Landscapes of Ill Fame: Prostitution in the Turn-of-the-Century Circle City

In 1898 the Sanborn Insurance map identified a string of brothels labeled “Female Boardinghouses” on East Court Street (click for expanded view).

In 1910 the census enumerator recorded 13 households in the 500 block of East Court Street, and every address was described as a “house of ill fame.”  Houses of prostitution had existed in Indianapolis since at least the mid-19th century alongside street walkers plying what has sometimes been dubbed the “world’s oldest profession.” Thirty-eight women were living on East Court Street as prostitutes in 1910, and another 10 women were identified as keepers of houses of ill fame. The East Court Street block between East and Liberty Streets (now a parking lot) was one of the city’s most prominent red light districts at the turn of the century and part of a long commercial sex trade in the Circle City.

Prostitution probably was always an element of the early cityscape, but some of the earliest evidence for houses of prostitution comes in the 1850s.  In February, 1857, for instance, the Daily State Sentinel reported on a shooting at a house of ill fame in the “western part of the city” near the canal.  The brothel was managed by “a notorious woman” named Martha Noble, and in July, her establishment became the target of mob justice when Noble’s brothel was set afire by a mob of more than 200 people. Moral indignation was often directed at vices like prostitution, gambling, and drinking, but it rarely was acted out as impromptu justice. After Noble’s house was destroyed the city took some members of the mob to court, where witnesses testified that “the furniture was taken into the middle of the street and burnt.” Participants admitted they “understood that there was to be a cleaning out of the houses of prostitution.” The Daily State Sentinel reported that “there have been several recent demonstrations upon houses of ill fame in various parts of the city,” and the Sentinel lamented the mob justice: “it is the universal voice of all good citizens that these occurrences are becoming too frequent of late.” Nevertheless, a month later several more bordellos were attacked, and in March 1859 a group attacked another bordello only to be “driven off by the women.”

In 1863 Indianapolis passed what was perhaps its first law regulating “public decency, morality, and order,” but houses of prostitution dotted 19th and early 20th century Indianapolis.  In 1863, for example, Ann Coburn was arrested for keeping a “disorderly liquor house,” and two years later she was arrested for “keeping a house of ill fame” on North Noble Street, which lay just east of East Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Not far away, Mollie Green was arrested in 1865 for keeping a “bagnio” (one of many period terms for houses of prostitution) on New Jersey Street, one of a series of early brothels located along the eastern boundaries of the original Mile Square that was platted in 1821.

George Ellington’s 1869 study of New York City’s underworld included this image of the prostitute Cora G.

Houses of prostitution were located in nearly every reach of the city.  In 1866, for instance, Alice McDonald was arrested for managing a house of ill fame on West Market Street where the Indiana State House was built in 1888. After the Civil War, Louisa Watson managed a “sporting house” in the home she shared with husband Jehu Morris Watson facing the canal on North Missouri Street (the Senate Avenue parking garage sits there today). Louisa’s husband started the war as a drummer in the Indiana 13th Infantry, with whom he was wounded in Virginia in 1861; by war’s end he was with the Indiana 9th Cavalry serving under Eli Lilly and he ended the war as a Corporal. In 1870, his wife Louisa was one of four prostitutes living with him on North Missouri Street.  Three years later, Morris stole all of Louisa’s earnings following an argument, and a month later the Indianapolis News reported that “Morris Watson, a `dod burn’ sinner, whose wife keeps a house of prostitution on the canal, entered a plea of guilty to the charge of whipping her”; Morris only paid a fine because Louisa did not testify against him. The Watsons’ history of domestic violence continued in November when “Morris Watson cashed $26.65 to-day for indulging in the innocent pastime of larruping his wife.”

