Remarkable and Sad Story of an Early Victim of Sex Trafficking

The September 3,1870 edition of the Memphis Daily Appeal carried the story of a young Southeast Missouri girl who escaped forced prostitution…twice.

The crime of sex trafficking , unfortunately, is a common place news item these days, you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon this article from the September 3, 1870 Memphis Daily Appeal newspaper which tells the story of a 16-year-old girl by the name of Mary Austin of Ripley County, Missouri.

Mary stated that her family moved to Helena, Arkansas. Shortly thereafter both of her parents died (she did not elaborate how). It was at this time that she went to work for a planter by the name of Captain Beard working in the cotton fields for a year when she met a young man whose name was Dick Austin. Mary told the Daily Appeal:

“There was a young man named Dick Austin (no kin of mine) visited me then and everyone thought he was a clever young fellow, so about two months I was married to him.”

This would have made Mary Austin at 15 years of age at the time she married (which was not necessarily uncommon at the time). Mary stated that:

“He never did anything toward supporting me from the minute we were married. On the contrary I had to work for him. I worked at a Dutch boarding house for our board for a while, and afterward I went to another boarding house and worked. He left me about a week ago and went on board of a boat on the river.

A few days after leaving to work on the boat Mary’s husband Dick sent for her with news that he had secured a job for her on the boat as well. Once aboard the boat she realized her husband had taken up with another woman and that the vessel was actually a floating house of prostitution. In short, her husband had “pimped her out”.

Mary escaped by waiting for her chance , climbing down to a skiff that was tied to the stern of the boat, cutting the rope loose and drifting aimlessly downstream during which time she was nearly ran over by a steamboat, narrowly avoiding a collision, the boat’s captain swerved to one side. As soon as it was possible a boat was lowered into the river to rescue her.

You would think this would be the end of the story but when they got to Memphis the boat’s captain told Mary’s story to a man who supplied meat to the steamboats, the vendor promised to find the young lady a boarding house to stay.

Unfortunately , after arriving Mary Austin found that the “boarding house” was a front for another house of prostitution, once again, “pimped out” by someone who promised to take care of her but Mary was brave and cunning and like the boat she had been trapped on she waited for an opportunity to escape, which came when someone rang the bell at the door.

Mary Austin fought her way free and was running down the street holding her clothing when a policeman stopped her to enquire what was the matter. After hearing her story the Chief of Police ordered the arrest of Ed Smith (the man who pimped her out the second time) and as Mary Austin stated:

“Now you know my whole story.”

– Clint Lacy is author of “Blood in the Ozarks: Expanded Second Edition” available in paperback ($15) and Kindle ($2.99)