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A Harmar Tragedy

On the morning of Wednesday May 18, 1881, a 35 year-old woman by the name of Nan Hayes, was found dead in her home. She was found facing down, on a pallet in the back room, in a pool of her own blood. Upon first examination, she was fully dressed and ‘looking natural’, but once moved, she had been horribly disfigured by a total of 5 shots. The initial newspaper report tells of the site Coroner Ullman found upon arrival at 3 P.M.; “one shot went in close to the region of the apex of the heart coming out at the back, another through the lungs extending downwards about 7 inches, two through the neck on the right side, and another through the right side of her face mangling the jaw bone in a fearful manner”. There were 2 witnesses to the murder, Louisa Rendent and Mollie Wilson, both ‘ladies of the night’ who worked for and lived with Mrs. Hayes. Ms. Rendent recalls the fighting beginning early in the morning with Nan and her husband quarreling because she had gone that morning to have a drink at Shaw’s saloon and to obtain groceries. Mr. Hayes began to yell upon her return, stating “are you going to live with me or Shaw?”; to which Nan replied, “I think more of Shaw than I do of you for he has supported me for six months back!”. The fight continued until John pulled a pistol on his wife. Defiantly, she threw her bonnet on the floor and shouted “-shoot and be damned; I am ready to die”. He fired at her 7 times, and fled to the woods.

A Saloon in Harmar. The women in the upstairs window were probably 'ladies of the evening'

Both Nan and John were notorious around town for varying reasons; Nan for running a ‘disreputable house’ in Harmar, and John for being a drunk. After the murder, John was nowhere to be found, but the next day a funeral was put together by the girls and Nan’s friends. Together they were able to provide a handsome casket and soon buried her with an ‘appropriate service’. Though the women were only able to pay for a casket, the Township Trustees paid for her burial in Harmar Cemetery. It wasn’t until Sunday that John returned to turn himself in. A month later, on Friday June 15, 1881, Mr. John Hayes was put on trial and swiftly convicted by Judge Knowles for his crimes. The jury found him guilty of second degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Marietta, like many historic towns, had a red-light district and a history of brothels. Many women were drawn to the career because it gave them independence in a time when a woman was defined by her father, her husband and her sons. Women could not inherit property, own their earnings or work once they were married. Not all women were of a temperament to accept such a servile role.

Of course, some women were forced into the profession, taken from their families at a young age or unable to earn enough to live in any other way. In Marietta, many of the ‘houses of ill-repute’ were owned by women, known as Madams, which traditionally were cleaner, safer places. But, as the story of Nan Hayes shows, prostitution was never an easy career path. The majority of prostitutes died before the age of 30, overdosing on drugs, dying of disease or illness, while many others committed suicide.

It was hard to escape such a past, as these ‘soiled doves’ were no longer considered marriageable, and with no other marketable skills they could not find other work. It is easy to condemn these women for their choices, without analyzing the desperate situation that many of them faced. And yet many of them faced such a life with resilience and courage. As the United States continued to expand West, these ‘soiled doves’ were often the only women in town for years. They helped build the country, funded schools and charities, and dared to view themselves as individuals long before the Women’s Rights movement. Everyone has a story to tell, a contribution to make and none is more hidden than that of the Prostitute.

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