By Laurie Bertram
This piece was first published in the University of Toronto Magazine.
On May 23, 1889, a packed courtroom in Edmonton watched as “Big Nelly” Webb, the most famous woman in town, answered to the charge of shooting a member of the North West Mounted Police. Several months earlier, Constable Thomas Cairney had been found seriously wounded on Big Nelly’s doorstep. He survived but was injured for life, and Webb faced serious prison time if convicted. Standing before a judge and jury, Big Nelly saw a host of familiar male faces. Was she nervous? Women like Webb did not always enjoy a good relationship with the law, but she was skilled at the art of persuasion. Big Nelly was the town madam.
Very few details about Big Nelly and her brothel have survived, but we know that most women who entered the sex trade did so because of the inequalities they faced in the 19th century. Religious leaders usually assumed that women were kidnapped and forced into sex work, but the reality is that the brothel was one of the best economic options for poor women, especially young widows and single mothers, women of colour, and queer and trans women.  It’s important not to romanticize sex work during this period, but it is clear that when survival was impossible in “respectable” settler society, brothels offered access to food, medicine and money. The Canadian North West could make a woman rich if she pursued this line of work. Dozens of Ontario and American madams and workers followed news of the fortunes being made out west and journeyed there in the 1870s and 1880s.
Big Nelly was a charming younger madam who counted some of the Edmonton elite among her clients and friends. On Oct. 24, 1888 – the night of the shooting – her brothel was probably busy. There had been a dance at the local barracks of the North West Mounted Police, and brothels were known for their “after parties.” She may have been welcoming guests or pulling liquor out of the cellar when she heard the arrival of two drunk and ornery off-duty constables: Cairney and Thomas Rogers. Big Nelly, like many other madams, knew that very drunk men were bad for business. They were often rude to staff and customers, bought fewer overpriced drinks (a major money-maker at brothels) and, if they passed out, took up valuable real estate on couches and beds. They were also prone to violence.
Laurie K. Bertram is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. She teaches a seminar on the history of sex work and is working on a book about brothel economies and colonial expansion in 18th and 19th century North America.