“Minnie Rae” (real name unknown), was a preteen prostitute who lived and worked in San Francisco, California, in the second half of the 19th Century. Her controversial life was chronicled in the book My Life as a Child Prostitute: The Autobiography of Minnie Rae (some sources indicate the book was named The Autobiography of Minnie Rae), all copies of which were apparently lost or destroyed in a book burning led by a preacher in 1880, the year Emperor Norton I died. Once copy survived and was passed down to Minnie Rae's ancestors. But this one was apparently lost sometime in the mid to late 20th century). But fragments of her life and the book survive.
Infancy and Early Childhood
“Minnie Rae” was born to a woman known only as Lacey and to a shoe worker, possibly named Adam, in 1860. Birth took place somewhere in the New England area of the United States of America, probably in or near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While Minnie Rae claimed she was born on February 22, it’s likely this date is inaccurate. It was probably taken from either George Washington’s birthday or from the New England shoe workers’ strike which began on that date. Her father had apparently participated in the 1860 strike.
Minnie Rae’s father died two years later in 1862. It’s unknown whether this was during travels to claim land made available under the Homestead Act, or if his death occurred during a Civil War battle with the Confederacy. In any case, Minnie Rae grew up in the new state of California where she was raised by her mother. Lacey also raised a son named Adam who was born in 1862, possibly while the family was traveling. It’s not know if Adam’s father ever saw his son.
Little is known of the family’s next seven years, except that Lacey was apparently very resourceful, and raised her children near the city of San Francisco, California, with little help. Minnie Rae was smart and inquisitive, and enjoyed caring for her younger brother and for the family’s animals. She especially liked milking cows. She wasn’t enthusiastic about planting, weeding and reaping crops, but readily learned to read and perform basic arithmetic.
Unfortunately, in 1868 or 1869 Lacey contacted scarlet fever and possibly rheumatic fever (rheumatic fever often accompanied scarlet fever at that time). She died in 1869, leaving Minnie Rae as an orphan. The fate of Adam is unknown.
To earn a living, Minnie Rae turned to prostitution at the age of nine. She developed physically at an early age, and by age 10 or 11 was visibly pregnant. Ironically, this made her services more popular. The only known surviving photo of her was taken during her pregnancy in 1871. In 1872 she gave birth to her only known child, a son named Bartholomew.
My Life as a Child Prostitute
Minnie Rae’s life from birth to age 12 was recorded during a series of interviews conducted by a journalist in 1871 to 1872. These weren’t published until they were collected into a book named either The Autobiography of Minnie Rae or My Life as a Child Prostitute: The Autobiography of Minnie Rae . While the book’s title claims Minnie Rae wrote it herself, this is unlikely. It’s more probable the journalist did not use his name on the work as he didn’t want to be identified as one of the girl’s clients. His identity remains a mystery.
Only a few copies of the book were published, but these proved extremely controversial. This was due not only to the book’s explicit description of the life of a 9- to 12-year-old prostitute, but also because of Minnie Rae’s opinion of her lifestyle. In the book she said she enjoyed being a prostitute, appreciated the attention and self-sufficiency she gained, and relished the income the work gave her. “I get paid to be a whore. If I married some farmer, I’d have to do it for free.”
According to those who knew her, she was a happy and very intelligent girl, and was generally well-liked. But she was not allowed to attend church. A preacher tried to convince her to repent, but she refused. Minnie Rae was quoted as saying, “If that preacher man wants me to repent, he better pay me more money.”
She was proud of her book (or at least of the interviews--it’s uncertain whether she ever saw the finished book), and would read portions of her story to anyone who would listen, including her clients. Minnie Rae also invented fairy stories, and told them to younger children. She said that her tales inspired some of the works of author Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens). While it’s possible she met Twain, he left San Francisco when she was very young, so it’s unlikely he ever heard her stories.
She did know Joshua A. Norton, who proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico.” Both lived largely on the streets of San Francisco in the early 1870s, where Norton referred to her as “The Little Countess.” She credited this “proclamation” with softening hostility against her, even with saving her life. The eccentric “Norton I” was quite popular in the prosperous city, and even had money printed for himself that area merchants accepted. He was also a major influence on the creation of the religion Discordianism, and on its first “holy book,” Principia Discordia, which proclaimed him a saint. Minnie Rae herself was proclaimed a Discordian saint in August 2006 by the Mythics of Harmonia and the Discordian Division of the Ek-sen-triks CluborGuild.
Minnie Rae was fascinated by reincarnation, which was a rare concept in America at that time. She claimed to have been a prostitute in ancient Babylon who was mentioned in the Bible, perhaps “the Whore of Babylon” who was villified in the book of Revelation. Whether she actually believed this or not is unknown.
The fate of Minnie Rae is also unknown, as she disappeared in early 1873. She may have continued working as a prostitute in another area, left the lifestyle at age 12, moved, or passed away. Even the days of her life that were recorded are little known. For her book was labeled “sinful” and “satanic,” and all known copies of it were burned. It is probable that no copies survive.
Minnie Rae’s life was fictionalized in the collection Ek-sen-trik-kuh Discordia: The Tales of Shamlicht, edited by Reverend Loveshade. In it she is continually reincarnated, and was known in ancient Babylon as a ‘born-again virgin,” or “The Harlot of the Healing Hymen.” Loveshade claims Minnie Rae and her son, Bartholomew, are his ancestors, but this is unverified.
Bullough, Vern, Bonnie Bullough. Women and Prostitution: A Social History (New Concepts in Human Sexuality), (Paperback). New York: Prometheus Books, 1987.
Cowan, Robert E. et al. The Forgotten Characters of Old San Francisco. Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1964.
Levine, Judith. Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003.
McWilliams, Peter. Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country. Los Angeles: 1996.
Rae, Minnie. My Life as a Child Prostitute: The Autobiography of Minnie Rae. San Francisco: North American Press, 1875. (Surviving fragments)