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Their Stories

These are just a few of the women of the Barbary Coast...


She has been called the "Mother of Civil Rights", a Bordello Madam, a Voodoo Queen, and even a murderer. Mary Ellen Pleasant kept the wealthy banker Thomas Bell under her spell. Her nemesis, Teresa Bell claimed Mary Ellen held voodoo orgies at the Bell mansion. And yet some historians consider Mary Ellen Pleasant one of America's first civil rights crusaders. Ultimately, Pleasant was mysterious, wealthy and one of the most controversial black women that the West had ever known.


Ah Toy was San Francisco's first and most famous Chinese Madam. She was expensive, and one miner called her "The most beautiful woman he'd ever seen." She was outspoken, smart, and suspected of being a slave trader in prostitutes.


The daughter of a Baltimore minister, Belle Cora became one of San Francisco's most prominent and envied Madams. But then she dared to cross the unspoken line for accepted social behavior set down by the "polite society" of the frontier west... and the results turned deadly.


Chinatown was notorious for its horrendous treatment of Chinese women, most of whom were under age slave girls sold at the auctioning block into a life of servitude. Their plaintive voices could be heard throughout the night.


She started as a presbyterian social worker, and by the end of her service Donaldina Cameron saved over 2000 women from a life of prostitution and slavery in Chinatown. Known as "Lo Mo" or "mother" in Chinese, Dondaldina's fearless rescues were extremely dangerous, and legendary. Her story includes extremely rare footage and archival photos.


Tessie Wall was one of San Francisco's most beloved madams, infamous and revered in this sin city of the West. She was also the belle of the annual San Francisco Policeman's ball... even after she hunted down her lover and shot him in broad daylight in a San Francisco alley.


Thought to have been named after the Barbary Coast of Africa, this burgeoning port town was known around the world for danger, brutality and wickedness - a combination of the best and the worst that the wild frontier had to offer. But it was here that plucky women from the bottom rung of society could quickly transform themselves into San Francisco's fashionably elite and discover their hidden entrepreneurial powers. Women from a diversity of cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and countries including Latin America, China, France, and the South could suddenly find themselves the toast of society in this "Paris of the Pacific." For many others, the temptations and struggles of the treacherous Barbary Coast was their downfall. The West was no place for the timid, but it was the one place where women of opportunity could find immense financial freedom and wealth by supplying the immigrant population's growing appetite for decadence and culture in the Gold Rush's most infamous sin city of the West.