Grand Night Out

Written by  Jeff Nichols

A Grand Night Out [See Footnote 1]

On the night of 17 June, 1892, an unlikely party of Salt Lake newspaper reporters, policemen, city councilmen, and a judge had themselves a big night on the town. The embarrassing details were revealed during public trial testimony. The incident demonstrates some of the realities of law enforcement, but it can also give us a sort of tour of the long-gone downtown, with its noisy saloons, theaters, brothels, and other entertainments.

Prostitution was always illegal in Salt Lake City, but like most towns of any size in the late nineteenth century there were well-known and officially tolerated places where men could buy sex. Salt Lake City's downtown regulated brothel district thrived from the 1870s until 1908, when the Stockade district was built on the west side. City authorities sometimes cracked down on prostitutes, but generally followed an informal consensus that prostitution could not be eliminated, and should rather be restricted to a certain zone and regulated by periodic arrests and fines that amounted to de facto licensing. Some brothels operated in the same location for decades, and a few women, especially madams who owned their properties, worked in the Salt Lake brothel network for years. Women sold sex in buildings along 200 South, Commercial Street (now Regent), Franklin Avenue (now Edison), in the interior of Block 57 (now the Gallivan Center), and other transient locations, all located within a few blocks in the heart of the city.

Many of these places were upper floors of commercial buildings – often saloons – while others were located in stand-alone dwellings. City authorities sometimes forced women to move, or to close their doors outright, and prostitutes themselves moved from house to house and town to town for legal, financial, or personal reasons. The network of places where prostitutes worked was shaped by economic and law enforcement considerations, but race also played a major part in the location of brothels. Although all the players in this story were evidently considered "white," they shared space with many people of color and immigrants considered non-white at the time. As in many other cities, Salt Lake officials wanted to keep prostitutes (of whatever color) away from "respectable" white residents and near "less desirable" immigrants, including Chinese and African Americans. [See Footnote 2.] Plum Alley and (to a lesser extent) nearby Commercial were the preferred "Chinatown," while by 1890, newspapers were sometimes referring to Franklin Avenue as "Darktown" and the 1910 census found only African Americans living on that street. [See Footnote 3.]

The City Council Investigates

This system of regulation meant that policemen knew prostitutes and their locales well, and relationships could be intimate - and dangerous. Rumors began to circulate in June 1892 of a policeman who was sexually abusing a prostitute named Rose Miller. On Friday evening, 17 June, six city councilmen who happened to meet on the street decided to investigate the rumors. They walked to Miller's house at 129 East Fourth South street, a large brick building on block 53 next door to the LDS 8th Ward meeting house. This was close to the southern edge of the city. Across the street was Washington Square, where a baseball field and city hay market had recently been displaced by the City and County Building, still under construction. Block 53 had a large open space along Second East street, used as a Chinese vegetable garden and then the new site for the hay market. [See Footnote 4.]

At number 129, the councilmen found two reporters from the Times and the Deseret News already interviewing Miller, and the two members of the council's police committee joined the session. The story she told is a poignant one and reveals much about the precarious and vulnerable life of a prostitute. She gave no details of her early life, but by the early 1890s Rose Miller was a young "inmate" – a brothel prostitute – in houses managed by veteran madams Sadie Noble at 166½ West South Temple, and later Minnie Barton's house at 243 South Main street. At Barton's she met the policeman George Albright, who told her he loved her and wanted to live in her room, often bringing gifts or sending hacks to fetch her. Albright tipped off Miller when arrests were pending and once gave her money to pay her fine. Miller admitted in the stilted language of the interview that she had "occasionally submitted to his caresses." [See Footnote 5.] But when she resisted him he threatened to kill her and twice held a gun to her head. Miller tried to convince a deputy US Marshal to force the policeman out of her room, but he refused to act without a warrant and she had to convince another Salt Lake policeman to haul Albright away. Albright had proven that he was capable of violence: a few months earlier he had shot dead his police captain, an action that was ruled self-defense. [See Footnote 6.] Miller later swore that three other policemen also pestered her for sex. [See Footnote 7.] She claimed she had left prostitution behind and moved to Fourth South with Elsie Anderson, a woman well-known to the police as the madam Elsie St. Omar, and another woman named Goldie Shears. All three later testified they were trying to live "respectable" lives, and their new house was a block away from the nearest known brothels. [See Footnote 8.]

