Many years ago, when I first told my mother about my historical research on prostitution in Mobile, she responded: “Did you know that our home was built from recycled bricks from a downtown brothel? Your father watched the workmen raze the building and load the bricks into a dump truck for the trip to Belle Chene Drive. He always said, ‘If those bricks could talk!’” During my dissertation research, I had unearthed some primary sources on prostitution, but my mother’s comments added a personal context for this topic. As I delved more deeply into this subject, I realized that even a cursory historical glimpse reveals a unique perspective on Mobile’s diverse political, cultural and social fabric over the past 300 years.
Introduction of the Hush-Hush Industry
In his “Colonial Mobile, ” attorney-historian Peter Joseph Hamilton cites cartographic evidence suggesting that prostitutes arrived in town with the first French settlers. A 1711 French map identifies a tract of land with houses near Bienville’s residence as “emplacement occupées par plusieurs femmes” — an area occupied by several women. Hamilton also notes that in January 1721, 25 prostitutes from a Paris prison were transported to Mobile as potential wives for French colonists. (These women are not to be confused with the well-known Pelican Girls.)
From the Colonial Era (under French, British and Spanish rule) into the early 19th century, as a frontier military outpost inhabited largely by young men, Mobile was a magnet for prostitutes. Of the three European powers that colonized Mobile, the French and Spanish exhibited the most tolerant attitude toward the “world’s oldest profession.”
As Mobile evolved into a bustling seaport in the early 1800s, upriver planters who were in town for the annual cotton-marketing season, consorted with women of the night in boarding houses, hotels, cafes, saloons, gambling dens and various “low dives” along the waterfront. This assortment of gentlemen’s “recreational facilities” collectively was known as “Shakespeare’s Row.”
Vague and Random Regulation
During the early Antebellum Era, city officials classified prostitution in the same category with vagrancy and public intoxication — threats to the “peace and order of this town.” An 1819 ordinance, without specifically mentioning prostitution, prohibited any “disorderly, ” “riotous” or “quarrelsome” behavior in public buildings and private dwellings. Fines for “keeping a disorderly house” ranged from $10 for a first offense, to $25 for each subsequent violation of this ordinance. While the basic elements of the “disorderly house” ordinance remained in effect for at least 40 years, the 1859 “City Code” specified that “all public prostitutes, or such as lead a notoriously lewd or lascivious course of life, ” “all persons of evil life or ill fame, ” “disorderly or dangerous and suspicious persons, ” vagrants and drunks fell within the city’s law enforcement purview.
But, policemen and other city officials with only rudimentary educational backgrounds were responsible for actually interpreting the meaning and intent of such ordinances. Consequently, convictions and punishments usually were inconsistent. In March 1829, Sophia Tucker was convicted of “keeping a riotous and disorderly house” and was ordered to post a $300 “good behavior” bond. If she again violated the law within six months, she forfeited her bond and would be sentenced to at least 60 days in the workhouse. On the same docket, Louisa George, “a common prostitute and vagrant, ” had to vacate the city within 48 hours.
Moreover, the severity of actions in prostitution cases ordered by elected officials often reflected the perceived social status or political influence of the plaintiffs and defendants. In December 1839, in response to a citizen’s complaint that a house owned by Dr. C. L. Strother on St. Michael Street, between Cedar and Lawrence streets, “occupied by a sett [sic] of lewd women is a nuisance, ” the mayor and aldermen issued no fine and asked the city marshal to investigate.
Despite inconsistencies in enforcing prostitution ordinances prior to the Civil War, one fact remains very clear — Mobile never experienced a shortage of “fallen doves.” Since many women obviously did not identify themselves as prostitutes, historians can only offer an educated guess about how many of them resided in Mobile during the 19th century. Nevertheless, the U.S. Census records offer some tantalizing clues. In July 1860, 76 single, white women between the ages of 16 and 36 lived in four all-female boarding houses on one street in north Mobile’s seventh ward. Since this area of Mobile was well known for its brothels, these women quite likely were prostitutes. Only three of these young women were native Alabamians; the others hailed from across the United States and from England, Ireland, Scotland and Canada.
