Tag Archives: commodification

overview: a century of brothels in wallace, idaho

A Century of Brothels in Wallace, Idaho: An Overview

The podcast episode I’ve linked to above discusses some of the madams and brothels in Wallace, Idaho through the years, beginning in the early mining camp days and wrapping up with the early 1990s. Below is a transcript with pictures.

Some of the earliest evidence for the houses appears in 1890, in the form of sensational newspaper stories and even advertisements. In December of this year, an ad appears announcing a Christmas ball to celebrate the 1890 grand opening of Gracie Edwards’s The Star, a high-class brothel located at the corner of 5th and Pine.

1890GracieEdwardsStar

The Star employed at least six women from 1890-1904.[1] Gracie’s parlor house featured crystal goblets, satin spreads, and pillow shams on the beds, following the example of larger city bordellos. Two of her girls gained fame one night when Lulu Dumont stabbed Frankie Dunbar with her stiletto seven times while fighting over money.[2] She survived.

Madam Effie Rogan ran a house called The Reliance on Pine between 5th and 6th streets during the 1890s. In about 1904, she moved from Pine Street to the alley behind what is today the Oasis Bordello Museum. Effie’s housemates reported their occupations as dressmaker and hairdresser to the 1910 census taker, but they were probably both working girls because the following year, Effie was in court for keeping a house of prostitution.[3] By 1912, she had been convicted of sex trafficking, which was referred to at the time as “white slavery.”[4]

Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge Collection)

Effie Rogan in 1906. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge Collection)

In 1908, the Daily Times features an ad[5] for an establishment in the red light district called the Palm Garden, managed by a woman named Jennie Girard from 1906-1911. The ad is rather vague about what happened there, saying only that the house is “The Only Place of its Kind in Idaho,” and urges the reader to “Come and Be Convinced.” This theme was consistent with Jennie’s style: she also ran a variety show out of a place called the Surprise Theater.

1908PalmGardenAdDailyTimesJuly16

In 1910, four women worked for madam Connie Foss, whose house was also on ‘the Alley’ of “Block 23.”

1908ConnieFossMadamAveA[8-P760]

Connie Foss in 1908. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge Collection)

After President Teddy Roosevelt’s visit in 1903, the city began relocating the working girls to the triangle piece of land north of Cedar Street, between 6th and the river. This area would eventually become the “official” restricted district.[6] By 1904, Mayor Rossi had mandated that “all lewd women” would be confined “absolutely” to Avenue A, the alley located here.[7] Rossi began to enforce this policy of separation and containment strictly in 1905, when he declared to the city council that prostitution was “a necessary evil,” but that it must be limited “to its present quarters with a strong hand.”[8]

By 1911, much of the country had worked itself into a moral panic over prostitution, and many restricted districts closed completely. The Mann Act was signed into law one year earlier, and it prohibited transporting women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” It was meant to target procurers and aid in the prosecution of those engaged in human trafficking and sex slavery. In the rough mining town of Wallace, full of single men, the thinking went that as long as vice was limited to Alley A, it was okay for some women to sell sex in order to, as Rossi put it, keep “virtue in the highest esteem”[9]—that is, prevent other women from getting raped. So the concerns shifted to public health and social hygiene instead, as they soon would across the rest of the nation as well. In 1913 the red light district financed local improvements and was the first part of town to benefit from paved streets and other upgrades.[10] The city council voted in 1917 to grant the health officer oversight of the conditions there, setting the stage for medical regulation in the future.[11]

1911HealthOfficialsInspectAlleyAHighlighted

By 1917, the United States government had declared a war at home as well as abroad, launching a comprehensive campaign to eliminate the remaining red light districts across the country. This attempt was successful in many cities, but in towns such as Wallace, prostitution was such a part of the culture that it would not be eradicated so easily. The War Department teamed up with Brown manufacturing company to distribute “educational” propaganda to sites of industry such as logging mills and mines. Fliers and pay stub enclosures, sent to the Potlatch Forests Company for distribution,[12] were meant to curb the demand for sex work through fear mongering.

