Living History: From fancy brothels to brick-and-mortar pens
Editor's note • This is the second of two parts about Salt Lake City's old red-light district. The first was published on Dec. 2, 2012.
As early as 1857, when W.W. Drummond, a married man and associate justice of the Utah Supreme Court, introduced as his wife a strumpet he had picked up in one of the fleshpots of Washington ,D.C., prostitution had become part of Utah's frontier life.
Within several years, brothels were up and running. But it wasn't until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 that Ogden's Two-Bit Street became a beacon for prostitutes and Salt Lake City developed into a boomtown for miners and cattlemen.
With enough money to burn, there was no holding back one of life's oldest professions.
By the 1880s, working women also called crib workers, streetwalkers, ladies of the night, soiled doves or high-style prostitutes and madams tendered a robust business in Salt Lake City's downtown red-light district.
From the boisterous, cosmopolitan Commercial Street and the adjacent and dimly lit Plum Alley, to the racially segregated Franklin Avenue and the tenderloin district of Victoria Place, prostitution was illegal, tolerated and rife in the business borough's shady side.
Within a society choreographed by a subculture of prostitutes, madams, businessmen, bodyguards, politicians and unscrupulous associates, there was no dearth of customers. Eager to support the sale of sex, crowds of miners, ranchers, gentlemen in top hats and everyday Joes haunted the red-light district.
"Occasionally a female figure flits in from one of the side streets and is swallowed up in the darkness of Plum Alley," wrote a reporter in the Oct. 15, 1900, issue of The Salt Lake Tribune, "and it needs not more than one guess from the uninitiated to tell where she has gone to."
By the turn of the century, the red-light district was in full bloom.
"The orchard of Salt Lake's night life was bearing rich golden fruit, and it was easy pickings," John Held Jr. wrote in his memoirs. "Both Sodom and Gomorrah were paying high dividends."
Furious townspeople rose in protest. Police conducted raids. Street prostitutes were arrested, checked for infections and fined. But there seemed no penalty strong enough to stem the tide of prostitution.
"To make any kind of a decent living, I have to take in more than $100 a month," reported a streetwalker in the Dec. 19, 1902, issue of the Salt Lake Herald. "I can buy food and coal with it, pay my $60 room rent, pay the $10 a month required as a license [that] the police call a fine, dress myself and have spending money for cigarettes and beer."
Six years later, when the call to purge the red-light-district could no longer be ignored, Salt Lake City Mayor John S. Bransford was struck by a revelation.
Unable to "eliminate" a "necessary evil," the mayor proposed to transplant the prostitutes from the downtown commercial district and resettle them within a stockade. He hired the infamous madam Belle London, of Ogden's Electric Alley, to oversee the operation.
In December 1908, the brick-and-mortar stockade, located on 400 and 500 West between 100 South and 200 South streets, was completed. Surrounded by a 10-foot, two-door gated wall, the stockade housed 150 segregated 10-by-10-foot cribs, large brothels, boarding houses, a dance hall and saloon, tobacco shops, opium dens, restaurants and related businesses on the perimeter.
Each crib, rented nightly to workers for $3, had a door and window to call out to customers. Divided by curtains, a washstand and chair were placed in front and an enameled bed in the back.
From the start, the stockade had its own woes, "secret" entrances, corruption, bribes and deals. "Inmates" were forced to buy from company stores and reside at nearby company-owned homes. Buildings were electrically wired to warn of incoming raids. Reluctant madams and independent streetwalkers were strong-armed to transfer to the stockade or get out of town.
By 1911, the stockade closed. The red-light district survived.
Eileen Hallet Stone, an oral historian, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: "The Most of John Held Jr.," published by the Stephen Greene Press and Jeffrey Nichols' book, "Prostitution, Polygamy and Power."