A number of people have argued that since prostitution was illegal, and Palfrey knew she was risking jail, I have no right to be indignant that she got caught, and sentenced to jail, and then killed herself rather than take her sentence like a man. Or rather, like a man would take it if men got sentenced to jail for their involvement with the prostitution industry.
They have further argued that "rage" is not the proper response to the illegality of something that a majority of my fellow citizens think should be illegal.
I just can't accept that. Would I apply the same logic to economic crimes in the Soviet Union, ca. 1925? Would I say of a shop owner who killed himself rather than face the gulag, "Well, you can't blame the state--he knew the risks when he started buying and selling for profit."
No, because I don't recognize the state's right to criminalize trade--more deeply, I don't recognize the right of the state to interfere in voluntary transactions between consenting adults that do not directly and concretely harm a third party. Not harm as in "Comrade Bakunin needs many more customers at his state store", but harm as in "The poison is leaching onto the property next door."
When an unjust law makes someone's life so unendurable that they end it, I lay much of the responsibility at the foot of the law, the system that contributed. Yes, clinical depression is complicated. But suicide very often has a traumatic trigger, and it's pretty clear that the trigger here was the unnecessary prosecution of a woman who wasn't doing anything the government had any business interfering with. I can understand perfectly the complaint that you don't want a brothel in your neighborhood--but that's a zoning problem, and anyway, she was running a call girl ring. The finer hotels in our nation's capitol have not been noticeably degraded by the presence of the occasional young and improbably well dressed woman tapping discreetly at the doors to a few of their rooms.
And I really can't accept the notion that I'm not entitled to be enraged at a law that a majority support. First of all, I reserve the right to be enraged when the paper boy drops my newspaper on the steps instead of the vestibule and passersby steal it. And second of all, I think that there are a lot of sorts of laws that don't become more just because a majority likes them. Slavery was not okay because a majority of southerners supported it. Imprisoning small traders was not okay because a majority of Soviet Russians hated them. Etc. I don't think that anti-prostitution laws are on the same level of injustice as slavery--but I do think that they are among the things the state has no business interfering in. Especially when it is discreet and out of the public eye, as this woman's business was. Her employees were not exploited streetwalkers, and she was not a pimp beating them up for their cash. Nor were they bothering anyone who didn't want to employ a prostitute.
Don't get me wrong--I take a very dim view of married men who consort with prostitutes, and mere words are inadequate to describe what would follow if I found out my husband had done so. But I certainly wouldn't blame the prostitute, nor think that she should be arrested while my husband got out of jail. Nor would I think that the real problem lay, not in my jerk of an imaginary husband, but in the state's failure to adequately police the prostitution industry.