University of Idaho Special Library Collections & Archives (Potlatch Papers)

1917 War Department Fear Propaganda. University of Idaho Special Library Collections & Archives (Potlatch Papers)

The government also included suggestions for rhetoric appealing to patriotism and loyalty to country when giving safety lectures to workers. One flier warns, “Keep Away from Prostitutes Priced and Private. Most cases of clap and syphilis come from sexual intercourse with prostitutes (whores). 70% of all ‘loose women’ have both.” This material seems a bit extreme, proclaiming that clap and syphilis “are among the most important causes of insanity, blindness, paralysis, impotence, barrenness, miscarriages, and many terrible diseases called by other names.” While some of this propaganda is factually inaccurate, syphilis was a serious problem.

Josie Morin was a well-known madam at the U&I Rooms. For a Red Cross fundraiser during WWI, she gave a little girl named Mary Gordon White $25.00, which would be the equivalent of about $450-$500.00 in 2014 currency. Gordon White, who grew up in the house on 301 Cedar Street, wrote about her experience years later: “I rang the bell and a very nice lady asked me to come in. Her living room had pink shaded lights and a lot of shiny satin pillows, and she seemed very friendly and very pretty. [… When] I told about my lucky afternoon at dinner that night, my father said he knew her. She was a very generous lady. She gave money and other helpful things when needed” and was “a very well-known madam who had a booming business in Wallace and the Coeur d’Alenes.”[13]

Josie Morin in 1914. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Josie Morin in 1914. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Babe Kelly was one of forty-four indicted by a grand jury for conspiracy to violate the Prohibition law in the event that came to be known as the North Idaho Whiskey Rebellion. In November of 1929, two weeks after the stock market crashed, the paper reported the wave of arrests by federal agents: “Some of the defendants were visibly affected as they were brought into Commissioner Walker’s office, but the majority laughed and chatted.[…] Most jovial of all was fur-coated Babe Kelly, who draped herself in a chair, lit a cigarette, and began ‘kidding’ the officers and telling jokes.”[14] These indictments were a pretty big deal at the time, and represent the second of three major federal raids in Wallace’s history, with the first being the intervention during the labor wars of the 1890s, and the third being the gambling raid in 1991. Local historian Dick Magnuson has pointed out that, when compared to other Volstead Act conspiracies, the unusual thing about the North Idaho Whiskey rebellion was that money paid to public officials went back to the local area, rather than into private pockets.

 Anna Brass, aka Mrs. Julius Brass, was a madam on Avenue A during the 1920s. In August of 1931, The Health and Sanitation Committee, along with the fire chief and chief of police recommended to the city council that her brick building needed to be torn down because it was “so dilapidated and/or is in such condition so as to menace the public health and/or safety of persons and/or property on account of increased fire hazard and/or otherwise.”[15] If she didn’t remove it within ten days, the city threatened to demolish it for her and tax her for the cost.[16] She would, however, continue to run a brothel in the restricted district until at least 1937.[17]

After prohibition ended, women began to return to greater leadership roles within the community. For example, women such as Bess Ricard owned and operated their own joints again. Ricard’s was called the Pepper Box during the 1940s[18]. It may have simply been a bar, but was most likely a brothel that served beer and liquor and featured slot machines.

Bess Ricard. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Bess Ricard. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Gambling had been technically banned beginning around the turn of the century up until 1947, at which point in time the city council legalized “coin-operated amusement devices,” and during this first licensing period alone, brought in about $22,000 dollars, which translates to nearly a quarter of a million today.[19] In 1938, the amount would increase to $38,000, or about $376,000 in today’s money. Then in 1949 the town expanded the ordinance to include “punchboards” and other “chance prize games.”[20] A woman by the name of Ruth Poska also applied for such licenses under the name of an establishment called The Club, which was located where the Bordello Museum is today. She was likely the madam upstairs, which might have been called the Club Rooms at that time.[21]

Ruth Poska. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Ruth Poska. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Dolores Arnold, was the “star” madam of the post-World War II era. She first came to Wallace from Bremerton, Washington in 1943,[22] and by 1947 was in charge of the Lux Rooms. People say she could have been a movie star, ran her business in a “classy” way, and was both respected and beloved by people around town.

