bertillon ledger, prostitution post

Minneapolis “alleywalkers” and the campaign to end prostitution

Published July 1, 2014 by Heidi Heller

Today’s blogger is Heidi Heller. She is a senior history major at Augsburg College and an intern with the Historyapolis Project.

Today we have another excerpt from the Bertillon Ledgers in the Tower Archives at Minneapolis City Hall. This entry–which documents an arrest in 1917–illuminates the city’s campaign against prostitution in the run-up to World War I.

In 1910, city officials claimed victory over the social evil of prostitution when they shut down the red-light districts. Yet only one year later, the city’s Vice Commission issued a report that acknowledged that prostitution still represented a major problem for the city. The once segregated sex trade was now dispersed the throughout the city – into alleys, residential areas, hotels and saloons.  Faced with the tasking of determining how to handle the growing city-wide problem of prostitution, the Commission debated the idea of once again allowing segregated areas of prostitution. Ultimately the Commission concluded “nothing is more certain than that segregation in Minneapolis has not, in fact, successfully segregated” prostitution.

To remedy this situation, Commissioners demanded increased police vigilance, encouraged citizens to report disorderly houses in their neighborhoods and insisted that police ban “vicious women” from saloons. They directed hotel keepers never to assign a room to two people of the opposite sex unless they were listed as husband and wife on a “bona fide register”; never to assign a room to a couple between 9pm and 6am; and never to provide a room to a couple that included a minor. Exceptions could be made only if the couple had “bona fide luggage”; permission from the police; or an affadavit from a “reputatable resident of the city” that they were husband and wife.

These measures did little to dampen the commercial sex trade. The industry continued to grow until 1917, when the federal government decided prostitution threatened wartime mobilization. Law enforcement in Minneapolis was happy to do its part for military preparedness and began rounding up the women they called “alley walkers.”

The Bertillon ledgers record scores of arrests. A disproportionate number involved “colored” women, who were sentenced to time in the workhouse. White women appear occasionally in the ledgers. But in the period between 1915 and 1919, it was primarily African-American women who were singled out for punishment. No doubt white women were also “alley workers.” But it seems that police did not see them as a pressing problem.

Police targeted women like Frances McRaven, who was arrested on October 1, 1917 for running a disorderly house and working as an “alley walker.” She was 22 years old, originally from Kansas and described as a housewife with a stocky build and one gold front tooth. She was also African American. According to the officer who described her crime and physique for the ledger, she “one of the numerous colored women who infest south Minneapolis, robbing white men in alleys, etc.”

Her arrest–and the many other ones like it–shed light on the changing nature of the sex industry in early twentieth century Minneapolis. But it also reveals the intense racism of the time. Prejudice isolated the city’s tightly-knit African-American community, making employment and affordable house difficult to find.

The city’s black community was small at the time of McRaven’s arrest. The Great Migration began in 1916, drawing millions of African Americans north with the promises of work and a better life. Few of these migrants would end up in Minneapolis. Between 1910 and 1920, the African-American community in Minneapolis grew from 2592 to 3927, an increase of 51.5 percent. In comparison, Detroit would see its African American population increase by 611.3 percent in the same period. Yet even this small population increase was viewed by many whites as a threat.

Negative racial attitudes prevented qualified African Americans from securing well paying jobs. In 1919, the Minneapolis Morning Tribune admitted that African-American women were “unable to secure the type of employment they are trained and fitted in every way to do.” Turned away from factories, department stores and telephone switchboards, many of these women were forced into the underground economy. Prostitution may have been the only way that many could survive.

Image from the Minneapolis City Archives. Material for this post is taken from Bertillon Ledgers, Tower Archives, Minneapolis City Hall; Report of the Vice Commission of Minneapolis, 1911; African Americans in Minneapolis: The People of Minnesota, David Vassar Taylor; “Survey for Benefit of Colored Women,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune¸ May 14, 1919.

Sanborn Map 1st Street, tower archives, Female Boarding

Mapping Brothels

Published June 30, 2014 by Heidi Heller

Today’s blogger is Heidi Heller. She is a senior history major at Augsburg College and an intern with the Historyapolis Project.

It’s map Monday and we have another great image from the 1912 Sanborn maps in the Tower Archives at City Hall. These maps—which were created by the insurance industry to determine fire risk to structures–provide a unique glimpse into the city’s past.

This plate shows First Street South and Second Avenue South, which was once a thriving red-light district. The Sanborn cartographers marked various buildings with the notation “F.B.” –which was shorthand for Female Boarding. This phrase–according to historian Penny Petersen– was a euphemism for brothel. While some of the building were likely legitimate female boarding house, at least five were known brothels in 1888 and likely still served a similar purpose in 1912.