Moral crusaders would persistently take aim on houses of prostitution, including Louisa Watson’s North Missouri Street house. In September, 1874 a series of houses of prostitution near the Canal were raided by the police at the insistence of Garden Baptist Church Trustee William Powell, a neighbor who “is determined upon eradicating the evil in that neighborhood.” Formed in 1872, the church sat on Bright Street just north of New York Street (now the IUPUI campus) and was active in the temperance movement while crusading against vices in the surrounding near-Westside. Powell was subsequently attacked in the street, and Morris Watson went to Powell’s home and threatened his family. Louisa’s brothel was subsequently raided after Powell complained about Morris’ attempted intimidation, and Powell requested the Police protect his home from threatened arson; a year later prostitutes were still hounding him in the street. Meanwhile, domestic violence continued in the Watson home, where in February 1875 “Morris Watson, the beast, was fined ten dollars for whipping his wife.” The Watsons were still living in their North Missouri home in 1880, but Morris subsequently appears to have been living alone in the home, and he remarried in 1890.

A red-light district never emerged in the late-19th century near-Westside, but Watson’s house of prostitution was one of a scatter of such venues located along the Canal and through the near-Westside. For example, Elizabeth Kouble Ault was living with her husband Christopher in Kokomo in 1860, but three months after joining the Union cause in December, 1861 Christopher died in Nashville, Tennessee. Elizabeth moved to Indianapolis in 1867, and initially she settled on Minerva Street, along New York Street in the neighborhood that is now the IUPUI campus. A year later Ault appeared in the city directory as a seamstress and had moved a block away to Blake Street, where she was living at the intersection of Blake and New York Streets. She appeared in the 1870 census as a prostitute living with her 13-year-old daughter Emma; her neighbor Clara Fischel also appeared in the census as a prostitute but like Ault she was listed as a seamstress in city directories.

In the 1890s there were two “red-light” districts in Indianapolis. One was on East Court Street at the blue arrow and the other was near the intersection of Senate Avenue and Georgia Street at the red arrow (click for a full-sized image).

Ault moved to the near-Eastside in 1873, where a concentration of houses of prostitution began to emerge in the late 1870s, and these would eventually center around East Court Street by the mid-1880s. In 1873 Ault was going by Kate and managing a cigar and tobacco shop on East Washington Street between Noble and East Streets. The Washington Street store was simultaneously hawking cigars and sex for about three years. The Washington Street venue was described by the Indianapolis Journal in 1873 as an “unpretending little store” where “a woman known as Kate Ault sells tobacco and cigars, and back of a little screen, are domiciled a number of the genus `Nymph du Pave,’ who eke out a precarious existence by displaying their charms to the male visitors who may chance to patronize the house.”

“Nymph du Pave” was one of the many terms used to refer to prostitutes, and it often was reserved for street walkers, who probably were working from and in Ault’s store.  George Ellington’s 1869 study of women of New York City’s “underworld” distinguished street-walking “Nymphs du Pave” from prostitutes who worked in more stylishly appointed brothels. Ellington hyperbolically characterized the former as a “lower order” of prostitutes who “have reached despair in their career, and have abandoned themselves, soul and body, to the fate that controls them. They have no thought for the future and try to forget the past. They taste vice in its lowest forms and spend their time in dissipation.” Such street walkers also were referred to as “wandering” women; for example, in September, 1877 “two inmates of Kate Ault’s house were arraigned in the city court this morning as wandering prostitutes.” In about 1876 Ault moved her house to South Pennsylvania Street a block from the train station, and prostitutes living in Ault’s house probably were catering to customers on the streets around the train station as well as at Ault’s house.

The desperation of some women working as prostitutes was documented in a string of suicides and suicide attempts. In 1873, for instance, one of the women working as a prostitute in Ault’s bordello attempted suicide, but she was saved when physicians pumped her stomach after a morphine overdose. Two years earlier Terre Haute prostitute Jennie Hope died after an intentional overdose of morphine. Hope appeared in the 1870 Indianapolis census as a prostitute in Louisa Watson’s North Missouri Street “sporting house.” Hope had moved to Terre Haute, where she was living in a boarding house; an Indianapolis woman had opened the house four weeks earlier, and the Daily Wabash Express was certain it was being operated as a bordello.

By 1910 nearly every woman living on East Court Street was identified as a prostitute in a “house of ill fame.”