Dolores Arnold in 1943. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Dolores Arnold in 1943. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Like Gracie Edwards had done fifty years prior, Dolores hosted Christmas parties for local businessmen and community leaders, and like Josie Morin twenty-five years prior, she gave generously to charitable causes, even turning some causes into a double-benefit: she bought so many raffle tickets that she would win, and then she would give away the prizes to families in need.[23] In 1972, she donated food baskets to the families of the 92 miners killed in the Sunshine disaster.[24]

Dolores Arnold in 1947. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Dolores Arnold in 1947. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Luoma Delmonte was also widely seen as a community leader. She was close friends with Dolores and competed with her in the realm of charitable giving.[25]

Luoma Del Monte in 1945. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Luoma Del Monte in 1945. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

She came to Wallace in 1945 and had made over the Western Rooms into The Jade by 1953. Known around town simply as “Loma,” she had a reputation for being funny and for unleashing a torrent of dirty words if you pissed her off.[26] Loma was a devout Catholic, and many of the profits from her house went to the St. Alphonsus church.[27]

Luoma Del Monte in 1955. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Luoma Del Monte in 1955. Photo Courtesy University of Idaho Library Special Collections (Barnard Stockbridge)

Dolores and Loma set the standard for the way the houses would be run in Wallace. They ensured that the women they employed would not solicit on the streets nor drink in the bars around town, although they were allowed to visit the drug store, bank, buy paperbacks and magazines, and wire money to their families using Western Union. Around town, the girls were never to speak to a man first, for fear the man might become embarrassed at being recognized in front of others, or perhaps also because people worried that could easily cross the line into solicitation. These women both donated liberally to the city coffers and special community events, such as prizes for the fishing derby, when the town drained the pool, refilled it with creek water, and planted fish.

During this time prostitution was widely embraced and regulated by the town. Penicillin’s availability and effectiveness led to changing attitudes about sexuality nationally, and lessened the consequences of promiscuous or commoditized sex. Every woman who came into town had her picture taken by Nellie Stockbridge and also checked in and out with the police, who ran her rap sheet through the FBI records to see if there were items of concern and to double-check that she was over the age of 21.

People who grew up in Wallace didn’t know anything other than sex work as a fact of everyday life. The community embraced its wild “live and let live” mining camp attitude and the underground economy that went along with it. A New York Times article appearing during the 1973 shutdown confuses some things, but offers an example of the high degree of acceptance the community had toward the madams and houses, and illustrates how wide Wallace’s reputation had spread, noting that a bartender at Albi’s had fielded 14 long-distance phone calls that day to ask if it was true.[28]

The truth was, state laws had been reformed in the early 1970s and the long-simmering differences in culture between northern and southern Idaho came to a head when Stanley Crow, a so-called “moral crusader” from the southern part of the state accused Governor Andrus of taking bribes to allow Wallace’s houses to continue operations instead of enforcing the new laws.[29] Afterward, the story goes, local businessmen Harry Magnuson and Hank Day got on the phone to Governor Andrus and said, “You run your end of the state and we’ll run ours.”[30] So the houses didn’t shut down for long, but the rooms on the second floors did operate more quietly for a while.

Police regulation appears to have ended in 1973, although the madams still enjoyed protection and continued donating money into a community fund managed by the chamber of commerce. Later claims that this amounted to bribery and corruption were not substantiated during two subsequent trials—it would be a misunderstanding of the community attitude and the legal evidence to interpret the arrangement the madams had with the town as anything other than mutually beneficial, reciprocal, and according to a 1977 study, was embraced by 75-80 percent of Wallace citizens.[31]

According to police records there was a house called the Sahara that employed four girls during the year of 1973, but nobody really seems to remember this house, and it’s possible that the Arment operated under this name for a brief time of back-stairs-entry-only during the temporary closure of 1973. That’s just an educated guess. Dolores apparently operated the Lux as a “massage parlor” for a short period of time during this year, until concerns subsided and operations resumed as before, in an open secret, regionally accepted manner.

There were five established houses, all located on the second floors of downtown buildings. The Lux was at 212 ½ 6th St. with access from Kelly’s Alley, The Arment was above 601 Cedar St. until 1977, when it turned into the relocated Lux.

The Oasis was above 605 Cedar St, where the museum is today. Ginger, madam from 1963 until its closure, moved to Wallace from Hollywood, California.

