Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Wages of sin paid well for early-1880s Seattle


Preachers and philosophers may debate the wages of sin, but sin paid well for early-1880s Seattle.

According to a paragraph in a fascinating article I was reading recently about Seattle’s famous “Underground,” gambling and prostitution was prevalent in the fledgling Queen City of the Northwest and prompted a sort of “sin tax.” The article mentioned in passing that this tax on the fleshly vices furnished 87 percent of the municipal Seattle budget in 1881-82.

Of course, other sources I found tell me the now mighty city was only populated by some 3,500 people at the time, so that municipal income may not have been all that large — and the shady folks who both used these services and supplied them may not have represented a big crowd. But you’d have to think both the servers and the “servees” of gambling establishments and houses of fleshly delight must have done their tasks with enthusiasm.

I ran onto that tantalizing tax fact in another back issue of that magazine I’ve been urging all of you to get, “True West.” (Folks there oughta give me a commission, but they don’t. That’s all right; always glad to recommend a good resource to you who are interested in the Old West.) In this case, the article was titled “Seattle Underfoot” by Karen McGeorge Sanders. It ran in the March 1994 issue of “True West,” for those of you interested in and able to track it down. I just happen to have eight or 10 copies of the magazine from the early- to mid-1990s setting in a case near my faithful recliner, and I’m having a heck of a lot of fun scanning through them to pass along little tidbits of Old West tales and tall tales. Great stuff!

I suppose the good news for Seattle and Seattleites (Do you call ’em that? I guess so.) is that the town prospered and grew into a mighty center of the good life that makes a positive impact on the Pacific Northwest, our whole country, and the entire world. The bad news, of course, is that Seattle and all other respectable villages where you might choose to hang your hat have lost a certain amount of the drama and the color of the “wild” West days.

But that’s all right, too. The drama and color part of life in the Old West is just as well off without the mayhem and heartache surrounding the activities targeted by that 1880s Seattle sin tax brought in, isn’t it? We can surly enjoy a good yarn or two about the color and drama of the past. But those hard times when gambling and whoring were rampant, and the violence associated with them, were not the best part of Seattle, nor of the Old West.

Now I’m stoppin’ before I cross the line and get too much into preachin’!