messenger in red light district

An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Fifty-Five

Above, 16-year-old messenger boy entering “crib” in Red Light district, Lewis Wickes Hine, 1913, National Child Labor Committee Collection, Library of Congress

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Fifty-Four

Dr. Ferdinand Peter Herff, November 1913

With the approach of the winter solstice, the darkness makes it feel much later than six o’clock. Peter fumbles with his keys to lock his office door. 

“Good evening, Dr. Herff,” booms a voice so close behind him that the doctor drops the keys on the stoop. 

“Mister Koehler, I didn’t realize you were standing there. Let me open up my office.”

“No, no, that’s unnecessary at this late hour. I merely stopped by to ask for your help. There’s a young lady, someone with whom you might be acquainted, who has begged me for assistance. I told her I would speak with you.”

“How can I be of assistance? Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to go inside?”

“Yes. And she doesn’t want to come to your office either. I’ll make arrangements for her to meet you at a boarding house on South Santa Rosa one morning to minister discreetly to her problems.”

“Who is this lady, and what are her symptoms?”

“She lives with her aunt, part of a fine San Antonio family, and doesn’t wish anyone to know that she…. Well, she met someone on board the George Washington as we all were returning from Germany.”

Surely he doesn’t mean his niece Hettie. The Koehlers dote on her as though she were their own. Hettie appears all but engaged to Frank Bosshardt. If the couple jumped the gun, the Koehlers could invent a plausible explanation for moving up the wedding date. While some persnickety ladies might snidely question whether the birth seven months later was truly premature, no one would ever be sure.

“Emma and I often dined with the young woman and her aunt during the voyage, and I told her if she ever encountered any difficulties she should feel free to call upon me. She has. I trust you be able to help her?”

“Of course.” Mr. Koehler’s refusal to provide any details leads Peter to conclude he is discussing a different young lady. “She’s not married?”

“No, she is not.”

“I could make time on Thursday morning at seven, if that would prove acceptable.”

“Yes, the sooner the better. I’ll see that she is waiting for you upstairs at this address.” He hands Peter a folded piece of paper. “She’ll be most relieved. Please treat her kindly, and, so no one in her family will know, send your bill to me at my office. Don’t let me detain you any longer. Have a pleasant evening!”

~     ~     ~

When Mr. Koehler told him he would steer some business his way, this is not what Peter envisioned. But the Peter is no stranger to this part of town. Santa Rosa lies on the dividing line between respectable families on the east and the red-light district on the west. The division is blurry here. The neighborhood teeters back and forth, unsure whether to permit those who work during the day or those who ply their trade at night to claim it. 

Establishing his office practice is a slow process. Peter’s willingness to answer calls from ladies of the night in the wee hours spares him the embarrassment of borrowing from his father. His father paid his way through medical school, and that is all the generosity the young doctor’s pride will allow him to accept. He must prove himself capable of making it on his own.

Perhaps the unfortunate woman is mistaken. The law requires him to bring life into the world, not end it. While he recommends alternatives, denial of the procedure can push desperate women to seek alternatives. On more than one occasion, Peter has attempted to repair damage for ladies who have tried self-inflicted “remedies” to end pregnancies or allowed some quack to try to wrench a fetus from a womb. The calls to him usually are placed too late to stop the excessive bleeding.

Peter pulls his carriage up in front of two-story white clapboard house built so close to the street that the entrance is under a little portico on the side. The paint is somewhat fresh, with window boxes prepared for flowers once winter has passed. He doubts Mr. Koehler would be acquainted with any of the ramshackle establishments immediately across the street. This house is almost tidy enough to pass for a respectable boarding house. But Peter senses it is not.

messenger in red light district
Preston de Costa, 15 years old. 1913 photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine: “I ran across him… while he was carrying notes back and forth between a prostitute in jail and a pimp in the Red Light district. He had read all the notes and knew all about the correspondence. He… has been delivering messages and drugs in the Red Light for six months and knows the ropes thoroughly. ‘A lot of these girls are my regular customers. I carry ’em drinks, drugs, etc. Also go to the bank for them.'” National Child Labor Committee Collection, Library of Congress.

The doctor’s knock is answered by what at first glance appears to be the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Her deep blue eyes momentarily mesmerize him. Then he realizes there are thick layers of cosmetic enhancement applied to her face. She links her arm through his and draws him into the ornate parlor, well maybe more a saloon, as though he were an old friend. “Why you must be the young Doctor Herff that Otto—Mister Koehler—told me so much about.”

Peter is amazed at the number of syllables that she incorporates into her “Otto,” but, strangely, he finds the exaggerated drawl appealing. Her jasmine scent overwhelms him, tickling his noise to a point only slightly shy of a sneeze. Her waist is drawn into an unnaturally small circle, accentuated at the top by her ample bosom threatening to pop free of the tight corset if she moves ever so slightly. She doesn’t look with child, but, if so, she would have to alter her demeanor considerably to assume a maternal role.

“I am Miss Lang. Please allow me to take your coat and hat.”

As Miss Lang reaches for his coat, the doctor glances toward the corner where a coat rack might stand. In the dim light of the hallway he squints at what at first appears to be that giant old stuffed ostrich from the window of Archambault’s Dry Cleaning. He realizes instead that it is a hat sprouting an over-abundance of ostrich plumes resting on a shelf in the middle of the stand.