Ginger. (Photo by Heather Branstetter, with thanks to Eva Truean, Oasis Bordello Museum)

Ginger. (Photo by Heather Branstetter, with thanks to Eva Truean, Oasis Bordello Museum)

Like Luoma, Ginger wasn’t very public around town, but she also donated to local causes such as the annual mining competition.[32] She drank black velvet and wore three hundred dollar pajamas, leaving her house only to make trips to the bank and to sign legal papers from time to time.[33] Her house, at 605 ½ Cedar, featured an incredible number of mirrors, following in the tradition of brothels like the Everleigh Club in Chicago and Babe Connors’s Palace in St. Louis.[34]

Oasis Door. (Photo by Heather Branstetter, with thanks to Eva Truean and the Bordello Museum)

Oasis Door. (Photo by Heather Branstetter, with thanks to Eva Truean and the Bordello Museum)

The Oasis is now a museum and novelty shop, preserved in much the way Ginger left it when she and the girls left town.

"In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash -- Casey" sign (Photo by Heather Branstetter, with thanks to Eva Truean and the Bordello Museum)

“In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash — Casey” sign (Photo by Heather Branstetter, with thanks to Eva Truean and the Bordello Museum)

611 ½ Cedar St. was home to the Western until 1953, the Jade until 1967, and then the Luxette until the late 1980s. The U&I Rooms, referred to by the University of Idaho college students in Moscow as the school’s “northern branch,” was located above 613 Cedar St. Lee Martin came to Wallace in the 1960s and ran the U&I Rooms at 613 ½ Cedar until its closure.

U&I Rooms Matchbook Image. (Photo by Heather Branstetter, with thanks to John Hansen)

U&I Rooms Matchbook Image. (Photo by Heather Branstetter, with thanks to John Hansen)

Once you were friends with Lee, you were friends for life[35]—she was known for being loyal to her people, and once sent $500.00 to some local guys who’d run into trouble and gotten themselves stranded in Colorado.[36] Her approach to keeping the girls happy was to ensure they had a social life, so it was common during the 1970s and 80s for locals to go up to the U&I just to hang out and drink.[37] Some of them became so close that they called themselves “the family.”[38] Although you didn’t see the girls out at the bars around town, they did socialize more during the later years, developing friendships with local women as well.[39] Tanya arrived on the scene during the early 1970s. People talk about what a rookie she was when she first arrived but she was smart, liked her job, and had a head for business, so she advanced to a leadership role quickly,[40] assuming most of the management duties at the U&I by 1985.

1982 Seattle Times Article.

1982 Seattle Times Article. (Click on the picture once and then in the new window that opens, click again to zoom and read the article)

The U&I, in the written record as early as 1905, would hang on until 1991, outlasting the others. The Oasis shut down in January of 1988, the Lux and Luxette closed around the same time, due to Dolores’s Alzheimer’s disease increasing in severity, and finally in September of 1990 the U&I was mostly closed. It remained open in a quieter way until early June of 1991, when, according to at least one account, an FBI agent confessed to Tanya “in a moment of weakness,” warning her that a large raid targeting the illegal gambling would soon take place, and they should take the opportunity to leave town for good.[41]

1989 Idaho Statesman Article.

1989 Idaho Statesman Article

Word is everything had mostly died down anyway, that the local economy could no longer support the workforce it had previously (unemployment soared to between 20-40%) and AIDS had really put a damper on the demand for the girls’ work. The century of brothels in Wallace was over, and the town transitioned into a tourism community, moving from selling sex to selling the past.

Image from Lux-Luxette Calendar. (Photo by Heather Branstetter, from personal collection)

Image from Lux-Luxette Calendar. (Photo by Heather Branstetter, from personal collection)

By Heather Branstetter, with generous support provided by The Wallace District Mining Museum and Virginia Military Institute.

If you would like to learn about the locations of the brothels through the years, along with maps, you can find that information HERE.

