Dakota Datebook

Sad Tale of a Soiled Dove

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


They were called soiled doves, fallen angels and scarlet women. In the early days of statehood, these monikers referred to the women who plied the trade of prostitution. And during the waning years of the 19th century, that trade was prosperous, conflicted, and deadly in the streets of Fargo.

On this date in 1895, The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican newspaper reported a sad tale of struggle for one of its fallen women. Readers of a story entitled “Wanted to Die” were moved by the tale of Viola Lyons, described as, (quote) “a tall, slender blonde who would be attractive except for the mark of dissipation on her face.”

Viola had fallen on bad times that would become even harsher. Abandoned by her husband, who left her to join the Salvation Army, Viola, out of desperate necessity, became a working girl at one of Fargo’s numerous brothels.

But following a quarrel with the house madam, she was forced to leave that house of ill repute. Circumstances soon found her drinking whisky in the company of a soldier at a saloon in neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota. Events transpired that led the agonized Viola into taking a debilitating dose of laudanum, a popular and dangerous narcotic that was evident throughout the great West.

Although she was aided from her narcotic stupor by a physician, she was expelled from Moorhead, back into Fargo – only to be arrested and thrown in the city jail. Behind bars and in a despondent state, Viola attempted to slit her wrists with a pen knife. When the jailers discovered the bleeding prisoner, they confiscated the knife, and it was reported that she (quote) “threw herself on the hard bench of the cell with a wail of despair and began to cry as though her heart would break.”

Historian Carroll Engelhardt notes that the Fargo Forum account was typical of others that were sympathetic to the plight of the many women who were victims of faithless men and economic circumstances.

So called purity campaigns across the country were reflected in the Fargo Moorhead area, and well intentioned community reformers campaigned to improve the lives of prostitutes and fight prejudices against them as “Irrevocably fallen.”

Ernest efforts were undertaken to provide the girls with homes, employment and religious instruction. Other noble efforts continued throughout the cities and the nation as prostitution sadly emerged as a national issue into the Progressive Era.

Yet, prostitution on the prairie remained a seemingly intractable element of a growing state.

Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark


Engelhardt, Carroll: Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the birth of Fargo and Moorhead, 2007 University of Minnesota Press

Piehl, Mark: A Bird’s Eye View of Moorhead in 1882, CCHS Newsletter (July/August 2001)


This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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