During the late 1800’s, First Street South was the heart of the Minneapolis red-light district and also laid within Bridge Square, the growing industrial center of Minneapolis. For numerous Madams this area was the prime location to operate a brothel – serving wealthier business men and other riverfront workers. By the 1890’s, as Minneapolis’ growth shifted away from the river front, the Bridge Square area began to decline. With the shift, came an increase in saloons, cage hotels and a decrease in wealthier clientele. Being shrewd business women, many Madams shifted their operation across the river to Main Street and later to 11th Avenue South, where they continued to provide service in lavishly decorated brothels to Minneapolis’ wealthy business men.

Even as the First Street red-light district lost its glow for the higher end madams, it retained its draw for lower end madams and other prostitutes. Established houses of ill repute served as a starting point for many up and coming Madams. Add in a ready set of clientele, thanks to the large population of lumberjacks, agricultural workers and transient laborers, and the First Street red-light district thrived and continued to grow especially as Bridge Square grew into Minneapolis’ skid row.

Despite on-going efforts to close down the red-light districts by various reform groups, Minneapolis Police and City Official remained tolerant of the segregated vice. Officials even developed a system where Madams would appear monthly in court, plead guilty to running a brothel, pay a fine and pay $10 for each girl working in the brothel. The Madam’s fine started out at $50, but would increase to $100 in the ensuring years. In 1879, the fines netted the city approximately $9300. Funds raised by the fines went to the city coffers, a portion also went to the Bethany Home – a reform home for former prostitutes.

The fine system remained in place until the early 1900’s, when reformers were finally successful in putting enough pressure on City Officials to bring an end to segregated prostitution in the three red-light districts.  By 1910, officials were claiming an end to the social evil of tolerated prostitution in the red-light districts. Regardless of the official claims of success, prostitution continued to thrive throughout the First Street red-light district and even saw a boom as reformers succeeded in closing down the Main Street and 11th Avenue red-light districts. As the 1912 Sanborn map clearly shows, female boarding houses along First Street were numerous and served as a place for individual prostitutes to ply their trade. In the years to come, City Police and Officials would be plagued by the on-going prostitution problem that developed in these female boarding houses and other clandestine brothels.

The Sanborn Map is from the Tower Archives at Minneapolis City Hall. Material for this post is taken from Penny Petersen, Minneapolis Madams (University of Minnesota Press: 2013); Sophie E. Wallerstedt, Politicians and prostitutes make strange bedfellows: A history of commercialized sex and regulation in early Minneapolis (Thesis, University of Minnesota, May 2013); David Rosheim, The Other Minneapolis or The Rise and Fall of the Gateway, The Old Minneapolis Skid Row, 1978.


“Where are the men who make these girls what they are?”

Published March 11, 2014 by Tamatha Perlman

Today’s guest blogger is Tamatha Perlman, a writer and museum professional, who is working on a book about murder, madness and unrequited love in 19th century Minneapolis. In this post she describes one of the city’s most colorful founding mothers, the indomitable Charlotte Van Cleve, who established the Sisterhood of Bethany in 1874 and helped to challenge social prejudices against women who had worked as prostitutes in the city’s burgeoning commercial sex industry. Tamantha writes:

The man behind the bar let out a string of profanities. Charlotte Ouisconsin Van Cleve took the lily-shaped horn she used to amplify conversation out of her ear and rested it on the counter, hands folded over the curved neck.

Charlotte wasn’t easily ruffled.

She was the daughter of Charlotte and Lieutenant Nathan Clark, who had travelled from Connecticut to “a bend in the St. Peter River” in 1819 to found what became Fort Snelling. When Charlotte was born along the way at Prairie du Chien, her father’s compatriots insisted that the new baby–the first “American” born in an area still controlled by Native Americans–should be called “Ouisconsin,” to commemorate her Wisconsin territory birthplace.

Blessed with native intelligence, her childhood as a military daughter at a frontier outpost shaped her into a woman of both persistence and compassion. She brought these considerable gifts to bear on the early social structures of Minneapolis, nurturing institutions that would change life for women and children in the growing city.

When the saloonkeeper finished his barrage, Charlotte smiled serenely. “Yes, yes. I agree with everything you say,” she said. “And now I’ll take your donation, please.” 

The man reached into the till and handed Charlotte his donation for the Sisterhood of Bethany. 