Miss Lang leans toward him and whispers, blowing gusts of her warm, moist breath into his ear. “The poor dear’s so distressed. I’ve given her some chamomile tea to try to calm her. She’s in the first room on your left at the top of the stairs. I believe I’ve laid out everything you should need, but please let me know if anything is lacking.”

~     ~     ~

The doctor knocks softly.

A weak voice responds, “Come in.”

Her face is extremely pale, and her eyes dart quickly down to the floor when she recognizes him. Although he has only tipped his hat to her in passing, he often has gazed at her at the Opera House sitting up close to the front with her aunt. The almost sheer-white nape of her neck, with two stray wisps of dark curly hair refusing to be captured by hair pins, commanded his attention much more than the large damsel on the stage.   Although subdued by her awkward predicament, she still radiates beauty. A wholesome natural beauty in marked contrast to that of the proprietress of this house. How could some unscrupulous man have taken advantage of this innocent young flower?

Trembling, she is poised on the edge of the bed. The doctor draws the only chair in the room closer to her. Peter speaks in as gentle a tone as possible. “Are you certain you are with child?”

She nods affirmatively.

“When did you last menstruate?”

“Mid-September.”

“Please stretch out so I can feel your midriff.” There is no need to subject her to an invasive examination at this point. He, too, is fairly convinced by her thickened waist.

“You may sit up. Talk with the young man. If he is honorable, he will take your hand in marriage immediately.”

“No,” she murmurs. “That’s not possible.”

“Your aunt, she can request that charges of seduction be brought against the young man. Quite often, this tactic results in marriage proposals, and the couples form happy, enduring partnerships.”

She does not look up, quivering as she replies, “Charges of seduction can’t be brought against a man you know to be married.”

Peter is silenced by her answer.

She now meets his eyes. “I am told that, if you refuse to help me, there are women here who know how to take care of these things.”

“I cannot terminate your pregnancy. You’re young and healthy. The law doesn’t allow it. But please don’t attempt to do so. The procedures of amateurs are brutal and dangerous. Women often die after botched efforts. There is another option. Have you a close out-of-town relative you can visit? Someplace you can stay discreetly until giving birth and then give your child up for adoption to a loving home? You’ll be able to marry and rear children later.”

“My life is ruined. No respectable man will ever take me as his wife. I could go to my sister’s house in St. Louis. She has three children. I am destined to spend my life taking care of someone else’s children.”

Peter wishes to tell her she is wrong. He knows, however, many a man is willing to take advantage of a young woman but few will commit to marry one who has fallen prey to another. “Well, you are fortunate to have made the acquaintance of Mister Koehler, who has the good sense to summon a doctor for you.”

She stiffens abruptly, raising her eyes as though to see if he is mocking her.

The doctor realizes his naiveté has caused him to sound insensitive. He has devoted too much time to study and work. It never crossed his mind that Mr. Koehler’s role in this could be anything other than that of a kindly protector. Perhaps Peter misreads her reaction.

Sobbing, she blurts out, “I did not….” She stops to catch her breath, uncertain whether to finish the sentence. “I haven’t told a soul of that night, but I can’t have you think me wicked. I did not consent.” Tears cascade down her red cheeks and drip off the tip of her nose. She peers directly at the doctor for a moment, as though searching for words there.

“Hush, hush,” he whispers. “No need to continue. I understand. You are not at fault. But please, retreat temporarily to your sister’s home. Do not pursue any dangerous options. After the baby is born, you’ll be able to resume your life here. No one need ever know.”

~     ~     ~

“Miss Lang, the young woman will be down shortly after I leave. Please summon a hack for her right away. I have offered her sound advice. If she asks for referrals for other options, please assure her that visiting her sister will be best.”

“Of course. You have such a pleasant manner about you, Doctor Herff. I hope you’ll consent to serve as my doctor as well.”

“Certainly. Please feel free to make an appointment anytime.” 

As Peter leaves the house, he cringes as he envisions the disapproving scowl on Mrs. Hatzenbuehler’s face if the likes of Miss Lang cross the threshold of his office.

Footnotes

Oh, dear. Please forgive the Author, ye ghost of Otto Koehler. Your transferal of affections from Emma to Hedda was so rapid, it left the Author with the impression it was part of a habitual pattern. From the later trial testimony, it appeared your attentiveness and affections for Hedda began to ebb and flow a bit by this time.

And you, reader, serving as judge and jury at the end of this book, must disregard this prejudicial chapter. Otto Koehler did not harm this young woman aboard the George Washington. He could not have even if he envisioned such a creature in his dreams because this unnamed woman and her aunt are fictitious. It is improbable, though, that these two nurses where his first and only, although close to his final, dalliances outside of marriage.

This chapter’s storyline also was inspired by The Doctors Herff: A Three-Generation Memoir. Dr. Herff himself recorded he made house calls in the red-light district during the first years of his medical practice. The Author felt so sorry for the young woman in dire straits that she hoped Dr. Herff would provide her abortion services, but the Author refrained from that lest his descendants might object.

Otto Koehler was acquainted with at least one address on Santa Rosa at the edge of the district as you will find out later in these pages. However, Madame Lang is the Author’s creation.

Continue to Chapter Fifty-Six

2 thoughts on “An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Fifty-Five”

  1. Nowadays you can murder your baby much more safely…for you. This is the most trite, self-absorbed tripe I have ever read. Your hackneyed prose made it impossible to establish any sort of imagery or setting. It’s incredibly unclear what you plagiarized and what just made up. Why do you like killing babies so much?

    Like

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