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Living history: Utah had its share of ladies of the night

Published December 1, 2012 6:48 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As early as 1857, when W.W. Drummond, a family man and an associate justice of the Utah Supreme Court, brought his strumpet Ada Carroll to work introducing her as Mrs. Justice Drummond, prostitution has been part of Utah's frontier life.

Drummond met Ada while trolling the fleshpots of Washington, D.C. Abandoning his wife and children, he was eventually exposed and expelled for his scandalous behavior. But within a year, several brothels were already up and running near Camp Floyd, the short-lived garrison in Utah County, and after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, there was no holding back one of life's oldest professions.

Whether they were called prostitutes, ladies of the night or of the calling, or simply soiled doves, by the 1870s they tendered a robust business in the red-light district of Commercial Street in downtown Salt Lake City. Located between 100 South and 200 South from Main to State streets, parlor houses and cribs stretched out among legitimate businesses, tobacco shops, liquor stores, saloons and cafes. Second-story rooms over these enterprises were rented out nightly to prostitutes who would sit on the stairway and invite potential clients to "come up and visit."

In refined parlor houses run by madams, however, there were no displays of public solicitation. One rang an electric bell for admission, was greeted by a well-tailored attendant and escorted into an elegant room dressed in plush red fabrics, draperies and gilded mirrors.

John Held Jr. worked as a newspaper cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune and moved to the East Coast, where he gained national recognition for his illustrations and block prints depicting America's Jazz Age, the flapper period and even the Gibson Girls. Held had a chance to glimpse Salt Lake City's "nocturnal civilization" while accompanying his uncle on calls to repair gambling machines and install the electric bells.

"It was said that the elegance of these palaces surpassed the lavishness of even New Orleans," wrote Held in published memoirs. "This was probably hearsay, as a gold or silver miner's or a cattle or sheep man's idea of elegance was moot in the extreme."

Ada Wilson, one of the city's earliest madams, operated a luxurious parlor house including a "professor" and his piano in the drawing room. She also took daily rides in a splendid, hackney-drawn dogcart. Helen Blazes, a more conservative madam, accommodated the wealthy and served only wine at her establishment.

Clients paid dearly for Catherine Flint's prostitutes, food and entertainment. Doggedly working her way into "society," the courtesan paid close attention when items of Brigham Young's property were seized during the divorce settlement between the LDS leader and his plural wife, Ann Eliza.

In the Nov. 2, 1876, issue of The Tribune, the "City Jottings" column reported, "It was rumored yesterday that Mrs. Catherine Flint had purchased Brigham's close[d] carriage, and would have his coat of arms erased, and her own substituted."

Business was business, and many madams carried engraved calling cards printed by the Held Engraving Co. John Held, affectionately called the "Mormon Kid," reported the madams demanded of his family's print shop "the finest and most expensive engraving" on the best vellum stock. These cards were smaller than the social standard and difficult to produce by hand from a copper plate. But the run was long, "the money was fresh and there was no quibbling about price."

By 1886, Salt Lake City was a lively boomtown. An estimated six brothels, a series of one-night cribs, and numerous saloons and gambling houses inundated the area and so infuriated the townspeople that they rose in protest. Police conducted raids. Clients fled. Prostitutes were arrested, checked for infections and fined.

It wasn't enough.

By 1908, historian Harold Schindler wrote, "There came a hue and cry to 'clean up the city,' " and the idea of the "Stockade" came into existence. Out of sight. Out of mind. Still in business.

Eileen Hallet Stone, an oral historian, may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com.

Sources: Harold Schindler's "The Oldest Profession's Sordid Past in Utah" and "The Most of John Held Jr.," published by the Stephen Greene Press, 1972.