Categories: Lambda Lore

Sex Lake City

From 1880 to 1910 the population of Salt Lake City increased around five-fold to nearly 93,000 inhabitants. The downtown was also transformed as one- and two-story adobe and frame buildings gave way to brick, stone and steel structures. Paved streets, sidewalks, sewer systems, street cars and automobiles gave the city a distinctly “modern” atmosphere.

However, located in what is now known as Regent Street and block 57 were still many brothels and cribs where sex workers plied their wares. John Held Jr., one of the best-known magazine illustrators of the 1920s grew up in Salt Lake City and left a chronicle of his youth here. From the book, “The Most of John Held Jr.,” he wrote of Commercial Street from personal experience. “In those days, 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 known as Commercial Street, today it is called Regent Street.

“Within the street were saloons, cafes, parlor houses, and cribs 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.”

Madams and prostitutes established themselves in other locales that extended down Main Street to Third South. Women sold sex in Block 57, sharing space with saloons, secondhand stores, restaurants and other businesses. Unlike Commercial Street, Block 57 brothels were detached dwelling houses in the center of the block, invisible from outside streets but easily accessible by narrow alleys. The block had an easement known as Victoria Alley, which contained several famous brothels. Although the easements no longer exist, Block 57 today is the Gallivan Center.

In the first decade of 20th Century business leaders and social reformers wanted to “clean up the city.” In 1908 John S. Bransford was mayor of Salt Lake City. He was a progressive and while he believed that prostitution was an evil, he also felt that it could not be eliminated, so it might as well be controlled. It was also well known that no class of tenant in the city paid a higher rental than prostitutes and he had to convince property owners that it was in their best interest to relocate the red light districts.

Mayor Bransford announced in 1908 that he planned to establish a red light district on the west side of town and move all the “fallen women” away from downtown to a restricted area. The effort to make Salt Lake City “purer and more moral” began long before Mayor Bransford, but it picked up momentum when “Gentile and Mormon Women’s Clubs” took actions against alcohol, immoral entertainment and “venues where young people of both sexes met.”

The plan to relocate prostitution to the west side did not at first arouse much public interest as Bransford had to convince downtown property owners to endorse the plan on “business, law enforcement, and moral grounds.” “If the resorts of Commercial Street were compelled to seek new locations, Commercial street would become a desirable wholesale district.” Additionally the LDS Church, which had been embarrassed when it was revealed that one of its properties on Commercial Street had been used as a brothel, was anxious to campaign against “Sunday saloons and other forms of vice.”

Salt Lake City was however mildly surprised when Mayor Bransford announced he was putting a professional madam in charge of finding the right relocation. His choice was Mrs. Dora B. Topham, who also went by the name Madam Belle London of Ogden’s “Two-Bit Street,” 25th Street. For two decades London had been the leading madam in Ogden. Belle London created the innocuous sounding, “Citizens’ Investment Company” to manage the project. The corporation was virtually a one-woman show with London acting as president, treasurer and general manager.

By May 1908, agents of Belle London were quietly purchasing large sections of property within Block 64, bordered by First and Second South and by Fifth and Sixth West. This was to be the site of the new red light district and became known as the Stockade. The choice of Block 64 was “steered by class and ethnic biases.” City Councilman L. D. Martin explained that the block was already partially isolated by railroad tracks, and that no children would pass the future red light district on the way to school. Besides he said, “Most of the better class of residents were leaving that vicinity anyway, because of the influx of Italians and Japs.”

Construction work commenced in late summer 1908. Some existing homes on the site were converted into “parlor houses” while rows of about 150 brick and mortar cribs were built. Each crib was 10-feet square, with a door and window in the front. The parlor houses could accommodate between three and six women each and were rented for $175 a month. The cribs were constructed along the west, north and east edges of a 10-foot wall that surrounded the enclosure. Gates to the Stockade were located at the northern and southern ends of the compound.

Workmen finished the stockade in Dec. 1908 and soon “a hundred or more prostitutes of every color and nationality took up residence.” On Dec, 18, 1908, the red lights on Commercial Street and block 57 were “extinguished.”

City Councilman L.D. Margin, after viewing the new site stated: “From the outside of the stockade nothing can be seen of the movements within, and the offensive sights which have greeted passersby 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 two gates at the north and south entrance to the stockade made visits potentially embarrassing to some. 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.”

Belle London rented the cribs to prostitutes for from one to four dollars a day. Soliciting was carried on from the windows where customers went up and down the line. The women sex workers 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.”

Sex workers also faced the danger of venereal diseases, especially syphilis and gonorrhea, for which there were no treatments. Belle London employed a doctor to examine prospective prostitutes for infection before hiring them. She also operated a “hospital” for her employees, both in Ogden and Salt Lake City.

The stockade operated for three years before Belle London called it quits. She had been convicted of inducing a minor to enter the stockade for immoral purposes. At noon on Sep. 28, 1911, she turned out the red lights. Thereafter the stockade was torn down and its inmates moved to cheap hotels and rooming houses to sell sex without the “degree of predictability and protection that regulation had offered.”

It was the end of an era as authorities no longer looked the other way.

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Ben Williams

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