The Madame Years
Our City's Brief Embrace of "The Social Evil"
Illustration by Danny Elchert
“The young fellows liked the house and liked the city; it seemed to them a mighty free and hospitable town … in front of some of the hotels and saloons the sidewalks were filled with chairs and benches—Paris fashion, said Harry—upon which people lounged in these warm spring evenings, smoking, always smoking; and the clink of glasses and of billiard balls was in the air. It was delightful.” —The Gilded Age, by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, 1873
What Twain and his friend Warner chose not to mention in their epic satirical novel, which defined and gave name to an era, was that downtown St. Louis, booming in the final years of the steamboat age, was like Paris in another way: It was swarming with prostitutes.
They ranged from the elegantly bustled, well-bathed, well-fed, well-doctored young women who worked for Kate Clark or Lizzie Saville in their substantial mansions at downtown’s edge, to the unfortunate Irish, Italian and African-American girls, diseased or soon to be, who lay down in the slums. Those women could be found in what Twain once described as “the immemorial mile of cheap foul doggeries” down by the river, or north of downtown in the hovels of the infamous Wild Cat Chute, where, according to St. Louis historian Norbury Wayman, residents lived in “indescribable filth, promiscuity and disease.”
The fraudulent 1870 census put St. Louis’ population at 310,000 (purportedly inflated to eclipse rival Chicago); a more reasonable estimate, historians say, would be around 235,000. That same year, St. Louis Police Chief James McDonough estimated there were 5,000 prostitutes working in the city. If these figures can be trusted, it would mean that in St. Louis at the dawn of the Gilded Age, there was a prostitute for every 23 or so males of any age—a ratio so extreme that one mayor quipped, “You can make [prostitution] illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.”
“If the evil cannot be suppressed,” opined the Missouri Republic, “the wisest course is to regulate it with proper bounds.” A majority of the city’s politicians seemed to agree. So in the spring of 1870, as the evenings grew longer and the sap began to rise, the political leaders of St. Louis—all male, of course—decided to emulate Paris in yet another way and voted 16 to 5 to make St. Louis the first American city to legalize prostitution.
The new law, finalized in early July 1870, didn’t explicitly declare prostitution legal. Rather, employing ample obfuscation and a euphemism that today sounds more ominous than the term it cloaked, the “social evil ordinance” empowered city officials to regulate prostitution by registering, for a fee, houses, madams and prostitutes. For an additional fee, city medical officers began examining the women every week for disease. And though prostitution was still prohibited on the streets and in unlicensed businesses, the new law effectively legalized harlotry so long as it was practiced in a brothel or “house of assignation”—a hotel or boarding house where prostitutes kept rooms.
The new law also demanded that newcomers intent on practicing the oldest profession register with police within 24 hours of their arrival. No bawdy houses could open without the permission of the Board of Police Commissioners, and the police could order any house to close or move elsewhere. Prostitutes were also forbidden from soliciting by “word, sign or action” on the street and other public places. The ordinance even forbade them from waving coquettishly from the doors or windows of their houses or rooms. The intent, of course, was to keep the town’s trollops indoors and out of sight.
The council further voted to establish a “Social Evil Hospital and House of Industry” to treat the diseases that prostitutes, even the most elegant among them, inevitably contracted. Using funds collected from prostitutes and madams, the hospital was built across from the domed mental health center (initially called the “Lunatic Asylum”) that still stands on Arsenal Street west of Kingshighway.
The ordinance gave broad powers to the city’s police force, and Chief McDonough became convinced the law was enriching his city while hiding the sex-for-sale business. Indeed, so proud was McDonough that in 1871 he invited officers from across the country to come see the ordinance’s handiwork in action.
“Never have I seen so open and undisguised an exhibition of bawds exhibiting themselves at every door and window,” a visiting police chief said of downtown St. Louis.
Other problems began to arise. The trade may have been legalized, but prostitute arrests for collateral offenses—vagrancy, public drunkenness, cursing, disturbing the peace, theft, assault—did not drop significantly. There is also little evidence that the weekly medical inspections effectively prevented venereal disease. (One reason for this became apparent when a prostitute was discovered with an inspection certificate dated three weeks in advance, a revelation that ended the practice whereby doctors collected fees during medical inspections.)
