Originally published in Spectator, May 6, 2004
San Francisco’s reputation as a haven for perverts and weirdos wasn’t born with the Summer of Love in 1968; nor did it begin the decade before, when the Beats set up shop in North Beach. The city has been synonymous with the strange and deviant since the first boards were laid down, and before. Although the modern city fathers like to portray San Francisco’s history as one of chaste quirkiness, San Francisco – both literally and metaphorically – is a city born from the wombs of whores. As a song of the time put it:
The miners came in forty-nine,
the whores in fifty-one.
And when they got together,
they produced the Native Son.
But even the song gets the story a little backwards: the whores were there before the miners. When San Francisco was still a small, muddy village, prostitutes from Chile, Mexico, and Peru were working out of tents on Telegraph Hill.
Gold was discovered in 1848, and in 1849, over 40,000 “Argonauts” swarmed to San Francisco to seek their fortune. Only 700 were women. Women were not just a rarity, but a positive marvel in San Francisco, as wondrous as a giraffe on the street. Men would stop work en masse to watch a single woman pass by.
This translated into a seller’s market for prostitutes. The newspaper carried regular announcements of ships arriving bearing prostitutes, and for a while at least, they were an aristocracy of sorts. In the bars and saloons, a woman could get one ounce of gold (about $16), for agreeing to sit next to a man while he drank and gambled. Anything else was negotiated separately. A visiting Frenchman, Albert Benard de Russailh, found the arrangements to be outrageous, especially those involving the women of his own country. “Nearly all these women at home were street-walkers of the cheapest sort,” De Russailh wrote indignantly. “But out here, for only a few minutes, they ask a hundred times as much as they were used to getting in Paris. A whole night costs from $200 to $400.” He charitably concluded that “There are also some honest women in San Francisco, but not very many.”
Even in boomtown San Francisco, though, not all whores were created equal. Race was the defining factor in how much a woman could charge, with the original Indian and Latina prostitutes at the very bottom; Black and Chinese women were at a slightly higher level, with white women at the very top. Aside from race, there were certain physical characteristics that could fetch special prices. Redheads, for example, were considered especially desirable, and the brass ring was a Jewish redhead. One madam named Iodoform Kate exploited this mythology in the 1890’s by setting up about a dozen redheaded women in “cribs” – small cubicles that lined the streets – and passing them off as Jewish. Whether they were or not, in a few years Iodoform Kate had made enough from her redheads to comfortably retire.
Within a few years, as San Francisco moved from being a collection of shacks and tents to a formalized city, it became more important to at least present the appearance of respectability to the new residents arriving from back East. Between 1850 and 1870, the industries of vice – gambling, drinking, and prostitution – became contained largely in a thirty-five block red-light district nicknamed “The Barbary Coast,” after the pirate-laden coast of Northern Africa.
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The other end of the spectrum was the parlor houses, the aristocracy of San Francisco’s sex trade. They were the most expensive, the most exclusive, and – for better and for worse – displayed the most elaborate range of human sexual ingenuity.
One of the most mysterious customers of the parlor houses came to the Parisian Mansion every morning and paid a single dollar for the privilege of dressing up in women’s clothing and cleaning the entire place from top to bottom. Only Madam Marcelle, who ran the Mansion, knew who he was, and she took his name to the grave.
A less benign regular was Theodore Durrant, a medical student and respected Sunday-school teacher who visited Barbary Coast brothels several times a week through the early 1890’s, carrying a pigeon or chicken in a cage. Sometime during sex, he would slash the bird’s throat and bathe in the blood as it gushed from the wound. Eventually the blood of birds wasn’t enough for Durrant, and in 1895 he was condemned to hanging for raping and murdering Blanche Lamont and Minnie Williams, two young women who attended the church where he taught.
Most of the parlor houses in San Francisco made some pretension at elegance and civility, no matter what other activities went on, but if it was possible for a brothel to abide by Victorian codes of morality, it was the one run by Madam Bertha Kahn on Commercial Street. Both clients and prostitutes were expected to be well-behaved and genteel at all times. Whereas other brothels made quite a tidy side profit off the sale of beer and liquor, Madam Bertha forbade alcohol in her house, as well as ungentlemanly conduct of any kind. Signs on the parlor and bedroom walls reminded visitors to mind their manners:
IN THIS ESTABLISHMENT
Because of its elegance and gentility, Madam Bertha’s house attracted the more elite members of San Francisco’s business and political circles. Less elegant, but no less successful, was Madam Johanna Werner’s brothel on Sacramento Street. Madam Johanna was known for being able to provide her customers with especially young girls – usually between the ages of 14 and 17, and periodically auctioned off the virginity of girls even younger. She was also the first Madam to publicize her brothel through mass mailings of circulars throughout the West Coast, a habit that soon caught on with her competitors. Between her talent for self-promotion and her reputation for specializing, Johanna Werner was able to prosper in San Francisco for a good ten to fifteen years, until the police arrested and jailed her main supplier for selling a 14-year-old girl to a brothel in Portland, Oregon.
