Book Review || Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute

Why I Picked This Book Up:

Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute

I’ve always been interested in how prostitution has evolved and developed over time and how prostitutes view themselves and are viewed by others. I’ve also always been interested in San Francisco / Bay Area history during the Gold Rush and up until the end of World War II. Essentially, this book sounded like (and was!) an amazing combination of both of those interests which is exactly why I checked it out.


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.


★★Research | ★★Writing Style |★Format
(in case you’re wondering: ✮ = 1/2 star)


Lemme just start by saying that this book was absolutely amazing. I honestly do not have a single complaint at all!

The research was nicely done. Anderson and Angus definitely did some diving into the history of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast district, the San Francisco Bulletin, and the role that editor Fremont Older played in the exposure of criminal activity, political corruption, and prostitution in post-Gold Rush era San Francisco. I enjoyed that the editors also briefly discussed how and where they found their sources. There was a lot of utilization of San Francisco Public Library’s microfilm collection along with the History Center and it was nice reading about how they pieced everything together. An even bigger bonus was the wonderfully formatted bibliography – I’m a sucker for a nicely formatted bibliography.

Rating the writing style of this book was slightly tricky for me. I didn’t know if I should rate Anderson and Angus’ writing separately from Alice’s or if I should rate them together. In the long run, I decided that I should just rate them together. The introduction is of course written by the editors and they did a fantastic job. They introduced new ideas and the history of the era with fluidity and everything was explained clearly and concisely. The rest of the book was written by Alice Smith, or at least Alice Smith telling her story to an unknown ghostwriter. I will say that for or a serialized memoir published in 1913, Alice’s life story is told with amazing emotional depth. I don’t know how much was the work of the editors, but her memoir reads as if it could have been written in recent years. It’s absolutely amazing and the themes Alice discusses are still relevant to this day.

And lastly, the formatting of this book was very well done. I tip my imaginary hat off to Anderson and Angus for the way in which they chose to present this book. The introduction provides context for Alice’s memoir which is broken up into four parts and between each part there are a few of the letters written to the editor. It all just flowed very nicely and created a very smooth reading experience.

Final Thoughts & Recommendations

Obviously, I really enjoyed reading this book. I have an incredibly soft spot in my heart for sex-workers and for the people who choose to pursue that line of work. It’s something that I’ve had experience with and, for me, there’s a very therapeutic quality to reading about how other women maintained or coped with the lifestyle.

I would recommend this book to people are who are;

  • interested in San Francisco history; specifically the Barbary Coast district
  • fans of memoirs
  • interested in the lives of sex workers

It really is a fantastic read!

Hope you have a wonderful day & read a wonderful book,

Borrow || Purchase*

*I receive a 5% commission from all books purchased through my Book Depository affiliate link.




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