While the councilmen investigated the abuse story, they also treated the visit as a social occasion. One of them asked for beer, and Anderson sent out for some. The reporters passed on a juicy bit of gossip: police chief Edgar Janney and police court justice Frederick Kesler were in Hattie Wilson's brothel at 53 Franklin Avenue, a narrow street cutting north-south through Block 56, one block north. Wilson had her own earlier run-ins with the police. On the previous July Fourth, police captain William Parker had drunkenly demanded that someone play for him on the piano at Wilson's house, then dragged the madam to the police station when she said no one in the house could play. She later testified to his abuse during an investigation into Parker's conduct. [See Footnote 9.] Parker was the man Albright shot dead a few months later. Franklin Avenue was also notorious for a "variety theater" a few feet north of Wilson's place that offered vaudeville shows and, it was rumoured, illegal prize fights. The owners of the theater had fought and recently lost a long battle for a saloon license, a dispute which brought out claims that prostitutes solicited men there or even performed sex acts in the booths. The building still stands today after stints as the Salvation Army's Workingman's Hotel, a brothel, and a print shop, among other uses; it is now numbered 231 South Edison Street. [See Footnote 10.]

The growing party of councilmen and reporters decided to go in search of Chief Janney, either to ask him about the Albright scandal or out of prurient curiousity (unlike the police, the councilmen don't seem to have been familiar with these places). They probably turned west on Fourth South and north along First East, not yet known as State Street. If so, they walked past lumberyards, corrals, livery stables and a few scattered houses, many of adobe at a time when city residents were gradually replacing such pioneer structures with wooden and brick buildings. At the corner of First East and Third South stood the handsome Hotel Knutsford, just a year old, one of the prime stopping places for traveling businessmen and VIPs. The Knutsford boasted of its 350 rooms, electric lighting, and steam heat. [See Footnote 11.]

The party would have turned east on Third South, then north onto Franklin. No. 53, Hattie Wilson's place, was probably one of several attached adobe houses on the east side of the narrow street, which was mostly residential. One councilman later testified that there was music and laughter coming from the house as they approached, but that when they knocked, everyone inside rushed to another room. Wilson denied that the chief was inside, but they saw him peering out of a window and "the two reporters went into the house, and made arrangements" and the councilmen were called in. They found Chief Janney with a sheriff from Wyoming, a Salt Lake detective, and another policeman. Police court justice Frederick Kesler was stretched on a couch smoking a cigar. He looked at the new arrivals and said "in a smiling and joking way, 'I plead guilty to the charge and will fine myself $25.00,'" the standard fine for "resorting to a house of
prostitution" and one Kesler had imposed on many "resorters." [See Footnote 12.] 

The Police Investigate

Janney worried out loud that the councilmen were somehow out to embarrass him, but they assured him they were not. He offered an explanation for his presence which made clear that his night had begun earlier and ranged farther than theirs had. Janney had been with Kesler and the other Salt Lake police officers at the racetrack, probably at Calder's Park (later called Wandamere) about 5 miles south of the city. George and Mary Calder built the park in the 1860s, and it may have been the first amusement park west of the Mississippi. [See Footnote 13.] There they met the Wyoming sheriff, who was searching for a witness in a murder case whom he believed might be working in a Salt Lake brothel.