Easily the most unique brothel to operate in San Francisco was run by an elderly black woman called Aunt Josie. Aunt Josie’s brothel was a masterpiece of role reversal that seems definitively San Franciscan: here, female clients were able to come and select a man from a book of photos who would then be summoned to the house either by telephone or by messenger. Discretion was Aunt Josie’s watchword; the entrances were hidden from the street, the hallways were darkened, the customers were kept isolated from one another, and they were given silk masks so that their identities were hidden even from the men they hired. Unfortunately, even in San Francisco, there was little demand for such a service, and Aunt Josie’s only customers were a few prostitutes from the other houses who were intrigued by being on the other end of the power exchange for once. The brothel operated for a few months after the 1906 earthquake then closed, partly from lack of business and partly from pressure by the pimps whose prostitutes gave Aunt Josie what little business she did get.
# # #
Although prostitution was allowed to exist openly for many years, it did not do so without opposition from members of “polite society”. San Francisco’s most enthusiastic crusader against vice was one Reverend Terence Caraher, who fought tirelessly not only against prostitution, but against drinking, gambling, roller-skating rinks, and trolley cars. The latter were, according to Caraher, “dance halls on wheels… full of lewd women and beastly men.” Reverend Caraher’s career against sin in the city lasted from 1873 to his death in 1914, except for fifteen years he spent in San Jose from 1885 to 1900. As the city became less of a frontier boomtown and attracted more “upstanding” citizens, Caraher and other reformers had more success with their attempts to shut down brothels and other elements of the red-light district. In the early 1900’s, Caraher was responsible for shutting down two of the city’s most profitable cow-yards: The Nymphia, which held 300 cribs, and the Marsicani, which housed 100 women in 33 cribs. The battle to close the Municipal Crib, a cowyard with 133 cribs on four floors, was much longer, mostly because the profits went directly and openly to city officials, including the brother of Mayor Eugene Schmitz, who owned a quarter interest. According to Herbert Asbury in The Barbary Coast, “…saloon keepers and others who wanted to curry favor with the political powers advertised the brothel whenever possible; strangers who asked policemen where women could be found were directed to it.” After a number of raids and inquiries into the corruption of Schmitz’s administration, the Municipal Brothel was shut down for good in September, 1907. Never again did a cowyard of any size operate in San Francisco.
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Almost as contemptible to Reverend Caraher as the Municipal Crib was the Municipal Clinic, founded in 1911 by the Board of Health to combat widespread venereal disease. For any woman to work in a brothel, she was required to first get a clean bill of health from the Clinic and come back every four days for a checkup. The success that the Municipal Clinic had in reducing the rate of infections in San Francisco’s whorehouses seemed to outrage the city’s moral guardians even more than the existences of the houses themselves; the Reverend Caraher himself damned the Municipal Clinic as “a blow at marriage.” The sentiments of Reverend Caraher and others like him carried the day, and the Clinic was finally closed in May, 1913.
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By the time the Municipal Clinic and Municipal Crib were shut down, the demise of the Barbary Coast itself was already far advanced. San Francisco’s days as a frontier boomtown were long gone, and the influence of moralists and reformers like Terence Caraher was growing. The open prostitution and vice of the Barbary Coast and Upper Tenderloin areas seemed like an ugly blotch on the city. Starting in 1911, there were a series of crusades against the red-light district, including laws restricting women from working in bars and limiting saloon licenses to 1,500 (there were at the time, over 2,800 legal saloons in San Francisco). Prostitution was squeezed into smaller and smaller areas of toleration.
The death-knell for the Barbary Coast came in 1914, when the California legislature passed the Red Light Abatement Act, which held landowners responsible for the use of their property and allowed authorities to seize property that was used for prostitution. The law went into effect on December 18, 1914 and was immediately challenged in court by San Francisco landowners. Enforcement of the act was suspended until early 1917, when the California Supreme Court handed down its verdict supporting the Act.
On February 14, 1917, the San Francisco police surrounded the Barbary Coast, customers out and raiding the brothels inside. Eighty-three brothels were closed that night, and 1,073 women were put on the streets, suddenly homeless. For the first time, streetwalkers became a major part of the sex trade in San Francisco.
For all intents and purposes, that ended the Barbary Coast and officially-sanctioned prostitution in San Francisco. The gleeful licentiousness of the place never left, though, and the descendants of the Gold Rush madams and prostitutes are still a visible part of the city’s culture. The city’s legendary political and artistic scenes include many unrepentant whores and other sex workers, including Margo St. James, Carol Leigh, Annie Sprinkle, and Carol Queen. It is no doubt part of the Barbary Coast’s legacy that they remain such welcome guests in San Francisco’s heart.
- ______. “Minnesota State Law Library: Trial Collection Bibliography, Part 6”
- (June 13, 2003)
- ______.“News From Around the United States.” The Adair County News January 12, 1898:
- < http://web.archive.org/web/20030219074151/http://www.newspaperabstracts.com:80/KY/Adair/1898/JAN.html >(June 13, 2003)
- Asbury, Herbert. The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld. New York:Albert A. Knopf. < http://zpub.com/sf50/sf/hbtbcidx.htm>
- De Russailh, Albert Benard. 1931. Last Adventure: San Francisco in 1851. Translated by Clarkson Crane. San Francisco: The Westgate Press. online excerpt from CD-ROM “Shaping San Francisco” http://web.archive.org/web/20080724192055/http://www.shapingsf.org/ezine/womens/1851/index.html
- Leigh, Carol. “San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution Final Report 1996: A Brief History of Government Policies Toward Prostitution in San Francisco.” June 8, 2003 < http://www.bayswan.org/sfhist.html>
- Mullen, Kevin “When Prostitution Was Semi-Legal in Frisco.” San Francisco Examiner, December 29, 1993: A-17