What’s more, these legal brothels did not generally raise the tone of a neighborhood. When neighbors complained about the loud and profane noises emanating from a bawdy house on Second Street, the Board of Health concluded “there were so many houses of the same character in the neighborhood” that nothing could be done.
Hundreds of streetwalkers, unlicensed and uncontrolled, continued to prowl the streets. Indeed, a large percentage of St. Louis prostitutes—half or more—did not register at all. Many of these women, according to the Board of Health, were “poor, depraved and reckless who only manage to eke out a short, miserable existence by consorting with men equally poor and degraded.” Though they were inevitably arrested and fined, these women were soon back on the streets, plying their trade.
Resistance to the social evil law began to grow. Spearheaded by women’s groups and the Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot (grandfather of T.S. Eliot), these reformers argued that the law discriminated against women: Unlike female prostitutes, promiscuous men and gigolos were not required to register with city authorities.
Anna Dickenson, a nationally prominent women’s rights leader, arrived in St. Louis to argue that what women really needed was not the right to sell their bodies, but equal opportunities for jobs and education. About 4,000 women signed petitions to nullify the ordinance.
Meanwhile, Chief McDonough inflicted considerable damage on the cause after arresting his neighbor, a former registered prostitute named Fannie Canivan, because of the din coming from her home late one night. Arguing that she was too drunk and disorderly to be let loose on the street, McDonough denied the woman bail, prompting Canivan to charge the chief with “arbitrary” and “malicious” arrest. In the resulting furor, other prostitutes made similar charges against McDonough and his police department. The police board eventually suspended McDonough for 30 days. He resigned in disgrace.
But supporters of the social evil law did not give up easily. They fought reform in the newspapers and in court. Prostitution was big business, and influential madams were tied to the city’s establishment. Madam Kate Clark, for example, paid $2,500 a month—perhaps $30,000 today—to rent her mansion on Sixth Street from the
St. Luke’s Hospital Association.
Their reform efforts stymied by local politicians, opponents enlisted outside help. In February 1874, 16 state legislators arrived in St. Louis to tour the town’s brothels so they could “see the social evil law in operation.”
It turned out that most of the legislators ended up spending the night at Kate Clark’s or other fancy bawdy houses. The St. Louis Globe, which had snooped on the visit, remarked that at least the legislators would “wake up this morning with practical experience of the workings of the Social Evil system.”
Perhaps the men did not like what they observed—or were embarrassed at being caught. In any event, that March the legislature voted to repeal the social evil ordinance.
The legislative action may have prohibited city officials from regulating prostitution, but it did not ban prostitution per se. Indeed, a companion bill even forbade police from arbitrarily raiding brothels, many of which had previously registered with the city in good faith. The result was that prostitution in
St. Louis, which was exempt from the wider state ban, was left in a sort of legal limbo.
Many members of the demimonde viewed the end of regulation as a good thing. Indeed, so cheered was one member of “the better class of prostitutes” that she stood in front of the courthouse at Fourth and Market and, the St. Louis Democrat reported, “threw off her shawl and exposed her bosom to the gaze of all that met her.”
According to historian Duane Sneddeker, whose article “Regulating Vice” in the Fall 1990 issue of Gateway Heritage is a valuable, detailed analysis of the city’s experiment with legalized prostitution, in the months after the law’s repeal, “City officials complained of a ‘new licentiousness’ and some prostitutes exulted in greater freedom than they had ever known before, even under regulation.”
This state of affairs remained for five frisky years, until 1879, when prostitution was definitively banned in the city. The Social Evil Hospital was eventually renamed the
St. Louis Female Hospital and began accepting poor women in general, not just diseased prostitutes, until it was razed around 1914. The site is now Sublette Park.
The hospital has become at least a footnote to the cultural history of the 20th century. On June 3, 1906, a poor African-American washerwoman named Carrie McDonald gave birth at the Female Hospital to a baby girl named Freda Josephine. The girl grew up, moved to Paris and became the international star and heroine of the French Resistance Josephine Baker..