Mobile’s Antebellum Era prostitutes lived as transients, dividing their time between the Port City and other Gulf Coast locales. U.S. Mail steamships periodically delivered prostitutes to Mobile from New Orleans. For example, the passenger manifest for the steamer Southern for May 17, 1842 included Miss E. Norton, age 20, whose occupation was designated as “Lady of Pleasure.” Less than a month later, the Southern deposited 20-year-old Miss E. Smith and 27-year-old Miss Daunn in Mobile. The manifest described the two women, respectively, as “Lady of Pleasure” and “Lady of Easy Virtue, ” without any further explanation of the difference between their occupations.
At least a decade before the Civil War, as “fallen doves” continued to immigrate to Mobile, prostitution became intertwined with the Carnival season’s celebratory activities. In September 1847, two aldermen filed a complaint against merchant John Bloodgood’s annual sponsorship of “Whore Balls” on Royal Street, which “do not disperse until daylight … frequently end in broils [sic] and affrays, which are pregnant with evil, and injurious to the city.” After paying “a reasonable tax, ” Bloodgood was allowed to continue hosting the balls. The Bloodgood case exemplifies the city’s lenient approach toward prostitution during that era, regardless of any existing prohibitive municipal ordinances.
Birth of Red-light District
Reconstruction in Mobile witnessed the first significant shift in this laissez-faire policy regarding prostitution. In the autumn of 1865, the presence of a large contingent of federal troops expedited this policy change. Acknowledging the direct correlation between prostitution and venereal disease, federal authorities, by virtue of Special Order No. 19, established a hospital at 186 St. Anthony St. to register, examine and treat “abandoned women.” This new clinic’s nearby neighbors were the Medical College of Alabama and U.S. Marine Hospital, which for many years had quietly provided free medical care for prostitutes and their clients, including numerous merchant sailors. Yet, Special Order No. 19’s emphasis on prostitution’s threat to public health bolstered Mobile’s first systematic effort to monitor and regulate the “flesh trade.”
Despite federal officials’ concerted attempts to identify women in need of treatment, the city’s mortality records graphically reveal the details of these women’s sad lives. For example, on Feb. 6, 1871, Ella Johnson, a 25-year-old black prostitute, died of convulsions. And, the unnamed son of another black prostitute, Matilda Green, was stillborn on July 9, 1871.
In the 1870s and 1880s, city officials expressed little sympathy for the prostitutes’ plight. But, in September 1888, in response to public outcries due to the rapid increase in crimes associated with prostitution, the general council and Mayor Joseph Carlos Rich officially established Mobile’s first “Red-light District.” This so-called “Restricted District” confined “all houses of ill-fame … maintained for purposes of public prostitution” within the boundaries of St. Anthony, St. Michael, Lawrence and Warren streets. The Restricted District survived virtually intact for 30 years, with slight adjustments to its borders in 1897 and 1913.
During the three decades of the Restricted District’s existence, municipal officials, with a wink and a nod, condoned and protected prostitution in north Mobile. While reluctant to say so publicly, civic and business leaders understood that the city’s prosperity depended to some extent upon its ability to compete for visitors with the South’s premiere vice capital — New Orleans. Ultimately, the public debate over “legalized, regulated” prostitution in Mobile pitted the forces of tolerance and maintenance of the status quo against the moral reformers who eschewed any compromise on this issue.
Emergence of Vice Squads
The ranks of Mobile’s moral reformers cut a wide swath across the white middle and upper classes, including physicians, clergymen, attorneys, educators and merchants. Beyond their anti-prostitution stance, they also supported other moral reforms such as Prohibition, censorship of films and theatrical performances, and “blue laws” that forbade baseball, vaudeville, movies and other secular activities on the Sabbath. As in other Southern cities and towns, ministers were particularly outspoken about moral reform.
In 1900, Presbyterian minister John R. Burgett (Peter J. Hamilton’s father-in-law) wrote: “There is a large … influential element in our community that seems bent on making Mobile a sort of Paris or Venice where the pleasure seeker may find whatever is gratifying to his feelings, tastes and desires.” The Rev. Burgett declined to publish any of the names among this “influential element, ” but he apparently was referring to Mobilians who patronized Mardi Gras.
