena paid up.

Alameda and Ferguson Alley in Los Angeles Chinatown, circa 1920. Los Angeles Public Library

When the federal census was taken in June 1900, Lena did not live at 219½ Ferguson Alley. But two young women engaged in the sex trade did: Josie Cove, who was born in Japan, and Alice Gros, a native of France. Lena’s friend, Mrs. Nestor Levy, who was also a sex worker, lived around the corner on North Alameda. It’s likely that all of these women’s names, including Lena’s, were aliases.

Mabel joined her pal Lena at the prison a week later, after she too was convicted of sending obscene letters through the mail. Mabel’s mug shot and prison record have not survived. Nor has Ferguson Alley. It was demolished in the 1930s to make way for Highway 101.

If you have an interest in knowing more about the lives of sex workers during the early 20th century, I highly recommend Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute.

Featured photo: San Quentin State Prison, Inmate Photographs and Mug Books. California State Archives.

8 thoughts on “Lena’s Scarlet Letter

    1. I agree. The press held a very low opinion of sex workers back then, as did much of the public. Despite the fact that they were doing work that most women didn’t want to do and there was clearly a demand for it! Thanks for reading and commenting, Liz. It’s always nice to hear from you!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. There’s something poignant about her facial expressions in the mugshots. She doesn’t look angry or defiant, just a little sad. Mabel’s betrayal must have been a heavy blow, combined with going to prison at just nineteen years old.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for reminding me how the value of money then vs. now is so incredibly different. I have some Reward postcards where the crime is murder and the reward is $10. Then, from the same era, I have stolen horses worth $50 to the owner. Interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting, Jim. So when Lena was fined $14, that fine was almost half again as much as a reward offered for the capture of a murderer! Rather amazing! Thanks for reading and posting.


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