Civil War Buzzkillers have been after me for months and months to put this commonly-heard legend to rest. To put it to bed, so to speak! So here goes.
Union General Joseph (“Fightin’ Joe”) Hooker was one of the most fascinating generals of the American Civil War. (And that was a war with some real characters, Buzzkillers.) He had a reputation (almost certainly exaggerated) as a hard drinker with a fondness for partying with women, even around military encampments. And he was also reportedly very popular with his men because he didn’t crack the whip in terms of discipline and military correctness.
He was even more popular with his men, so the stories go, because bands of prostitutes (called “Hooker’s Brigade” or “General Hooker’s Army”) followed his battalions and helped the men relax after a hard day on the battlefield. There’s even an oft-repeated story that a red-light section of wartime Washington DC near to where Hooker and his men were stationed was known as “Hooker’s Division.”
These stories became so common that they’ve spawned a famous myth — that Fightin’ Joe’s last name was the origin of the slang term for a prostitute — a hooker. “Hookers” supposedly followed their namesake throughout the Civil War and, unfortunately for his otherwise, um, chaste reputation, that myth has stuck.
We know that this is a myth because the slang term “hooker” in American English was used to refer to a prostitute at least as early as 1845. And in 1845 young Fightin’ Joey was just a staff officer during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and probably didn’t have the nerve to surround himself with swarms of prostitutes. Further, there’s some evidence that “hooker” was in use as early as 1835. That year, The New York Transcript (a popular newsheet at the time) referred to a police court hearing in which a prostitute was called “a hooker” because “she hangs around the hook.” “The hook” in this case was Corlear’s Hook, the sharply curved shoreline on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Further reference for this comes from John Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, published in 1859, before the Civil War started. Bartlett’s dictionary defined a “hooker” as being a prostitute such as those patronized by sailors at Corlear’s Hook, the area where there were a “number of houses of ill-fame frequented by sailors.”
So there’s very strong evidence from multiple sources that “hooker” for “prostitute” was in use well before the outbreak of the Civil War. It wouldn’t be at all surprising that soldiers and others might have made the obvious connection between Hooker’s last name and the existence of prostitutes in and around Union army encampments during the Civil War, and that they made jokes about it. But Fightin’ Joe’s family name was not the origin of the slang term “hooker.”
You knew deep down it was too good to be true. Right, Buzzkillers?
Norman Ellsworth Eliason, Tarheel talk: An historical study of the English language in North Carolina to 1860 (1956).
John Russell Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms (1859).