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The term “red light district” has several origins. Some say the origin of the red light comes from the red lanterns carried by railway workers, which were left outside brothels when the workers entered, so that they could be quickly located for any needed train movement. Others speculate that the origin comes from the red paper lanterns that were hung outside brothels in ancient China to identify them as such. It was said that the lights were thought to be sensual.
South Dearborn Street looking north from 22nd Street in the Levee district of Chicago, c. 1911.
Nevertheless, every major city had some kind of red light district. For example, New Orleans had its Storyville District which operated from 1897 till 1917 just two blocks away from the French Quarters. The Tenderloin, located in what is now called Chelsea in Manhattan, had its run from 1890 to 1914 before the services moved to Harlem. Chicago’s was called the Levee District located near the intersection of Cermak Road and Michigan Avenue in the city’s Near South Side. It consisted of twenty square blocks. The district, like many frontier town red-light districts, gets its name from its proximity to wharves in the city. It was the largest, the most notorious, and the most vicious of all Chicago’s vice sections. It combined the worst features of the “Badlands,” and “Little Cheyenne,” which had been located in the Loop. It had saloons of unbelievable depravity. Its streets, alleys and dives swarmed with harlots, sluggers, degenerates, dope fiends, thieves, and hundreds of pimps for the 5,000 resident prostitutes.
It was at 2120 South Dearborn, the location of Madam Emma Duvall’s French Em brothel that the first all-mirrored bedrooms were introduced in the early 1890s. The French Em was located just a few doors north of the famous Everleigh Club.
Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna (left) and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin
In the late 1800s, Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna (20 August 1858 – 9 October 1946) purchased a tavern on Clark Street called The Workingman’s Exchange, where he traded food and alcohol for votes. Kenna was elected Alderman in 1897, when he teamed with fellow First Ward Alderman (each ward had two Aldermen until 1923) “Bathhouse” John Coughlin (15 August 1860 – 11 November 1938) to create a powerful political machine in what was then called The Levee District, the area just north of 22nd Street along the east bank of the Chicago River.
The Levee in 1910
In order to receive protection, Levee inhabitants would annually attend the biggest event in the district, The First Ward Ball. The First Ward Ball was an annual event in which Levee residents gathered to fun and celebrate the triumphs brought to them by Michael ‘Hinky Dink’ Kenna and “Bathouse” John Coughlin.
Many places in the Levee District were shut down in 1911, but it limped on for two more years. One of the last brothels to be closed was Freiberg’s Dance Hall which celebrated its last night on August 24th, 1914
Chicago’s Levee District at Night, Published in Harper’s Weekly February 12, 1898.
Bed Bug Row
The lowest part of the Levee was “Bed Bug Row.” It was a group of 25 cent brothels mostly occupied by black girls. The section was at least as bad as the cribs of New Orleans or the cow-yards of San Francisco. It had gangs of panderers and white-slavers, classes in which young girls wee taught various methods of perversions after they were “broken-in” by professional rapists. It also provided entertainers for stag parties, peep shows for young boys, and drug stores where dope addicts congregated and openly gave one another injections of cocaine and morphine. One store even provided hyperdermic needles. Bed Bug Row was located between Dearborn and Federal and 19th and Archer.
The Gray Wolves were corrupt Chicago aldermen who held office from the 1890s to the 1930s.
The Gray Wolves were led by First Ward aldermen “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and “Hinky Dink” Mike Kenna, and Johnny Powers of the Nineteenth Ward.
The Chicago City Council frequently gave franchises to private businesses to maintain public services. Many businesses bribed the aldermen to be awarded such contracts, a practice known as “boodling”.
In 1895 the Gray Wolves awarded a franchise to the non-existent Ogden Gas Company to force the existing franchise holder to buy up the rights of Ogden Gas. This and similar schemes resulted in the formation of the Municipal Voters League in 1896 to throw the Gray Wolves aldermen off the council.
Lincoln Steffens, a muck-raking reporter from McClure’s Magazine was the first to describe these aldermen as gray wolves “for the color of their hair and the rapacious cunning and greed of their natures.”
Jim Colosimo, brothel and cafe owner, was one of the most powerful crime bosses in Chicago in 1920. His Colosimo Cafe here was famous around the world, no other place could compete with its star entertainers and the beauty of the chorus girls. Potter Palmer, Marshall Field, Al Jolson, George M. Cohan and Al Capone were regular customers. The cafe was located at 2126 S. Wabash.
On the morning of May 11, 1920, when Colosimo entered the cafe, a gunman stepped out from the cloakroom and shot him twice behind the ear.
The killer was never found, but many think that the killing was ordered by Colosimo’s longtime friend and partner, Johnny Torrio. In 1949, Colosimo’s former cafe was a cafeteria for a short time, then reopened as a burlesque bar. In 1976 it housed a sign company. It was demolished shortly after that, and the site has been a vacant lot in recent years.
When the Levee was closed in 1912, the Chinese living in the original Chinatown at Clark and Van Buren in the Loop, began moving south to Armour Square. Some historians say this was due to increasing rent prices. Others see more complex causes: discrimination, overcrowding, a high non-Chinese crime rate, and disagreements between the two associations (“tongs”) within the community, the Hip Sing Tong and the On Leong Tong. The move to the new South Side Chinatown was led by the On Leong Merchants Association who, in 1912, had a building constructed along Cermak Avenue (then 22nd Street) that could house 15 stores, 30 apartments and the Association’s headquarters. While the building’s design was typical of the period, it also featured Chinese accents such as tile trim adorned with dragons.
In 1921, after an expansion of Chinatown and association membership, the On Leong Merchant’s Association purchased the property at 2216 S. Wentworth Avenue for a new, more majestic building that would reflect the vitality and traditions of this rapidly-growing community
On Leong Merchant’s Association Building, 1928
2216 S. Wentworth Avenue
Other Infamous Places near the Levee
Roger Plant’s resort at the northeast corner of Wells and Monroe was one of the wickedest vice resorts in the country in the 1860s. The police called it the “Barracks” but Roger called it “Under the Willow” because of a lone willow tree on the corner. There were about 60 rooms in the shacks that made up Roger’s resort, and in them was practiced virtually every sort of vice and criminality known to man. There was a saloon, three brothels, and dens where young girls were broken in by a dozen men and then sold to bordello’s. It was believed that a tunnel ran from the brothel under Wells Street to the vice dens by the Chicago River. This tunnel, which would have been the result of several subterranean rooms that were built when the city raised its level by 14 feet and the term “underground” became coined as organized crime activity. One of the tenants here was Sammy Caldwell, a burglar who was said to have been the first to gag and bind his victims with plaster and tape.