Back to Notorious Chicago
The following article was one of a series of three that was written by Charles Washburn, but not credited. Mr. Washburn’s book, “Come Into My Parlor” was published in 1936 and the article contains verbatim sections from the book.1
Chicago Tribune, January 26, 1936
COMMERCIALIZED vice became a Chicago problem in the 1850’s. In at least one instance it was dealt with vigorously.
On April 20, 1857, a deputy sherif accompanied by thirty policemen, descended upon a district known as The Sands. The showing of force was overwhelming and the inhabitants, who had the reputation of being belligerent, were awed. They offered no resistance.
The Sands, was, in the worst sense, a red-light section. Violent men of all sorts consorted there with prostitutes.
A Tribune story of the time asserted:
A large number of persons, mostly strangers in the city, have been enticed into the dens there and robbed and there is but little doubt that a number of murders have been committed by the desperate characters who have made these dens their homes. The most beastly sensuality and the darkest crimes have had their homes in The Sands, so famous in Chicago police annals.
The police detail summarily ordered the occupants of five of the houses—which were shacks of rough boards—into the streets, or rather the sandy paths. Then the detail chopped these structures to the ground.
Next the police proceed to render the same treatment to four other shacks. By this time (late afternoon) a huge crowd had gathered. Current accounts show that this mob had a merry time. It procured buckets of water and poured them on the unfortunate women inmates who were forced out. The sense of humor in early Chicago was not delicate.
Someone—there is a dispute as to who was responsible—set fire to six more of The Sands’ buildings. They burned to the ground. It was averred that the inmates out of spite, set the fires; others declared the police did it. At any rate, with fifteen of its buildings ruined and the inmates scattered over the city, the district as such was abolished.
The Sands itself had a history then. It stood north of the river on the lake front. Lake Michigan had hurled its sands there to make land. Because of the informal manner of its manufacture, there were numerous battles for title. Most of the settlers who built the vice dens claimed squatters’ rights. No one seemed to have settled the legal rights in the matter.
Chicago’s notorious 22d street red-light district (1905-1911), last of the city’s areas of vise, as reconstructed by the artist from information gathered from a number of sources. It was this district, symbolized by the Everleigh club, which in 1912 finally was wiped out by official action and because of public indignation. Virtually the whole of the region indicated here under a red tint was dedicated to commercialized vice and disorderly saloons. Only these dives that were especially notorious are located and named on the map.
It was in 1857 that William B. Ogden, the wealthiest citizen of the rapidly expanding city, purchased the rights of some claimants to the land and ordered trespassers off. The squatters defied him. He persisted in his plans and purchased the rights of such as would sell reasonably. For those who declined offers he figured out the more drastic action.
Long John Wentworth was then mayor. He agreed with Mr. Ogden that The Sands constituted a challenge to good order, and he furnished the policemen for the sensational raid. The deputy sherif, of course, carried a court order for the demolition. He was accompanied to the scene of his task by Mr. Ogden’s real estate agent.
In those days, and for decades afterward, dealing with the prostitution evil as a civic problem followed a pattern of expediency. The business was tolerated. The rule was that, since it could not be abolished, its practitioners must remain far enough in the background that good citizens could, if they chose, fail to notice them. Wickedness was not to be flaunted.
So long as the industry remained in the background the police were the judges of its rights and of its morals. This loose rule prevailed until the red-light had its final quietus about 1912.
It was not to be expected that the looting, the mobbing, and the burning of The Sands would reform the women or drive to work the men they supported. They simply moved to other places, other houses. Chicago still had to contend with them.
The Sands was one vice section. There were others. One was in what we now know as the loop!
Along Wells street was a row of resorts. They became so notorious that the legitimate business men, to get rid of the implications, had the name changed to 5th avenue. Later, when the houses had been driven far away, the name Wells street was restored.
In Civil war times the so-called Conley’s Patch at Adams and Franklin streets was the haunt of Negro prostitutes bossed by a gigantic black woman called the “Bengal Tigress,” who always was ready to battle with the police when her place was raided.
At 219 Monroe street was Lou Harper’s house, the most lavishly furnished then of the city’s vice dens, and as such the forerunner of the Everleigh club. Men of wealth went to this place for their indiscretions.
Chicago’s Levee District at Night
Harper’s Weekly January 22, 1898
Roger Plant’s terrible “Under the Willows” stood at Wells and Monroe streets, a combined saloon and bagnio. On the window shades in gilt letters was the suggestive message, “Why Not?” It was a famous advertising slogan.2
The streets of the downtown section at the end of the war were the hunting grounds of women solicitors. The Tribune estimated that there were 2,000 of these “chippies” constantly plying their trade in the business district—among them many “war widows.”
Their living arrangements were as interesting as they were peculiar. A great many four-story office buildings had been built by the city’s enterprisers, but they had no elevators, and business men were averse to climbing three flights of stairs. The idle top floors were rented to women of the streets. An odd commentary on life in that day.
From Lou Harper’s place was graduated before 1870 Carrie Watson. She had as her “man” one Al Smith, a saloonkeeper, and he furnished the money with which she built a house that eclipsed Lou Harper’s. It was burned in the great fire of 1871, but Madame Watson built another and grander one at 441 South Clark street.”
