One summer night in Lower Manhattan in 1871, twelve-year-old Moth is pulled from her bed and sold as a servant to a finely dressed woman. Knowing that her mother is so close while she is locked away in servitude, Moth bides her time until she can escape, only to find her old home deserted and her mother gone without a trace. Moth must struggle to survive alone in the murky world of the Bowery, a wild and lawless enclave filled with thieves, beggars, sideshow freaks, and prostitutes.
She eventually meets Miss Everett, the proprietress of an "Infant School," a brothel that caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for "willing and clean" companions--desirable young virgins like Moth. She also finds friendship with Dr. Sadie, a female physician struggling against the powerful forces of injustice. The doctor hopes to protect Moth from falling prey to a terrible myth known as the "virgin cure"--the tragic belief that deflowering a "fresh maid" can cleanse the blood and heal men afflicted with syphilis--which has destroyed the lives of other Bowery girls.
Ignored by society and unprotected by the law, Moth dreams of independence. But there's a high price to pay for freedom, and no one knows that better than a girl from Chrystie Street.