In the mid-1880s a series of newly built homes along East Court Street quickly became home to the city’s most prominent concentration of brothels. In 1884 only two houses stood on East Court Street between East and Liberty Streets, but three years later there were eight residences in the city directory. In June, 1886 an East Court Street “bagnio”was raided, and in July two street walkers were arrested on the street, providing  the first records of prostitution on East Court Street. One of the longest-lived houses was run by Nellie Ryder, who managed a house on East Court Street for 20 years. Ryder was first living there in 1887 with Emma Levering and Bessie Moore. Ryder’s husband Joseph had died in a train accident in November, 1881, and she probably began to manage a house of prostitution when she moved to the East Court Street home in 1887. Ryder’s house was raided by the police in September, 1894, and she paid a $10 fine while four women working for her paid fines between $20 and $5 and two male customers paid $10 fines. In 1900 a traveling carpet salesman committed suicide in Ryder’s resort, his pockets containing letters from his family in Scotland.

In 1887 Ryder’s neighbor Maggie Jackson was managing a “resort” (another term for a brothel).  A Cincinnati man searching for his lost wife found her working at “Maggie Jackson’s resort, on East Court street, and begged her to return home with him, but [he] was unwilling to pay $40 indebtedness which she had contracted with the Jackson woman. Finally it was arranged that she should remain where she was, while he would sue for divorce.” Carrie White’s neighboring establishment was likewise troubled by an angry husband in 1887, when a disturbance of the peace charge was brought against a husband who arrived at White’s brothel and “threw stones over the transom because his wife would not come out to see him.”

In 1915 most of the East Court residences were still identified as brothels (click for expanded view).

In the early 1890s a few working-class households were interspersed in the 500-block of East Court Street brothels, but in 1898 the Sanborn Insurance Company map of the street identified nearly every structure on the street as a “Female Boardinghouse.” At least 10 of the 16 homes in the 1899 city directory were brothels, and a few more brothels had emerged in surrounding blocks. By 1898, for instance, the 400 block of East Court Street just to the west likewise included some brothels, and at least one brothel had been established on neighboring East Street.

East Court may have been appealing for the trade because it was neighbored by heavily trafficked streets. A block south of East Court Street, East Washington Street was lined with stores and constant foot traffic by the turn of the century, and the Marion County Court House (built in 1876) sat just two blocks west. In October 1876 Belle Shannon’s house on East Washington Street was raided, with the Indianapolis News reporting that “Seventeen violators of the ill-fame law, principally garnered from the Belle Shannon ranche, on East Washington street, were pulled last night by the police, and at a late hour this forenoon the motley crew were undergoing trial in the city court. They are a hard lot, taken at best, and rejoice in such fictitious names as `Summer complaint,’ `Openbottom,’ etc.”  When John Roder’s saloon on East Washington Street applied for a liquor license in 1880 it was home to two prostitutes.

Prostitutes often worked in and around the train station. By 1880, for instance, Belle Shannon had opened a cigar and candy shop on South Street neighboring the train station, and the residents in her home included one prostitute who was certainly continuing Shannon’s East Washington Street trade. Since at least 1872 her neighbor Nellie Carney had been running a house of prostitution amidst the concentration of stores and saloons on South Street. In September 1879 “a crowd of inmates and visitors captured at Nellie Carney’s bagino [sic] on South street, plead guilty at long range.” Somebody paid court fines for the arrested women with a piece of jewelry, with the newspaper noting that “the marshal sports a magnificent cluster diamond ring, put up for $86.75 fines and costs against the girls.” A year later Carney and five other women were living at the address, and all were identified by the census enumerator as prostitutes.

In 1898 brothels were scattered along Senate Avenue and Georgia Street (click for expanded view).

