Sam McManis

Discoveries: A hidden wonder and some racy tales

In a moment, we will turn over control of today's column to Miss Odessa, the delightful dowager docent of Old Sacramento, the prim and proper queen of the underground tours, the self-styled Southern belle transplant with just a bit of a gossipy streak.

"Not gossip, honey," she says, taking a sharp intake of breath as her heavily rouged face turns even more crimson. (Or maybe it was that her corset was laced too tightly.) "I just view it as the truth people don't want to talk about."

We have come a-calling on Miss Odessa because, on April 28, she will be the hostess of a special "adults-only" evening tour of the racier hangouts of Sacramento's storied underground as part of "Obscura Day," described as an international celebration of unusual places and hidden wonders.

Visitors can catch Miss Odessa – she does get around, folks, having "been married three times and buried four husbands" – and other rascally characters (Shawn the Irish immigrant and Sheriff George Lee, to name two) all spring and summer at Old Sac's underground tours.

But "Obscura Day" duties fall squarely on the perfumed shoulders of Miss Odessa, a hidden wonder in her own right. She'll turn 201 in July and looks well preserved. In fact, she doesn't look a day over 51. Must be all that clean living, church-going and wonderful storytelling.

Miss Odessa can dish with the best. She's the mistress of mongering, a seasoned shoveler of scuttlebutt. Want to know about the brothels of Gold Rush Sacramento and the fallen women who plied their trade therein? Miss Odessa gets down in the dirt underground and leaves no stone (or artifact) unturned.

Sure, sure. Miss Odessa also is well versed in Sacramento's historic 15-year street-raising project to avoid flooding and all the toil that involved. But we want to know about the prostitutes, whom Miss Odessa delicately calls "ladies of the evening." And, with her accent as thick as peach syrup, Miss Odessa delivers.

"Now, within these buildings, there were many professional ladies," she says, stepping into the subterranean chambers underneath the Hall Luhrs & Co. building. "Women closest to the river, when they registered an occupation, over 30 percent listed 'professional lady.' Of that, 80 percent were of a foreign birth. So, honey, we had women coming from all over the world to Sacramento to, well, start a new life in the oldest profession.

"Also, there were women who listed themselves as 'laundresses' and 'seamstresses.' Those were aliases for working gals. So the number was much higher than would show on a census, all right now? We had a lot of dirty laundry here and lots of things needed mending, apparently."

Why so many?

"Politicians, of course!" she exclaimed, then pursed her lips. "In the 1850s, there were 10 men for every one woman in town. As a gal, you had pretty good odds on who you'd pick and what your price could be. Now, you could be a proper lady like myself and go for weeks without seeing another proper lady. Hmm, hmm. You could see plenty of improper ladies if you looked hard enough.

"One of the clues that women occupied these spaces are the artifacts. These, um, gentlemen were living in shanty structures. They didn't have fine china. They didn't have pipes and champagne glasses or nice candlesticks. These women would have these items in their 'homes,' shall we say, when they're entertaining their gentlemen callers. We found all of these items in this location and it shows their lifestyle."

Well, didn't "proper ladies" smoke or drink, too?

"Not in public, sugar. My ol' Aunt Netti dipped, I have to say. It was very nerve-racking when she carried that can around, fearing someone would knock it over."

Did she chew tobacco for medicinal purposes?

"No, she just liked it. Her husband drank the 'shine, so she needed something to get by. Now, about these working gals: We called them Painted Doves, Painted Cats, Calico Queens and my personal favorite, Horizontal Experts."

Weren't you an expert, what with three husbands?

"I need to address that. When I arrived in Sacramento, true, I had been married three times and buried four husbands. But you see, a person can make mistakes. My second husband was a loud and slovenly man, getting on to drinking. I came home from a church meeting one day and he didn't move when I poked him with a stick. I assumed he'd moved on over to Jesus. Buried him in the family plot but gave him a bell to ring just in case. Five hours later, when he sobered up, he was a bit angry, but I made him a fried chicken dinner.

"I arrived here at a perfect time when they were bringing proper ladies in to meet with gentlemen. They tried to have a document to state how ladies should behave in Sacramento: Don't make noise in public. Don't tramp on the sidewalk. The proper length for your dress. Don't draw attention to yourself. They were just trying to keep us in the kitchen, you hear me? We chose to ignore it or pretend we couldn't read."

But back to those strumpets, Miss Odessa ...

"Yes! Miss Johanna Hiegle. I gotta talk a little about her. She was German and she was – well, my friend Bessie saw this; I was at church. Miss Hiegle runs down the street one summer night after a gentlemen caller. She was using inappropriate language. She was fined 10 dollars for her colorful language and 40 dollars for her lack of garments."

Not even a petticoat?

"I'll just say this, honey. She was charging him and giving everyone else a free show."

Miss Odessa sadly ends her show after an hour. After shaking free of her bustle, she re-emerges as one Jane Hastings – performer, visual artist and art teacher who has played her alter ego for tourists the past three years.

Should you want to acquire her services, well, the usual tour admission price is $15 – if you're a consenting adult.