Personal Interviews and Research Assistance

Thank you so much for your contributions to and participation in this project:

Mitch Alexander

John Amonson

Katie & Joe Bauer

“Betty”

“Bobby C”

Ken & Joann Branstetter

Mike & Nancy Branstetter

Dick Caron

Terry Douglas

Bob Dunsmore

Sam Eismann

Mike Feiler

Merrill Field

Nick Fluge

Penny Caron Garr

Fred & Debbie Gibler

Kristi Gnaedinger

John & Sue Hansen

Tom Harman

Rod Higgins

Patti Houchin

Archie Hulsizer

Butch Jacobson

Richard Magnuson

Michelle Mayfield

Jim & Peggy McReynolds

Penny Michael

Lynn Mogensen

Bill & Karen Mooney

Gary Morrison

Moe Pellissier

John Posnick

Justin Rice

Ron Roizen

Chase Sanborn

Patty Schaeffer

Tammy Schonhanes

Julie Austin Stewart

Eva Truean

Dick Vester

I am also grateful to be surrounded by incredibly smart professional colleagues and mentors who have influenced and inspired my thinking on this project. Dan Anderson, Risa Applegarth, Gordon Ball, Kelly Bezio, Erin Branch, Julie Brown, Jameela Dallis, Jane Danielewicz, Sarah Hallenbeck, Jordynn Jack, Kristen Lacefield, Jim McReynolds, Chelsea Redeker, Lindsay Rose Russell, Rose Mary Sheldon, and Todd Taylor: thank you so much for your contributions, advice, and encouragement.

Bibliography and Notes

Abbott, Karen. Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul. New York: Random House, 2007. Kindle Edition.

“Board of Health Inspects City’s Restricted District.” Idaho Press, 12 October, 1911.

“Five Brothels Shut in an Idaho Town.” Special to the New York Times, 5 November 1973, pg 17, via ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Powell, Cynthia S. Beyond Molly B’Damn: Prostitution in the Coeur d’Alenes, 1880-1911. MA Thesis, Central Washington University, 1994.

Shoshone County Courthouse District Court Records.

Smith, Donna Krulitz. “It Will All Come Out in the Courtroom”: Prohibition in Shoshone County, Idaho. MA Thesis, University of Idaho, 2004.

Wallace City Council Minute Books.

White, Mary Gordon. “A Child’s Eye View” Personal Narrative. Wallace District Mining Museum Archival Collection.

[1] Powell 51.

[2] “The Stiletto. It is Used by One of the Fallen Sisterhood with Serious Result.” Wallace Press 10 October 1891, qtd. in Powell 74 and Moynahan.

[3] Shoshone County Court House, District Court Office, Index to Register of Criminal Actions; Proceedings Book B, No 497, qtd. in Powell 48.

[4] Powell 48 and 59.

[5] Tom Harman primary sources files in 2014 Wallace District Mining Museum (WDMM) Brothel Project digital repository.

[6] Spokesman-Review articles in Dick Caron files, 2014 WDMM Brothel Project digital repository. City of Wallace, City Council Record Book, 28 October 1901 to 10 September 1906, Minutes of Council Chamber, 24 April 1905, qtd. in Powell 104-105.

[7] Powell 104.

[8] Powell 104.

[9] Powell 104.

[10] City of Wallace Council Minute Books, 1913-1916, pgs 30-36, 22 September 1913.

[11] City of Wallace Council Minute Books, 1916-1923, pg 167, 10 September 1917.

[12] Potlatch Forests Papers, MG 96 Box 4, “Military.”

[13] Mary Gordon White, “A Child’s Eye View,” personal narrative, WDMM archival collection.

[14] Wallace Press-Times 11/14/29, pg. 1

[15] Wallace City Council Minute Book 1931-1939, 24 August 1931, p. 423

[16] Ibid., pg 424. The legal description indicates this building was just behind and moving toward the East of where the Oasis is today.

[17] Wallace City Council Minute Books, 1931-1939, 14 December 1936, pgs 658-659.

[18] Wallace City Council Minute Books, 1939-1947, 8 January 1945, pg 958.

[19] Wallace City Council Minute Books, 1939-1947, Ordinance 292, 24 March 1947, pg 1024-1028. The State of Idaho and Shoshone County each received a quarter of this money, while the city kept half (pg 1026).

[20] Wallace City Council Minute Books, 1947-1960, Ordinance 300, January 1949, pg. 1085.

[21] Richard Magnuson told me (2014 interview) he thought the Oasis was called the Club Rooms. Police records document that it was known as the Oasis by 1952.

[22] Picture records, Barnard-Stockbridge Collection. Town of origin information, Lynn Mogensen and Eva Truean (2014).

