Not guilty

I’m finally getting around to reading Timothy J. Gilfoyle’s City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920, which I should have read ages ago. So far, the census of brothels is impressively synoptic, and the writing is lively. It opens, unfortunately, with a misunderstanding.

Gilfoyle writes that in 1857 William Berrian, a preacher in Trinity Church, confessed to his congregation that “during a ministry of more than fifty years I have not been in a house of ill-fame more than ten times!” (18). These do seem to be the words that Reverend Berrian spoke, as reported by the diarist George Templeton Strong. Gilfoyle thinks that Berrian was admitting to fornication. “So commonplace and central was prostitution to metropolitan life that even the philanderings of a prominent minister hardly shocked New York,” he writes.

I’m afraid Gilfoyle has made the classic anthropologist’s mistake: he hasn’t realized the natives were joking. As Gilfoyle himself observes, the diarist Strong wasn’t ruffled by the confession, and that should have been his first clue, because Strong was not a libertine. Furthermore, Strong writes that Berrian’s sermon was “without anything to offend propriety, real or conventional” (2:318). If it wasn’t an offense against even conventional propriety, let alone real propriety, for clergymen to hire prostitutes, then why had there been such uproar in the 1840s over Bishop Onderdonk, who was merely alleged to have fondled a few married women?

I suspect Berrian was playing rhetorically on the legal convention according to which proof of a brothel visit constituted proof of adultery in a divorce trial. By the suspicious codes of the secular world, his visits might have seemed sinful. But he meant just what he said: he had visited brothels fewer than ten times.

And from a rigorously Christian point of view, he should have visited them much more often. The rest of Strong’s diary entry makes this clear. “One would think the haunts of fallen women . . . exactly the place for a clergyman to work,” Strong reported. “But I suppose fear of misconstruction, honest self-distrust sometimes, a thousand conventionalities and respectabilities always, keep the door close tight.” Jesus welcomed tax collectors and harlots into the kingdom of heaven, after all. Berrian meant to urge charity in spite of suspicion. His “confession” was just a mock-outrageous hook, designed to focus his congregants’ attention, and Gilfoyle fell into exactly the misconstruction that the minister was sending up.