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In Another Time
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The Oldest Profession's Sordid Past in Utah
Hal Schindler
Published: published Category: category Page: page

In every populated area since the beginning of recorded history--and Salt Lake City, high-toned protestations to the contrary, is no different--there have always been "ladies of the night." Like Manhattan's Tenderloin district, Baltimore's War Zone, and San Francisco's Barbary Coast, Ogden struggled with its notorious Twenty-fifth Street while Salt Lake City blushed over its own red light district on Commercial Street and later at the Stockade.

If, in fact, the only difference between amateur and professional standing in matters of the flesh is money, then Utah's problems in this regard did not exist until a decade after Brigham Young pronounced Salt Lake Valley "the place." The first brothels appeared near Camp Floyd (forty miles southwest of Salt Lake City) in Utah County in 1858, where elements of the U.S. Army were based after the Utah Expedition had ended that year.

But W.W. Drummond, associate justice of the Supreme Court of Utah, earns the dishonor of having imported the first known prostitute to Zion. This redheaded scoundrel managed to finagle a federal appointment out of President Franklin Pierce. Drummond then abandoned his wife and children in Oquawka, Illinois and took up with a Washington, D.C. harlot. He traveled with her to Salt Lake City and introduced her not as Ada Carroll from the fleshpots of Washington, but as "Mrs. Justice Drummond."

She shared a seat on the court bench with Drummond, occasionally nudging him on the knee, it was said, to indicate the number of years he ought to mete out to miscreants before the bar of justice. At the same time, Drummond would unburden himself of tirades against "the deplorable Mormon practice of plural wifery." The Mormons finally caught on and Drummond fled the territory in disgrace.

After the arrival of U.S. troops under the command of Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston in 1857, the whole tone of life along what we know as the Wasatch Front changed dramatically. Brigham Young's grip on the community was broken and the outside influences he feared made the most of the fracture. Saloons operated in Salt Lake City (Ogden wasn't a problem as yet), and the stretch of road below Second South on Main Street became known as Whiskey Street. Brothels and gambling dens flourished in Frogtown, east across the creek from Camp Floyd, and did a brisk business among the several thousand troops stationed there. (Frogtown later became Fairfield.)

In the ensuing years-especially after the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory in 1869-ladies of the evening came in droves (perhaps gracing Ogden's streets for the first time in numbers). During the Civil War, camp followers of General Joe Hooker did their part to help the war effort so vigorously they earned a new nickname. "Hookers" found their way to border towns, frontier towns, cattle towns, and larger settlements out West. In Utah they chose the railroad towns. Places like Corinne in Box Elder County reared back and roared in counterpoint to Salt Lake City.

The Utah capital became headquarters for women like Lou Wallace and Kate Flint. And they earned a certain social standing in the community (although that's probably a geometric contradiction). When Brigham Young's property was seized to settle court-ordered alimony to Ann Eliza Young, his divorced plural wife, the Salt Lake Tribune gossiped in its "City Jottings" column on November 2, 1876, "It was rumored yesterday, that Mrs. Catherine Flint had purchased Brigham's closed carriage, and would have his coat of arms erased and her own substituted." A description of Kate's coat of arms was not included.

When a baseball game between the hometown Deserets and the visiting Cincinnati Red Stockings was arranged in September 1878, with receipts to be divided by the players, the Salt Lake Herald sniffed, "The highest price given for a ticket was $25--[paid by] Lou Wallace, a well known courtesan. She bought three others paying the regular price of  $1 for each."

Then there was the important community leader and businessman who in March 1885 lamented in his diaries, held by the Utah State Historical Society, that his brother had been lost beyond redemption to one of the city's madams. The brother was somewhere in town on a binge, and the businessman searched frantically for him, fearing for his life. "The horrible information I obtained was that he was in Kate Flint's establishment and that his associations with that notorious prostitute are well known to several police officers. He has been drinking deeply and spending money very lavishly on fast women. Some of his suppers are said to have cost him $35." (Bear in mind that in 1885 an excellent dinner in a fine restaurant could be had for under $3.)

At the annual conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1886, the crime rate in Salt Lake City came under attack at a time when the Church was being blitzed by anti-polygamy laws and accused of perverting the nation's morals. "There are now in the city some six brothels, forty tap rooms, a number of gambling houses, pool tables, and other disreputable concerns, all run by non Mormons," according to a report in the Deseret News.

As the century rounded the corner, Salt Lake City became more "citified," as the crossroads of the West, but progress did not come without hefty baggage. Newspaper accounts help fill in the story of the city's fight against vice and corruption, but for a firsthand look at those wicked years, one must turn to a reminiscence by one of Utah's most famous sons, John Held Jr. In 1905, Held, at the tender age of sixteen, became a sports illustrator and cartoonist for the Salt Lake Tribune. He and another fuzzy-cheeked youngster, Harold Wallace Ross, were destined for greatness. Ross joined the Tribune as a cub reporter and went on to found the New Yorker magazine, while Held would document America's Jazz Age, illustrating the wacky world of "shieks" and "flappers" during the Roaring Twenties.