In 1907, one of Burgett’s close friends, and an even harsher critic of vice in Mobile, Baptist clergyman W.J.E. Cox, published a tract entitled “Some of the Immoral and Damnable Effects of Mardi Gras.” After issuing a disclaimer that he “was not against fun, ” Cox describes the scene he had personally witnessed on Mardi Gras Day: “Disreputable women were permitted to parade our streets, clad in indecent garments, advertising their shameless character and dirty lives. Some unmasked men paraded the streets with them, going from barroom to barroom, and there engaged in such orgies as would have caused ancient Rome to blush.”
Cox’s ally, attorney Edward W. Faith, circulated a questionnaire to 500 prominent downtown merchants, supporting an ordinance prohibiting masked women from patronizing saloons during Carnival season. Faith’s questionnaire pointedly suggested that any masked women who imbibed in saloons alongside men were prostitutes. The city council overwhelmingly rejected the proposed ordinance.
Also in 1907, Belle Inge, wife of Dr. Harry T. Inge, wrote privately to the governor: “Our mayor [Pat J. Lyons], is Catholic and you know what that means; … the whole trend of thought along those lines in a Catholic city is one of tolerance.” The Mobile Daily Register’s editor, Erwin S. Craighead, a spokesman for the city’s civic-commercial leadership, tersely dismissed such sentiments: “We are somewhat Frenchified down here and take our manners and customs from the old-time inhabitants.”
As years passed, Mobile’s Restricted District’s location frequently surfaced as a lightning rod issue in local and state politics. In 1913, the Medical College of Alabama and U.S. Marine Hospital petitioned the city commission to relocate the district. Since these facilities had thrived for many years in this neighborhood, their directors’ sudden squeamishness toward the district seemed more than slightly hypocritical and disingenuous to city officials. North Alabama legislators who sought to move the Medical College to Birmingham added their voices to the protest, citing the district as an obstacle to recruitment of young men from the state’s “best families.” The city commission acquiesced to these complaints and moved the district several blocks farther to the northwest, which immediately elicited angry responses from nearby homeowners and businesses, both black and white. James K. Glennon, who owned several buildings in the old district, predicted that the relocation would lead to the spread of streetwalking by prostitutes in “respectable areas” of the city, accompanied by an increase in crime and depreciation in property values.
Several women’s reform groups and the Mobile Chapter of the American Socialist Party lobbied the city commission to outlaw prostitution in any form. This latter organization also advocated the publication of the names of attorneys and bail bondsmen who protected prostitutes from the law “so that all may know who is in league with or profits by this vice.”
In January 1918, the Citizens’ Committee on Social Hygiene, led by businessmen John H. Phillips and Harry Hartwell, Juvenile Court Judge Jesse Hogan, Rabbi Alfred Geiger Moses and Father T.J. Eaton, proposed an ordinance to abolish the Restricted District. As in New Orleans, the U.S. Army also notified the city commission that troops would not be trained in or near a city with a red-light district. Mayor Harry Pillans reluctantly signed the ordinance eradicating the Restricted District. He stated that while he and his two fellow commissioners favored ordinances to regulate and not “protect this business, ” they believed this was “an opportune time to … strik[e] from the City’s code of laws the last semblance of … acquiescence in the maintenance of commercialized vice.”
In 1918, city commissioners, obviously anticipating effects of abolishing the Restricted District, adopted ordinances prohibiting the use of hotel rooms for “illicit assignations” or “unlawful cohabitation” and streetcars “for an immoral purpose.” In 1920, Mayor Pillans lamented that the city’s latest attempt to deal with prostitution had achieved “little success” and that streetwalking had spread to “virtuous neighborhoods.” Even the most fervent moral reformers realized their successful campaign to close down the Restricted District was at best a pyrrhic victory because women of the night had simply relocated to new venues rather than abandon the questionable ways of life. According to Mobile Police Department reports, even today it remains an active enterprise in the Bay area, but that is a story for another time.
Dr. David E. Alsobrook, director of the History Museum of Mobile, was born in Eufaula and grew up in Mobile. Prior to his return in 2007, he served as supervisory archivist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and as first director of the G.H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton Presidential Libraries.
text by David E. Alsobrook