A second concentration of houses of prostitution emerged around 1890 along South Mississippi Street (now known as South Senate), where the Indiana Convention Center sits today. In 1898 seven residences in the 100 block of South Senate Street were identified by Sanborn company mappers as “female boarding houses”; two more were located on adjoining West Georgia Street, and at least one more was around the corner at 308 West Maryland. These included the brothel of Fanny Wiley, which was based in several locations in the neighborhood from the 1880s until 1907. Fanny’s husband Charles St. Clair was probably first living in Indianapolis in 1882, when the Terre Haute newspaper described St. Clair’s West Market Street saloon (where the State House sits today) as “a very low-down dive of a saloon in Indianapolis, which has its principal patronage from depraved colored men. Above the saloon is a negro gambling den. It is such a place as would make a man fear for his life while in it.” After St. Clair was accused of murder in 1887, the Indianapolis Journal indicated that “St. Clair has been known as a criminal of the worst kind.” The Terre Haute Weekly Gazette had an even more damning appraisal of St. Clair, noting that “It is a pity he could not be hanged. He is a scalawag of the worst description and his being at large is a standing menace to everybody, even the thieves who train with him.”

St. Clair did indeed have a long criminal history that included a two year sentence for burglary and larceny in 1866-1868, a three year sentence in the State Prison between 1872 and 1875, and just over a year on petit larceny in 1902-1903. His wife Jennie Wynings St. Clair was managing a Terre Haute brothel in 1877, and Fanny Wiley may have been her alias. Charles sold a $1000 real estate tract in Terre Haute in September, 1882 to pay his bail on charges of conspiracy to wreck a passenger train. St. Clair was managing a saloon in Indianapolis in 1882, and he subsequently ran a host of saloons on Washington, Wabash, and West Streets.

Fanny Wiley began managing a Circle City brothel in the 1880s. The confirmation of that came in 1890, when she was sentenced to a four-and-a-half year term in the State Reformatory, convicted of holding a young woman against her will as a prostitute. Wiley lured young, mostly rural women into prostitution, including a Muncie 16-year-old. The teenager’s father found her in Wiley’s resort and returned her home, where she subsequently committed suicide and spurred the state to prosecute her. Wiley fell ill in the State Reformatory and was being held in its hospital in March, 1892 when the Reformatory burnt, sending Wiley to the City Hospital. She received a medical parole in May, 1892 so surgery could be performed on her, and while she continued to complain of complications the following April the Governor’s Office demanded she be returned to the Reformatory to serve the remainder of her sentence.

Wiley was once more running a brothel in 1898 on West Georgia Street, and she moved to South Senate in 1901. In 1902 she was again accused of entrapping young women to serve in her brothel. Two women answered ads for domestic labor positions at Wiley’s South Senate brothel, where they were provided “the regulation dress of the resort.” The women attempted to escape, but Wiley “threatened to have them arrested. … One of the threats used was that if they did not stay a letter would be written advising their folks at home of the life they were leading.” Wiley did send such a letter to their families after they escaped and went to the police, but at trial Wiley was fined just $25 for the offense after the court determined that the two young women “were disreputable characters before they entered the place.”  Wiley continued to manage a brothel and was last living on South Senate in 1907.

Women of color had been street walkers and worked in some mixed-race houses of prostitution since the mid-19th century. In 1880, for instance, a 36-year old African-American prostitute going by the name Anna Johnson was one of seven prostitutes in the brothel of Maria Mabb, who also employed two African-American servants. Maria Miller was using the alias Mabb when she came to Indianapolis from Ohio by 1867. She was managing brothels by 1873, when she was referred to as “The Queen” after providing a diamond ring to bail out five of her prostitutes. Mabb’s South East Street neighbor was Sheriff John T. Pressley, a reflection of many officials’ disinterest in prosecuting prostitution and minor vices. Mabb ran brothels throughout the city from the early 1870s until her death in 1901.

Perhaps the earliest Black brothel was located at 318 West Georgia Street. In 1910 Marie Marks’ house was home to her and three other prostitutes, all identified by the census enumerator as Mulatto, and the home had certainly been a resort since the late 19th century. Nancy Elliott had been living in the home since about 1898, almost certainly always running it as a brothel, and when a 33-year-old prostitute Lena Bethel died in the home in February, 1902 Elliott served as the informant for the death certificate. Marie Marks began running the brothel by 1907, but between 1911 and 1914 the residences along West Georgia were transformed into warehouses.

