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Public attitudes toward the practice were nothing like those of today; to the contrary, prostitutes in San Francisco were highly valued. Men outnumbered women by a ratio of , making female company the most treasured commodity in the city Click to Tweet. It was largely a matter of numbers: By some estimates men outnumbered them by a ratio of , making female company the most treasured commodity in the city. In fact, the majority of women living here at the time were prostitutes of one sort or another, and there was little stigma attached to the buying and selling of sex.
Syphilis was widespread, and the hazards and rigors of the job generally made for a short, unhappy lifespan. These were larger, more respectable brothels catering, naturally, to a more moneyed clientele. Enamored, the seaman plied her with gifts, and by the time she disembarked she had already amassed a small fortune. Upon landing in San Francisco, Ah Toy realized her cachet: Fearless, Toy soon became the most well-known Asian woman in the Old West , and notably, the first to successfully defend herself in our courts.
When men cheated her by paying with brass filings in place of gold, she sued them. Likewise, when unfairly targeted by city authorities caucasian women were rarely prosecuted for operating brothels at the time , she took them to court, fighting back vigorously. Hamstrung and unable to defend her interests, Ah Toy was forced to leave the business behind. She retired a wealthy woman, and though she returned to China briefly, she was soon back in California.
She died in Santa Clara County in , just shy of her th birthday. She took her surname from her first madam and mentor, a Mrs. Nina Hayman, who reportedly left Jessie the three-story brothel where she would make her fortune. A splendid place, it housed 15 lavishly furnished suites, three fireplaces and a well-stocked champagne cellar.
Her ladies also received regular medical care, something almost unheard of at the time. Business thrived, and Jessie quickly prospered, opening more locations and purchasing several tracts of land in San Francisco and elsewhere. Jessie was well-known throughout the city, and at one point was romanced by a visiting Russian Grand Duke , who sought to take her back to his country.