The Wyoming man asked Janney to show him around Salt Lake's underground. Their search included "the variety theatre" – possibly the Franklin Avenue theatre, although that appears to have already been defunct, so more likely the People's Opera House on Commercial Street, another north-south street that bisected Block 70 between First and Second South and Main and First East. The owners of the People's, aware of the scandal surrounding such places, had promised a clean and respectable establishment, although when some councilmen had visited "the girls tried to work the 'city dads.'" [See Footnote 14.] In September a "perfectly nude woman . . . crazy with drink" described as an actress at the Opera House was arrested on the street. [See Footnote 15.] It's unclear where exactly the People's Opera House stood. Commercial Street was well-named, and even more notorious than Franklin Avenue: it was a busy, crowded place lined with blacksmith shops, livery stables, boarding houses, small retail stores, Chinese-run laundries, saloons, and brothels. Elsie St. Omar (née Anderson) had been arrested several times for running a brothel there. [See Footnote 16.] One "Prof. Stookey, late of Barnum's" walked a high wire stretched between buildings at the north end of the street in 1890. [See Footnote 17.] A reporter described a rowdy Saturday
night in the "tenderloin district" in 1900.

From a corner there comes the cry of "hot tamales," from another "chicken sandwich" floats on the wind; in a nearby mission there is the sound of a hymn, and this is mingled with a coarse song from a maison de joie nearby; the evangelists on the street are listened to when they can be heard above the roar of traffic and the music from the houses; Japanese, Chinese, negroes and white mix together in a friendly way; occasionally from one of the saloons some tough who has aspirations to "run de place or doie," is seen to shoot out of a door-he doubles his fist, vows vengeance and then slides away; out from a dark and badly-scented alley comes a pale-faced man whose chief occupation in life is the burning of opium; Chinese merchants sit on their doorsteps and indulge in gossip and smoke after their day's trade is over; sad faces peer from the windows of shacks and watch the pedestrian as he ambles down the street; occasionally a female figure flits in from one of the side streets and is swallowed up in the darkness of Plum alley, and it needs not more than one guess from the unititiated to tell where she has gone to.
All this before 12 o'clock. [See Footnote 18.]

Many "respectable" Salt Lakers complained about certain denizens of Commercial Street.

It is a fact that I believe the "Chinese must go" and that it is the coming retail throughfare . . . But there is another element which must be rooted out, viz. the demi monde, who are already trying, with great success thus far, to make it their headquarters. . . . We want to root out the Chinese for they injure our interests. . . . The street is to be paved soon and can be made one of the finest in Salt Lake as regards retail business. We propose to root out the Chinese in our property and it remains for the other property owners to follow our lead and get rid of the prostitutes. [See Footnote 19.]

Another citizen complained of a different racial "problem."

[N]ight after night have I seen these creatures at their doors soliciting "trade" from the passers-by; indeed, it is safe to say that no male can pass up or down the street after nightfall without receiving a pressing invitation from the dusky belles who ornament the doors and windows of their domiciles, dressed in their best Sunday clothes. . . . I submit that it is time the city officers took up the matter and forced these colored dames inside their huts and prevented them from indulging in such flagrant violations of the city ordinances. Their conduct, nightly, is disgusting, immoral, and obscene, and is a menace to the morality of the youth of the city. [See Footnote 20.]

After visiting the People's Opera House and probably some Commercial Street brothels on the night of 17 June, Chief Janney and his guests walked south on Commercial and likely turned west on 200 South, then south on Main Street. The first three blocks of Main below Temple Square were the heart of the city's business district, with commercial buildings two stories or more tall almost (but not quite) presenting a solid front along the street. Just opposite the Walker House, a prominent hotel on the west side of Main, they turned left into one of two ten-foot wide alleys that led between the commercial facades of Block 57, and into the interior of the block. At almost the dead center of the block stood 243 South Main, a large adobe and wood dwelling that was one of the city's most durable brothels. A Swedish immigrant named Emma DeMarr had managed a house there since the mid-1880s, and she continued to live there under that name or her married one, Emma Whiting. She was successful enough that she could hire other women to run the brothel for her, a shrewd move that also insulated her from criminal liability while still ensuring that she profited from the place. She seems to have succeeded at creating a respectable "Emma Whiting" identity separate from the madam Emma DeMarr. DeMarr/Whiting leased 243 South Main to Minnie Barton in 1891, and it was under Barton's management that Rose Miller worked in that brothel. Barton died there in February 1892, leaving the contents of the brothel and nearly $12,000 to another madam (although she had to sue three banks to collect). [See Footnote 21.] By June 1892 the house was being managed by Helen Smith, who would become well-known in the coming years as Helen Blazes in various brothels throughout the city. Emma Demarr/Whiting eventually sold 243 South Main to W. Montague Ferry, a prosperous miner, future mayor of Salt Lake City and donor of some of the land where Westminster College now stands. [See Footnote 22.]