In 1896 Nellie Carney had moved her brothel from South Street to East Washington Street in a home a block from the East Court Street brothels, and by 1910 she had at least 30 years experience running brothels. In 1910 Nellie Carney was a 60-year-old widow identified in the census as a keeper of a “house of ill fame” at 538 East Court Street, one of the most spacious brothels on East Court Street. Carney had six women boarding in her home who were identified as prostitutes. These women used a range of creative aliases, but the census indicated that all but two of the women working on East Court Street were born in the US: one woman working at the house of “Fannie Sells” was a Russian Jew, and Bell West’s house at 518 East Court included one English-born prostitute. Twenty-two of the 38 women identified as prostitutes indicated they had children, but none of their children were living with them on East Court Street in 1910.

The prostitutes on East Court Street came under fire from a new wave of moral crusaders in the years before World War I. For instance, Mollie Grant (also known as Mollie Rife or Mollie Reife) ran a brothel in the 400 block of East Court Street as early as 1904. In October, 1911 Dollie Gaw brought charges against Grant and a woman named Wayne Leslie, accusing them of kidnapping her when she was 16 and holding her against her will in their Indianapolis resorts. Gaw alleged that Grant held Gaw for four years in Grant’s East Court Street brothel, indicating that her clothing was taken from her and the other women to prevent escape, and those who attempted to leave were beaten severely. Nevertheless, the court decided in favor of Grant.

In 1912 the Church Federation of Indianapolis lobbied for more strict enforcement of prostitution laws, part of a perpetual cycle of moral indignation vented against prostitution, alcohol, and nearly every public leisure. City leaders would often reply to such complaints in the short term, and by July the Police Chief reported to the Indianapolis Star that “23 resorts have been vacated since January 1.” In April, 1914 an Indianapolis judge intent on intensifying the pressure on prostitutes provided the Indianapolis News with a list of the names of women running houses of prostitution and the owners of those properties, and the Church Federation lobbied successfully for a red light abatement law. In February, 1916, the red light law was invoked to file suits against 14 resorts, including those of Mollie Grant and her daughter Myrtle Burkhardt as well as five other East Court Street brothels. Grant was again raided in April, 1916, when she received yet another fine for managing the house on East Court Street.

An African-American maid in Grant’s East Court Street house, Beatrice Rink, was arrested after the April, 1916 raid, and she testified that police frequented the house on a regular basis. Consequently, it should not have been a surprise when officers John Gaughan and Herbert Smutte were found at 538 East Court Street during an August raid. The embarrassing arrest of the police officers in Grant’s house once again heightened prosecutors’ and moral crusaders’ efforts to step up policing of prostitution. In December 1916 11 women were arrested for running houses of prostitution, including four properties on East Court Street (one managed by Grant’s daughter Myrtle), two on East Market Street, and another on the Adelaide Street alley in the 400 block of East Court Street. On South Senate, Wanda Stone, Della Kimble, and Dee Bridges were also arrested. In February 1917 Gaughan and Smutte were found guilty of neglecting their duties by ignoring the prostitution on East Court Street, and they were each fined $300 and sentenced to three months prison sentences. However, the state Supreme Court repealed their sentence in January, 1918, and Gaughan continued to serve as a police officer into the 1940s.

Surveillance along East Court Street had already begun to empty the houses of prostitution by 1916, when eight brothels neighbored eight vacant structures. In 1920 Myrtle Burkhardt still was living on East Court Street, and in August, 1920 two African-American brothel keepers were arrested on East Court. In June, 1939 a woman was arrested for keeping a house of prostitution in the 600 block of East Court Street, but by that point most of the trade had moved to other neighborhoods. Today East Court Street is a parking lot and South Senate has been erased by the Indiana Convention Center, but for nearly a half-century East Court Street and South Senate were the center for a longstanding prostitution trade.

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