[23] Personal Interview with Gary Morrison (2010).

[24] “Five Brothels Shut in an Idaho Town.” Special to the New York Times, 5 November 1973, pg 17, via ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[25] Personal Interview with Richard Magnuson (2014).

[26] Reverend Dr. Jim Ranyon personal narrative (2008) in Dick Caron files, WDMM Brothel Project digital repository.

[27] Phone Interview with Penny Garr (2014).

[28] “Five Brothels Shut in an Idaho Town.” Special to the New York Times, 5 November 1973, pg 17, via ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[29] Personal Interview with Richard Magnuson (2010 and 2014).

[30] Personal Interview with Dick Vester (2010).

[31] Buddy Miles Survey on Attitudes Toward Prostitution, MA Thesis, Washington State University, 1977.

[32] Personal interview with Penny Michael. The Oasis Rooms is listed, along with the Lux and Luxette, among the contributors to the first contest in 1984 (can be found in primary sources in the digital 2014 WDMM Brothel Collection).

[33] Personal Interview with “Art” (2010) and Richard Magnuson (2014).

[34] Abbott, Karen. Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul. New York: Random House, 2007. Kindle Edition. Chapter One, Kindle Locations 340-345.

[35] Personal Interview with Patti Houchin (2014)

[36] Story independently told during personal interviews with Bill Mooney (firsthand knowledge of the story, 2014) and John Posnick (secondhand knowledge of the story, 2010).

[37] Personal Interviews with Chuck Roberts (2014) and Bill Mooney (2014).

[38] Personal Interview with Chuck Roberts (2014).

[39] Kristi Gnaedinger (2014), Patti Houchin, (2014).

[40] Personal Interview with Kristi Gnaedinger (2010, 2014), Chuck Roberts (2014), and Bill Mooney (2014).

[41] Personal Interview with Sue Hansen (2010 and 2014).

Please tell me what you think:

coercion & criminality (morality and sex work part four)

Writers and writing teachers have this saying: you can only get to the universal through the specific. That’s what this post is about: stories of two women in Wallace. The first is about a madam who was convicted for trafficking in 1912, and the second is about a woman who worked in the Arment Rooms for a brief time during the post WWII heyday in the mid-1950s.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sex work and criminality during these past few posts and the discussions they’ve prompted with others in my life. On the one hand: some of the anti-legalization side of the discussion sounds paternalistic, like “you might have thought that you freely chose sex work, but you actually didn’t know what was good for you, girl.” This perspective basically asserts that women unknowingly fall into the trap of prostitution. They are “rescued” and informed that they had been manipulated into thinking that they chose sex work, but in reality they had been trafficked. This language conflates sex work and trafficking. As I have mentioned before, proponents of this point of view often refuse the possibility that any woman could freely choose sex work by referring to all women who sell sex as “prostituted women.”

It reminds me of the moral panic rhetoric leading up to the passage of the Mann Act in 1910. This law made it a federal offense to transport a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” It was also called the “white slave traffic act,” a phrase that arose during progressive era social hygiene reform. Many vulnerable women who ran into financial insecurity, often immigrants, were coerced into prostitution and felt unable to leave even when not physically constrained because they would bear the stigma of immorality. From the mostly sensational stories you read about this time, it’s unclear whether many of the women were trafficked or just needed a way out. The Mann Act targeted “procurers” (we would now call them pimps) and declared these “inmates of bawdy houses” victims. The law effectively absolved the women of moral responsibility and framed them as “saved.”

In Wallace, there was a madam named Effie Rogan who ran a house called the Reliance from 1895-1911. Here’s what she looked like in 1906:

photo courtesy university of idaho library special collections

photo courtesy university of idaho library special collections

Effie’s brothel was located at 510 Pine Street from 1891-1904, at which point she moved to the triangle-shaped patch of land by the river near where the Depot is today. Like many who were selling sex back in these days, her housemates’ occupations were listed as dressmakers and hairdressers during the 1910 census. She was convicted of trafficking under the Mann Act in 1912.

It usually worked like this: procurers and madams lured women into town with promises of marriage or jobs like dressmaking and hairdressing, met them at the train station, then took away their clothes and raped them into feeling demoralized or “ruined.” It was also the case that many women were told they would have to work off their train tickets and then they entered into what amounted to indentured servitude, seldom able to pay off the original debt added to the constantly accruing room and board debt.