Chief Janney and his party of 17 June 1892 briefly questioned Smith/Blazes at 243 before moving on. They were in the heart of the brothel district: while houses on Commercial and Franklin came and went, those in the center of Block 57 persisted, probably because they were more discreet and somewhat more difficult to find behind the facade of respectable establishments on the outside of the block. Those respectable places included the First Methodist Episcopal Church on the south edge. A few steps east of 243 would have brought the police party to Victoria Place, an east-west alley that opened onto First East. Along the north side of Victoria stood a row of adobe tenements known as "Pugsley's Row" for its long-time owner, Philip Pugsley; they were known to police and resorters as "cribs," the smallest, cheapest and lowest status of brothel, with room for little more than a bed. Behind Pugsley's Row was Kate Flint's house. Flint had
established what may have been the first brothel in the city in 1871 on Commercial Street, but by 1892 she was retired from the business. [See Footnote 23.] On the south side of Victoria Place, a building at No. 7 would be constructed in 1896 where Helen Blazes would preside for years. Just northeast of Pugsley's Row, a large two-story building stood with the address 222 South State Street – famous as the "Three Deuces" brothel. All of these buildings are long gone; most of the block is now occupied by the Gallivan Center. After visiting Victoria Place, the police party moved east to Hattie Wilson's at 53 Franklin half a block away, where the councilmen and reporters surprised them.

Cops and Councilmen On the Town

Once Chief Janney was satisfied that the councilmen weren't out to get him, the enlarged party relaxed. Janney called for beer, which Wilson produced but refused payment for (probably to avoid a charge of selling beer without a license). Some of the party danced with women to music by "the Professor" at the piano or sat on the couches with girls on their laps. Janney eventually suggested that the group travel to No. 5 Plum Alley, as "we were looking up some business, and I said you will miss nothing if you go, you can hear a girl there that is a very fine singer." So the party walked back north up Franklin and turned west toward Block 70, then right on Plum Alley, which paralleled Commercial but ended halfway up the block. Plum Alley was the heart of the city's tiny Chinatown, which counted perhaps 100 Chinese-born residents. [See Footnote 24.] As the complaint earlier suggests, Chinese faced severe prejudice from white residents. One man claimed

We can't afford to run the risk of having our children corrupted by these dirty, immoral, leprous Chinese. The heathen are notorious for their lecherous practices. We constantly hear of their corrupting little girls, . . .if they do nothing worse, who is it that wants their children fondled by these opium-besotted and diseased wretches? [See Footnote 25.]

Number 5 Plum Alley was a two-story brick building on the east side near where Plum intersected with east-west running Olive Street (later Orpheum). The house was known as "the Big V" (probably for the Roman numeral over the door) and was managed by Malvina Beauchamp, another woman well-known to resorters and policemen. The party indulged in more beer and dancing, and one councilman agreed that the woman was "a very excellent singer." [See Footnote 26.] The house had a call system where "a woman would shove a button" and someone would bring more beer. The party finally broke up when the others noticed that Janney "was getting a little more than he wanted." [See Footnote 27.]