The Sisterhood of Bethany was established in 1874 to create a refuge for “fallen women” by Charlotte and a trio of female compatriots. Harriet Walker (wife of lumber magnate T.B. Walker) represented the Methodists in this effort; Euphoria Outlook brought her Adventist beliefs to this moral reform work; and Abby Mendenhall put her Quaker principles into action through the Sisterhood, which sought to help women who had worked as prostitutes in the city’s burgeoning commercial sex industry.

Charlotte always asserted that if you’re “fallen” you can always get back up. The Sisterhood extended a helping hand for women seeking to climb back into respectable society. They defied those who believed that sex workers bore a moral stain that could never fade. And they asserted that prostitutes should not bear the sole blame for their situation. “Where are the men who make these girls what they are?” Charlotte demanded. “Go find them in our business marts, drawing rooms, and churches…Men are getting rich on the toil and tears of famishing women and children.” 

The Sisterhood made an arrangement with the city to rehabilitate women arrested for prostitution. In 1875, Charlotte rented a small house at 316 Sixth Street SE and accepted her first two “inmates.” A few days later, two more women arrived. They were met with a message of moral reform that was undoubtedly tiresome. Of the original four women, two took their complimentary bibles to the pawn shop and themselves out on the town. 

bethany home,  image 1, side 1

Charlotte was undeterred. Bethany Home grew and in expanded to accommodate the inevitable children who arrived as well. As president of Bethany Home, Charlotte replied to letters from desperate women, reunited repentant daughters with agonized fathers, nursed countless babies and spoke throughout the region on behalf of “her girls.” In addition, she was the first female elected to the Minneapolis Board of Education in 1876 after a law was passed to allow women to run for offices “relating to the education of children.” 

By the time Charlotte died in 1907, she had raised 22 children–her own biological children and those she adopted. By 1914, the Sisterhood claimed that it had helped 7,500 women and children leave the sex trade.

This photo shows Charlotte on her 80th birthday. It is from the Minneapolis Photo collection at the Hennepin County Central Library.

brothel district, 1911, from penny p

Mattie St. Clair and the Riverfront Red-Light District, 1910

Published March 10, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

It’s map Monday. This map shows the Minneapolis brothel district in 1910, as described by Penny Petersen in her book, Minneapolis Madams. Penny–who works as a researcher for a Minneapolis-based historical consultant–is our guest blogger today, with a post that remembers the notorious madam known as Mattie St. Clair. 

Mattie St. Clair was a successful sex worker with a career that began in the 1870s and spanned three decades during Minneapolis’s era of tolerated prostitution. Over the course of her professional life, she rose from being a “boarder” in various bordellos to that of a madam.

Like most sex workers, she had several known identities: Mattie/Matilda St. Clair, Matilda/Mattie Sinclair, Amanda Coine, and Amanda Nichol. Likely, none of these were her real name. In 1905 St. Clair told the census taker that she had lived in the state for 15 years and was born in Maine 35 years earlier. Had this statement been true, she would have been nine years old when she was working for Main Street madam Nettie Conley in 1879.

The newspapers enjoyed reporting on her adventures. She was among a group of madams who went to court in December, 1886. According to the St. Paul Globe, the women “attracted considerable attention, but seemed entirely unaffected by the glances cast at them. They were all dressed in the height of fashion and all but one or two treated the whole matter as a big joke to be smiled at and dismissed. Mattie Sinclair was the first one to be called up. She was given until Dec. 14 and placed under bonds of $500.”

St. Clair also made headlines when she went to recover jewelry she had pawned. As one newspaper told the story “the central figures in the drama were Mrs. Amanda Nichol, otherwise known as Mattie St. Clair. It appears that she owned a pair of diamond solitaire earrings, which were held by [W. H.] Harris as collateral for a loan of several hundred dollars.” St. Clair had a writ of replevin in hand when she, her attorney, and a policeman went to Harris to recover the diamonds. “Harris produced the sparks and the woman grabbed them eagerly, at the same time yelling for the officer.” After a struggle with Harris, Mattie broke away and “taking advantage of the lull, ran out the rear balcony and jumped to the ground,” escaping with the jewels.

In 1903, St. Clair moved her brothel to 1115 South Second Street. This was the heart of the Eleventh Avenue red-light district, a two block area with twenty brothels. Although the district was shuttered by the city in 1910, St. Clair continued working until her arrest in 1911, when she seemed to disappear from the newspapers, city directories, and Minneapolis history.

This map was created by Ted Tucker for Petersen’s book, Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront (University of Minnesota, 2013).