The genius that was John Held Jr.--"the Mormon Kid" to his close friends--also left a chronicle of memories of his youth in Salt Lake City, describing that period better than any newspaper story. From the book, The Most of John Held Jr., his voice reaches out over decades to paint an anecdotal image of Commercial Street and the Stockade from--ahem--personal experience.

"In those days," he writes, "the hot spots of Salt Lake were located in a tidy manner on a street that ran between 1st and 2nd South and Main and State." Then it was known as Commercial, today it is Regent Street. "Within the street were saloons, cafes, parlor houses, and cribs [small cubicles] that were rented nightly to the itinerant Ladies of the Calling. It was against the rules to solicit, so these soiled doves would sit at the top of the stairs and coo their invitation to, 'C'mon up, kid.'"

Held was acquainted with the bawdy houses and parlor houses, too. The latter because his uncle earned a tidy sum installing electric bells in these "abodes of pastime." John Jr. remembered the names of two particular madams clearly, for their calling cards were printed to order at his father's engraving shop. "One of the madams called herself Miss Ada Wilson. Hers was a lavish house on Commercial Street. Another gave her name as Miss Helen Blazes. Her establishment catered to the big money and in it only wine was served. In other houses, beer was the popular refreshment--at one dollar a bottle, served to the guests in small whiskey glasses. These were mere token drinks, on which the house made a good substantial profit."

Although Held doesn't mention it, one of the prevailing stories of the period is that patrons of that "establishment" delighted in boasting they'd gone to "Hell 'n Blazes." His introduction to these places, Held said, was purely social, as a guest of his uncle, his mentor. "I was then around 15 years old, and after a few dances and light beers, was one sick pigeon. So my baptism in the fleshpots was a dim grey puling celebration."

About that time came a hue and cry to "clean up the city." The year was 1908 and Mayor John S. Bransford was struck with the notion that prostitution was an evil that could not be eliminated, so it might as well be controlled. His idea was to move all the "fallen women" in town to a restricted area less convenient to the downtown trade and away from the city proper. The Tribune speculated that Commercial Street would be cleansed because of two prevailing factors: the front windows of the new Wilson Hotel on the south side of Second South looked out upon the tenderloin district, and the management realized such a view was not conducive to the prosperity of a swell hostelry. Second, property owners had agreed to transform the street, even at a financial loss to themselves. It was well known that no class of tenant paid a higher rental than prostitutes. But, the newspaper explained, the ownership has been a serious "embarrassment" to the LDS Church in its campaign against Sunday saloons and other forms of vice.

So when Mayor Bransford sprang his announcement to the city council and others that he planned to establish a red light district on the west side of town, it surprised no one. The citizenry was somewhat nonplussed, to be sure, when he also announced he was putting a professional in charge of the relocation. His choice was Mrs. Dora B. Topham, known to the denizens of Ogden's "Two-Bit Street" as the notorious Belle London. Madam Belle London, if you please. Block 64, a piece of property bordered by First and Second South and by Fifth and Sixth West, was to be the site. And at an investment of from $200,000 to $300,000 at remarkably inflated prices, the Stockade was constructed. The girls were told they didn't have to live in the Stockade, but if they were caught doing business anywhere else in the city, "things would be made most unpleasant for them."

Councilman L.D. margin succinctly stated in case: "From the outside of the stockade nothing can be seen of the movements within, and the offensive sights which have greeted passers-by in the neighborhood of Commercial Street will be absent. There will be but two entrances to the stockade and there will be a policeman on duty day or night at both gates.

The inmates will be under thorough control. At present the city is in a terrible condition. The women have been allowed to go from Commercial Street into the residence districts, and I know of one disorderly house right on Brigham Street [South Temple] and tow others on East Third South."

Workmen finished the crib rows in brick and mortar and soon a hundred or more prostitutes of every color and nationality took up residence. On December 18, 1908, the word went out to extinguish the red lights on Commercial Street. The two gates of the new bordello village made visits potentially embarrassing for former patrons of Commercial Street cribs. John Held Jr. recalled that there were several secret openings in the walled enclosure, "known to the inmates and most of the incorrigible young males of the fair city."

According to John S. McCormick, writing in the Utah Historical Quarterly, Belle London rented the cribs to prostitutes for from one to four dollars a day. Each crib was ten-feet square, with a door and window in the front. Soliciting was carried on from the windows. Reported the Deseret News: "At the windows, only two feet above the sidewalk, sits the painted denizen of the underworld calling to passers between puffs on her cigaret" A curtain or partition divided the interior of the crib. In front might be a chair or two and a combination bureau-washstand. At the back was a white enameled iron bed. Business more on a bedsheet that a shoestring. Prospective patrons strolled the sidewalks between rows of cribs on either side and thus made their selections from various women proclaiming their attributes. This shopping ritual was called "going down the line." The half-dozen parlor houses, according to McCormick, were larger structures renting from Belle London for $175 a month. The six or so women in each house split their earnings with their madam.

The Stockade operated for three years before Belle London called it quits. She had been convicted of "inducing Dogney Grey, aged 16 years, to enter the stockade for immoral purposes." At noon on September 28, 1911, she turned out the red lights. The Stockade was torn down to rubble. It was the end of an era and authorities no longer looked the other way.

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