The city officials' grand night out was revealed when Rose Miller, Elsie Anderson/St. Omar, and Goldie Shears were arrested on prostitution charges a few days later. There were consequences for some of the night's participants, but not all. Despite their protests that they had gone straight, Anderson was convicted of keeping and Miller of being an inmate of a house of prostitution. [See Footnote 28.] George Albright was fired but never faced charges for his abuse of Rose Miller. Rape was, of course, a very difficult charge for any woman to bring and nearly impossible for a prostitute, as contemporary law was based on a woman's refusal of consent to sex. [See Footnote 29.] Hattie Wilson and the other madams went back to their usual routine of periodic arrests; as long as their houses remained discreet and orderly, they were allowed to operate. Rose Miller was arrested for running a house of prostitution some fifteen months later. [See Footnote 30.] Mayor Robert Baskin was furious atthose city officials who were, in his words, indulging "in a drunken revelry at a house of ill-fame at 1 and 2 o'clock in the morning." [See Footnote 31.] Although he reminded the participants that they had visited illicit houses, he made no move to crack down on brothels. Baskin fired Chief Janney, the detective, and the other policeman, but Janney and the detective were soon re-hired and the detective eventually became chief (before his own scandal caused his dismissal). [See Footnote 32.] Baskin censured the councilmen's and justice's actions but admitted that he had no power over the elected council, which in turn controlled the justice. One former councilman ridiculed the mayor's criticisms.

As a member of the police committee during the last administration I was frequently called upon to make similar tours of investigation in the interest of the city and had Mayor Scott interfered with our plans or reprimanded myself or associated councilmen for our work in this respect we would have told him to take a trip to the regions where his Satanic majesty presides and where his imps hold high carnival. The Mayor has absolutely no right to prevent the councilmen from doing their duty and the insult he has offered them should, in my opinion be resented. [See Footnote 33.]

The council itself determined that it had "no authority" over the partying councilmen's actions, but said there was "no excuse" for Kesler's behavior and eventually fired him. [See Footnote 34.]

The brief controversy over the night out soon faded, and regulation of prostitution continued, although people argued over where the district should be located. "Respectable" residents of Franklin Avenue and Commercial Street conducted an on-again, off-again debate over the "proper" location of the regulated brothel district. For example, 26 women petitioned the city council in 1894 to remove "disorderly houses of the Franklin avenue prostitutes," which owners of Commercial Street property countered with their own petition against such women being moved to Commercial. Yet another petition from Franklin asked that the women be made to stay, since they paid substantial rents. [See Footnote 35.] Chief of Police Arthur Pratt offered a clear defense of regulation, and was reportedly

figuring on a plan to order the fallen to move on to Commercial street, Market street, West Temple, South Temple, State, or some other street where they will be bunched together and kept under proper police surveillance. . . . The Chief reasons that to keep the prostitutes where they are now probably is an injustice to fifty persons, whereas to remove them to some other quarter would undoubtedly be extremely repugnant and equally unjust to 500 or more residents and taxpayers. Chief Pratt, therefore, is endeavoring to solve the problem by working annoyance to the least possible number of respectable citizens and at the same time avoid the necessity of causing the women of lost virtue to scatter in every direction in the respectable residence districts, where there would certainly be a multiplicity of complaints of misconduct, immoral examples and crimes, petty and grave, without number. Experience has taught that the best way to handle the so-called social evil in metropolitan cities is just the way the Chief has been doing, keeping it within restricted limits, properly patrolled, and in this position the chief believes he does not stand alone. [See Footnote 36.]

Women who sold sex, policemen, city officials and other residents would continue to live in close contact with each other. Prostitutes and madams played accepted roles in the city's social life. They were always marginal and morally suspect, but they were known and tolerated, and sometimes welcomed as a sign of a vibrant, modern city. Cops and councilmen probably enjoyed other grand nights out. It would be 1908 before a group of "progressive" city officials decided to break up Salt Lake City's regulated prostitution district in favor of a new, improved one on the West Side. And it would be years later when "reformers" decided to crack down on the regulated district and drive prostitution underground.


1 A brief version of this story appears in Jeffrey Nichols, Prostitution, Polygamy and Power: Salt Lake City, 1847-1892 (Champaign: University of Illinois, 2002).

2 Neil Larry Shumsky and Larry M. Springer, "San Francisco's Zone of Prostitution, 1880-1934," Journal of Historical Geography 7 no. 1 (January 1981): 71-82; and Ruth Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 79.

