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Unearthing “A Voice From The Underworld”—A Talk With The Editors of Alice: Memoirs Of A Barbary Coast Prostitute

May 23, 2021 | 3:00 pm 4:30 pm

Following in the tradition of Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast, Luc Sante’s Lowlife, and Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute reveals the long lost memoir of Alice Smith, a sex worker from San Francisco in 1913. Unearthed and edited by  Ivy Anderson and Devon Angus, this memoir uncovers complex intersections between gender, labor, and vice in San Francisco and the greater United States.

In 1913 the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper 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 above-board work, and candidly related the harrowing events she endured before and after entering “the life.” Unlike the sensationalist “white slavery” narratives of the time, Alice’s story avoids tropes of victimhood, and is a frank 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 local sex workers ready to share their own stories; and it inspired what may have been the first sex worker rights protest in modern U.S. history. Anderson & Angus will contextualize Alice’s story within the legacy of the San Francisco Bulletin and its fiery editor, Fremont Older, where first person accounts by sex workers, prisoners, ex-convicts, and anarchists shaped the way San Franciscans thought about gender, criminality, and punishment in the swifty transforming Progressive Era city. 

Ivy Anderson and Devon Angus are historians, activists, and artists who focus on marginalized voices in the American West. They are the editors of Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute (winner of the California Historical Society Book Award.) They are currently working on a book about prison reform movements in California during the Progressive Era.

RSVP via email: admin@pha-sf.org

About the Speakers

Ivy Anderson

Ivy Anderson

Ivy Anderson is a San Francisco–based writer who focuses on issues of ecology and radical history. Her reportage on water management issues was published in Water Efficiency Magazine and and her poetry in Poecology. She holds a B.A. in environmental studies with a minor in geography, runs a community garden, and is on the board of a bookstore collective in San Francisco.

Devon Angus

Devon Angus

Devon Angus is an artist, activist, and historian based in San Francisco. He composed and performed a conceptual folk operetta based on San Francisco history, The Ghosts of Barbary, throughout the Bay Area, Switzerland, and Italy. He organized and published a series of oral histories of immigrants in the Catskills region, and was the recipient of an arts grant through the New York State Council on the Arts for his show Songs and Stories of Old New York.


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