FARGO — Sometimes a woman from the past can haunt a person. Not a ghost. Just a real person whose story is so captivating and unusual that it has to be explored, unraveled, put back together piece by piece.

That's what Melvina Massey is to Angela Smith, an associate professor of history at North Dakota State University. Massey's story first emerged as a frequent entry in district court arrest records, and Smith's museum studies students were curious, so they dove deeper. Massey's story about being a Black brothel owner of the Crystal Palace in Fargo during the late 1800s and early 1900s was featured in a historical documentary called "Fargo's Most Notable Madam" that aired in 2013.

Massey's story is one aspect a new book called "Historical Sex Work: New Contributions from History and Archaeology" edited by Smith, anthropology professor Kristen R. Fellows and University of Jamestown director of assessment Anna M. Munns.

The book explores the sex trade in America from 1850 to 1920 in several different cities and by a variety of topics such as race, motherhood and men through an interdisciplinary collaboration. Smith explained Fellows drove the book project and was able to draw other researchers to contribute to the volume.

"I'm proud of the book and the work we've done," Smith said. "This book is meant to start a conversation between historians and archaeologists and bring those fields together."

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"Historical Sex Work" is published by the University Press of Florida.
"Historical Sex Work" is published by the University Press of Florida.

As a public historian, Smith focused on the biographical details of Massey's life, trying to fill gaps in the woman's story without making assumptions based on the concrete pieces of information available.

"There are big holes, and I don't feel comfortable making big leaps," Smith said. "I'm reticent to go too far. But we know where she came from and where she got to."

Massey came from Virginia; she was born around 1838 in Loudoun County northwest of Washington, D.C., most likely as a slave; Smith writes that the Massey family does not appear as "free colored" in the 1860 census records. Massey married a man named James Gray in 1852, likely another slave, though their union was sanctioned in 1867, according to the post Civil War Freedmen's Bureau. The pair had a son, Henry, who was raised by Massey's father Edward in the Falls Church, Va., area.

By 1891, Massey had arrived in Fargo in Dakota Territory and purchased a large lot along the Red River for $200, but it burned down the next year. In 1893, she married a man named Charles Henry in St. Paul, a marriage officiated by a former slave and Baptist minister named Robert Hickman and witnessed by two other people, possibly Massey's friends, Smith writes. By September, Massey was back in Fargo running her "house of ill repute."

Massey's Crystal Palace became a confounding fixture, both a significant stream of revenue for the city and a source of consternation for the highly conservative community. Owners such as Massey regularly paid their fines but often battled certain efforts by organizations seeking to shut down the businesses; Massey herself landed in the state penitentiary in Bismarck in 1901 for illegally selling alcohol at her establishment, but she was released on good behavior and returned to her work in Fargo.

She died in 1911 after a bout with bad health and finally losing her business to the city; her obituary was featured prominently in the Fargo Forum.

Melvina Massey's obituary from the Fargo Forum
Melvina Massey's obituary from the Fargo Forum
"She navigated the intense social, cultural, political and economic changes that occurred over the course of her life and left behind a rich legacy of her presence in newspaper, court and land records," Smith writes.

In addition, Fellows analyzed Massey's brothel through the probate record of items found within it; she writes that the upscale nature of the dwelling indicated Massey was trying to emulate a Victorian home where her male clients would feel comfortable and suggested she had spent time in larger cities homes to high-end brothels.

"The material culture as laid out in the probate inventory indicates that Massey's brothel was no dive," Fellows writes.

In 2017, when the new Fargo city hall was being built, Fellows and Smith worked with the city and construction crew on an archaeological salvage project meant to collect items from the site of the long-gone Crystal Palace; while many items were found during the dig, a full analysis is still to be completed. The dig was possible because the Crystal Palace had a basement, so even though the main and second floor were razed, the basement was simply filled in and covered by a parking lot, Smith explained.

Considering everything Massey accomplished, not only during her time in Fargo but throughout her entire life, Smith would love to see her commemorated in some way in downtown Fargo, possibly with a marker near where the Crystal Palace once stood.

"Her ingenuity was amazing," Smith said, who unabashedly shares her admiration for a woman who died in Fargo more than a century ago, yet whose story of survival and success continues to fascinate people today.