3 See Sanborn Fire Insurance maps for 1898 and 1911; for "Darktown," Salt Lake City Herald, 9 April 1901; Ronald Gerald Coleman, "A History of Blacks in Utah, 1825-1910" (Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1980); and Coleman, "Blacks in Utah History: An Unknown Legacy," in The Peoples of Utah, ed. Helen Z. Papanikolas (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1976), 115-40. For African Americans on Franklin, see United States Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910, Salt Lake County, Enumeration District 144, sheets 8 A-B [hereafter 1910 Census]. In 1870, 118 "colored" people were counted in the city; see Table XXII, "The Table of Sex," Ninth Census of the United States, Vol. 1: Population and Social Statistics, 606-7. By 1890, 218 lived in the city; in 1900, 278; and 1910, 737; see Table II, "Composition and Characteristics of the Population for Cities of 25,000 or More," Thirteenth Census of the United States: Abstract of the Census (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913), 592.

4 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Salt Lake City, sheet 53, 1889; Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, sheet 115, 1898.

5 Salt Lake City Deseret Evening News, 18 June 1892.

6 Salt Lake City Daily Tribune, 27 November 1891.

7 Salt Lake City Herald, 28 June 1892.

8 Herald, 28 June 1892; Tribune, 28 June 1892.

9 Tribune, 2 September 1891.

10 Tribune, 22 January, 25 March, 4 July, 19 December, 30 December 1891, 1 June 1892. While deemed eligible, the building has not been registered on the National Historic Register;, accessed 12 June 2013.

11 Tribune, 16 April 1893.

12 Tribune, 7 July 1892.

13, accessed 10 June 2013.

14 Tribune, 31 December 1891.

15 Tribune, 28 September 1892.

16 Tribune, 23, 27 August 1890; Salt Lake City Police Court, "Book of Miscellaneous Offenses, 1891-2," Utah State Archives series 4618, p. 198.

17 Deseret Evening News, 1 September 1890.

18 Tribune, 15 October 1900.

19 Tribune, 1 September 1890.

20 Herald, 27 March 1891.

21 Salt Lake City Index of Deaths, 1890-1894, certificate no. C 3070; Case nos. 10326, 10330, 10415 (3d dist. territorial civil case files, 1892).

22 For the sale, see Salt Lake County Abstract Book C1, p. 183, lines 1, 3; 9, 11 October 1909, entry no. 255912; Deed book 7X, p. 127.

23 Nichols, Prostitution, Polygamy and Power.

24 1910 Census, Salt Lake County, Enumeration District 145, sheets 4A, 4B, 5B.

25 Tribune, 10 September 1892.

26 Tribune, 7 July 1892.

27 Tribune, 7 July 1892.

28 Tribune, 28, 29 June 1892; People et al. v. Elsie St. Omer, whose real name is Elsie Anderson, case no. 366 (3d dist. criminal case files, 1892); People et al. v. Rose Miller, case no. 369 (3d dist. criminal case files, 1892).

29 Anne Butler, Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-90 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 111-12.

30 Tribune, 24 September 1893. "Rose Miller" appears in the 1900 census as the keeper of a boarding house in Mercur City, Tooele county. United States Bureau of the Census, Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, Salt Lake County, Enumeration District 146, sheet 6.

31 Tribune, 7 July 1892.

32 For the firing of the police officers, see Tribune, 6 July 1892. For Janney's firing, see Tribune, 1 October 1892. For Sheets' reappointment, see Tribune, 17 August 1892. For Janney's reappointment, see R. L. Polk & Co., Salt Lake City Directory, 1897 (Salt Lake City: R. L. Polk and Company, 1897).

33 Deseret Evening News, 7 July 1892.

34 For "no authority," see Tribune, 13 July 1892; for "no excuse," see Tribune, 10 August 1892. See also Tribune, 11, 24 September, 6 October 1892; and Kesler's obituary, Tribune, 14 January 1935.

35 Salt Lake City Council Minutes, Book Q, October 1894, p. 577; Deseret Evening News, 27 November 1894.

36 Tribune, 28 October 1894.

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  • Location: Downtown Salt Lake City, UT