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Hurdy Gurdy Girls Entertain Miners at Day’s End

During the heyday of the gold rush, the towns of Northern California teemed with men seeking relief from their day’s labor.  Bartenders in the numerous saloons lining the streets needed a hook to bring in business as they competed for the coin of the pleasure seekers.  Hence, the hurdy-gurdy girl was born.

The hurdy gurdy is a stringed musical instrument shaped somewhat like a woman’s derriere.  The girls entertained by singing, dancing, playing instruments, and demonstrating other talents. An ordinance passed by the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors deemed the innocent-sounding entertainment illegal. It was up to the sheriff to uphold the law.

One bar owner in South Forks who hired girls was tipped off that the law was on its way, and when the sheriff arrived to haul away the girls, none was found. After he left empty handed, the girls resumed their entertaining ways.

Hurdy-gurdy girls may not have enjoyed the same claim to infamy as their “soiled dove” counterparts, but they are a part of Wild West history and helped play a role in shaping it.

Source: Denny, Jim. Siskiyou Pioneer 6.7 (1972): 28. Print.

Lisa Gioia is the director of the Siskiyou County Museum in Yreka, California. She is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with a B.A. in anthropology (1997), a Master’s Degree in History with a minor in public history (2008) and specialized in oral histories.