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Do 'hookers' owe their moniker to a Civil War general?

Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was one of the many commanders that Abraham Lincoln had to replace before finding the right person to lead the Union army. While Hooker lacks the historical gravitas of Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman or Philip Sheridan, he has a special place in military lore as the alleged namesake of a term for women of ill repute.

Even The Rumor Doctor has heard that Hooker allegedly allowed his troops to consort with prostitutes, hence the term “hooker.”  But where does the lore end and the truth begin?

Finding reputable experts who could talk about prostitution posed some challenges for The Rumor Doctor. It’s not like The Doctor can ask someone, “You sir: You seem like someone who knows a thing or two about prostitutes; can you answer a question for me?”

So The Doctor turned to an ancient solution: The dictionary. It indicates that the term might be a reference to Corlear’s Hook, a New York City neighborhood, “whose brothels were frequented by sailors.”

Decades before the Civil War, the neighborhood was well known as a place where prostitutes brazenly solicited workers and passers-by, according to the book “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898” by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace.

“So notorious was the Hook's reputation as a site for prostitution that (according to one theory) the local sex workers were nicknamed ‘Hookers,’ generating a new moniker for the entire trade,” according to the book.

But Fighting Joe is not entirely off the hook, said Rob Dalessandro, of the U.S. Army Center for Military History at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.

The term might have predated Hooker, but the general made it more popular by throwing parties attended by “fallen doves,” as prostitutes were also known at the time, Dalessandro said. In fact, the Civil War historian noted that a large red-light district in Washington became known as “Hooker’s Division.”

“Additionally, soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, the Federal Army operating in the east in which Hooker served, quickly named the hordes of female camp followers that plied their trade on young and often naive soldiers, ‘Hooker's Legions,’ ” Dalessandro wrote in an email.

Hooker did contribute to the evolution of the term, said Richard L. Baker, of the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pa.

“We see the evolution and adoption of a word varies over time and by association with different groups of peoples,” Baker wrote in an email. “We can credit General Hooker and the Union Soldiers with adding to the continuity of the term in present form as such,  meaning a ‘prostitute’ or hooker or streetwalker or floozy … oh you get the point!”

THE RUMOR DOCTOR’S DIAGNOSIS:   The lore about “Fighting Joe” Hooker is partially true. He might not be the progenitor of the term “hooker,” but he certainly helped it become more widely known. Without him, rap artists would have spent years trying to find words that rhyme with “fallen doves.”

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