As is the case today, many anti-legalization advocates from back in those days had self-serving agendas. They passed around exaggerated stories meant to invoke pity, generate political influence, and of course they were also rewarded with attention and a sense of self-satisfied pleasure. But there were also those who felt called by God or their conscience to be a voice for others. They believed sex workers (or prostituted women) could not speak (or choose) for themselves. This perspective seems somewhat patronizing to me because as it frees the women from moral responsibility to spare them stigma, it also dismisses or invalidates what some women have to say about their experiences. When we conflate trafficking with sex work, I think it does a disservice to the women who believe and assert that they freely chose and continue to choose sex work.

On the other hand: it’s pretty horrible to imagine madams like Effie and her procurer colleagues profiting off of the misery of desperate women whose lives were so wrecked that many of them drank a small bottle of carbolic acid to die. And this situation continues in different ways for many women selling sex today. To legally qualify as a victim of sex trafficking, you have to be recruited, harbored, transported, delivered, or obtained for the purpose of commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Or you have not yet turned 18 years old.

The 530 police records and rap sheets recording the appearance and background of the women working in the Silver Valley’s brothels from 1952-1973 offer evidence that some of them would have likely fallen into the category of trafficking through coercion. Two summers of doing this research has shown me that the conditions for women in Wallace seem to have been generally positive, but in the rest of this post I want to address the kind of conditions that led to the women finding themselves in Wallace in the first place.

The sheriff’s office files confirm that girls were turned away if their record came back from the FBI to reveal they were younger than 21 years old. Some slipped through the cracks, obviously, but there appears to have been an effort that exceeds due diligence. If the rap sheet showed indications of involvement with organized crime, they were also turned away. Some of them were material witnesses for Mann Act cases in other cities. So in terms of the law, some of the women were trafficked, since they had been caught up in Mann Act cases.

Many women had pimps in other towns. This was often noted in their records explicitly, as was the case for a woman who called herself “Kitty Black,” who was born in Chewelah, Washington in 1919 and found herself in Wallace for four months during the summer of 1956:

shoshone county sheriff's office files #705

shoshone county sheriff’s office files #705

The rap sheet notes that she was first picked up by the police in Spokane, Washington in 1940 and fined $25 for “city vag.” (used by many cities as code for prostitution, but it might also indicate homelessness or drug addiction). Eight months later, we find her in Grand Coulee, Washington, where she is again charged with vagrancy and told to leave town. Most likely, there was huge demand for sex work there during this time, when it was essentially a boom town because of the dam, according to the visitor’s guide website:

In the Grand Coulee, life changed dramatically and quickly once work on the dam began in 1933. Not only did the undertaking of this massive project change forever the shape of the river, but overnight it created towns where nothing but sagebrush, sand and rocks had previously existed. Thousands came to the Grand Coulee looking for work in the midst of the Depression. They worked around the clock to finish the dam by 1942.

During World War II, Kitty finds gainful employment with the War Department:

scso file #705

scso file #705

That’s right, she was a Rosie the Riveter. So were MANY of these women. We should really revise our collective understanding of Rosie the Riveter and think more about what happened to the actual women those images stand in for: many were in the sex industry both before and after the war. After all the patriotism and serving our country rhetoric, we were basically like, “thanks and good luck finding another job that pays a comparable wage.”

In 1945, Kitty is picked up for driving while drunk and grand theft in San Bernardino, California. She makes her way to San Diego shortly thereafter, is charged with being drunk, and serves a fifteen-day term in the city jail. Two years later, she’s back in Spokane where she is arrested for “Inv.,” which is short for investigation and means that she wasn’t charged with anything. (Wallace used this code for regulating prostitution. The rap sheets read “Inv” and then the charge was disposed of with the phrase “fingerprinted, mugged, and released,” or sometimes just “fmr.”) There is a noticeable gap between her 1947 Spokane arrest and 1956, when she comes to Wallace at the age of 37 to work in the Arment Rooms, but her record notes that she admits to having been a prostitute in Troy, Montana during 1955.

It’s unclear whether Kitty’s pimp coerced her into the business or whether he found her sometime along the way. Her file notes her pimp lived in Spokane, which is where she was first arrested, so both are possible. When women have pimps, it often indicates coercion—these are men who are incredibly skilled at targeting women, sometimes by trolling the jails and paying for them to be released. Others target young girls with an unstable family life, financial insecurity, runaways, “rebellious” girls, girls who have gained a reputation for sleeping around, or simply women who were raised in a way that was sheltered. These men know how to find and exploit vulnerability. Then they con their marks into thinking that they are loved so it may feel like a boyfriend kind of situation, or, as I mentioned above, they manipulate the women to feel like they can’t do any better, or they threaten to hurt their kids, or the women for whatever reason just feel like they owe these men something (and here I think the historic power of male supremacy in our culture comes into play as well). And then there is also often outright abuse. Lots of women who came through Wallace’s houses had men’s names tattooed on their bodies. These names were not their fathers or brothers or sons. These names were their pimps branding them.

Okay that’s probably enough for this post. Besides evidence that many of the women had pimps, are there other indications of coercion found in the 1952-1973 SCSO body of evidence?

— Many women who found themselves in the Wallace brothels might not have been actively “trafficked,” but likely felt coerced by their financial situation, like they didn’t have better options. The following other crimes show up on their rap sheets: narcotics, burglary, “obtaining money by false pretenses,” shoplifting, forgery, larceny, drunk and disorderly, “justifiable homicide,” drunk in public, embezzling, robbery, stolen credit cards, writing bad checks or “bogus checks.” (Now here I am doing that thing where I’m conflating a bit between trafficking and sex work, but I also believe economic coercion is a very tangible thing.) It’s really easy for just one disruptive life event to lead even a well-functioning, together person into a downward spiral of addiction or simply to knock them into financial insecurity. In Kitty’s case, it looks like she was an alcoholic after the war ended, and needed a means to support herself starting at least by the time she turned twenty-one.

— I need to look more into this, but there are several women who appear to have entered the sex industry from a place in California called the Ventura School for Girls, where they were labeled “wayward girl.” There is one other reference to a girl from an “orphan home,” but it seems unusual to me that this particular Ventura School for Girls shows up several times… Were they just more likely to end up in the sex industry already or was the school selling them off or providing some kind of pipeline? Was there a personal connection through one of the madams? Here’s what a quick search of the googleverses tells me:

The reformatory was a facility for wayward and sexually promiscuous young women; having a daughter incarcerated there was a great shame for any family. “Young women would go to very drastic measures in order to escape going to the Ventura School for Girls because of its bad reputation,” explains historian Elizabeth Escobedo. “There were women at the juvenile hall who… were swallowing safety pins the night before in order to get out of it.”

— And if you want to know more about Gayle Starr’s story, my former colleague and friend BP Morton dug a little more into that: it’s worth a read.

“just like any other business”? (morality and sex work part two)

From time to time, Wallace makes it onto another one of those “cool small towns in America” lists, here, #38. Although this latest list celebrates the “rich history and culture” you find in small towns, it fails to plug the Oasis Bordello Museum, which was mentioned in Travel + Leisure’s 2012 list and Budget Travel’s 2009 list (which also features my current town, strangely). If the article’s authors had actually spoken with the people living in Wallace, amid the “large pine-topped mountain peaks and breathtaking sunsets downtown” long enough to talk about the brothel-based sex work aspect of the town’s history they would have heard something like this:

“The houses prevented rapes.”

“They gave back a lot to the community.”

“It’s just like any other business.”

Whenever I talk about Wallace’s brothel-based sex work history and culture to a group of outsiders, I inevitably get asked these questions:

“How do you feel about it?”

“Do you think it’s immoral?”

“Should we legalize prostitution?”

Recently, at the Lexington Rotary Club talk I gave, I was asked these very questions, and they led to some of the more lively moments of the discussion. But they were also the moments when I felt least committed to what I was saying, because in some ways I don’t have a “position.” And I come from a place—am trying to translate the cultural values of this place—that continues to justify sex work as a positive thing. Or at least as a not-bad thing. Like, overwhelmingly so. So much so that I sometimes forget that a lot of people think that sex work cannot be anything other than inherently exploitive, immoral, and/or degrading for women.

I’m going to go ahead and do something I’m hesitant about and get a little personal…

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