This woman bridged a historical gap from the Civil war up to the turn of the century. During the World’s Fair of 1893 her establishment achieved greta notoriety. It was ten years later when she was forced to move by edict of Mayor Carter H. Harrison.
“I moved against her,” he wrote in his book, “Stormy Years,” which was recently published, “from a wish to protect the passengers in the Clark street cars, compelled to use this transportation to get down-town from Englewood and the stockyards.”
It required forty years for the public and the city’s administrations to reach the point where Carrie Watson could be told to move from the immediate vicinity of the loop.
Her Clark street house had five parlors and a billiard room. There is even a legend that there was a bowling alley in the basement. Certainly great quantities of wine were sold in this resort at high prices, and this, with her other activities, built up a large fortune for Carrie.
In her more mature years she had a “man” whose name was Christopher Columbus Crabb, whom former Mayor Harrison described as “an imposing looking rooster.” This Crabb, an alert business man where his own interests were involved, died last year at the age of 85.3
When Carrie Watson died Crabb became the consort of Lizzie Allen, she who built the Everleigh club at a cost of $125,000 long before it was sold to the Scarlet Sisters.
After this sale the precious couple became the center of a furor of public enmity. They obtained a permit to build a twenty-room residence at Arlington Place and Lincoln Park West, then, as now, a center of respectability. The authorities could not prevent the building, but they solemnly warned Crabb and Lizzie Allen that the place would be permanently closed if they ever used it for disorderly purposes.
The house was built, but was never put to illegal uses. Lizzie Allen died in 1896, and it was discovered that she had left her estate of $300,0004 to Crabb. Contemporary accounts indicate that it was he who sold, or leased for a long term, to the Everleigh sisters the property that housed the Everleigh club. He vainly thrust himself forward as its protector at the time of the fight to close the resort.
Crabb, Carrie Watson, Lizzie Allen, the Everleigh sisters (Ada and Minna were the names) were unable to resist the recurrent ambition of the red-light to push its sins forward into the clear light of day. This craving for show, for attention, was one of the causes of the eventual downfall of the open trade which they battened.
Carrie Watson, for instance, owned four horses and a carriage. She paid more personal property taxes than many millionaires. Her magnificence was a matter of comment in a book issued in 1891.
This work was entitled “Chicago’s Dark Places.” It had a subtitle: “Investigations by a Corps of Specially Appointed Commissioners, Edited and Arranged by the Chief Commissioner.” The people with whom it dealt, like the author, were anonymous, but there is little doubt that Carrie Watson was the subject of the following dissertation:
There are several keepers of houses of prostitution in Chicago who have accumulated wealth. Their commercial instincts are developed to an extraordinary degree, but how fearful the character of their merchandise! They buy the bodies and souls of young girls and sell them again for gain…
One if the most wealthy of the class in Chicago boasts her philanthropy and charity. She meets at the petty contributions of Christian women to worthy objects and proudly calls attention to her own donations.
Like Ahab’s Jezebel, she can well afford to buy up vineyards and give them away to others when she traffics human souls and makes wealth out iof the vices of men.
South Dearborn Street looking north from 22nd Street. The Everleigh Club is at near right.
It is not to be wondered at that Chicago from 1857 to 1894 had little time to give to a solution to a problem of prostitution. The city suffered its greatest disaster in the fire of 1871 and had to be rehabilitated. Its population was increasing by great leaps; between 1880 and 1890 it gained 500,000 and topped the million mark.
Thousands of problems arose out of the influx of new citizens of all types. The police were over worked, and vice regulation had been thrust as a task upon them. They tried to hold the trade in check, but it cannot be said that they succeeded.
Prostitution was allied with the saloon business, with dance halls, and with politics. Even the opium dens shared profits with it. It has been stated that there was but one opium joint in the city before 1871, but that Chinese brought the pipe with them and that there were 500 smoking resorts in 1885.
Houses of ill fame by the hundreds were known as the haunts of violent men, unsafe for their patrons. There grew up a particular category of places in which thievery and robbery were carried on iun connection with vice.
Such brothels were known as “panel houses” and were specially arranged to facilitate the robbery of the men who entered them. In the rooms to which the men were led were doors with trick locks, easily opened from the outside. It was the habit of thieves to slip in quietly while the patron slept and to steal his money.
Detective Clinton R. Woodlridge, a picturesque thief catcher of the olden days, has estimated that iun 1891, 1892, and 1893 patrons of the “panel houses” lost $500,000 annually through such trickery.
Let it not be understood that no effort was made to ameliorate the conditions that surrounded the vice industry. Earnest men and women strove with might and main to save the boys and girls who fell into the temptations held alluringly before them. The author of “Chicago’s Dark Places” may be cited as an example. He inveighed against the prosperous and powerful men who patronized the joints that were regarded as splendid. He was bitter against procurers. And he painted the dreariest scenes of vice with disgusting reality.
The commissioner who investigated the south side district, beginning at Harrison street, told of finding forty-five disorderly houses in a small area.
“And they are not wretched houses,” he added, “speaking of destitution and want. O, no; the visitors generally come in carriages, and I have counted fourteen in this one block waiting for the ‘lords and masters of creation’ who had gone into the ‘snare of the fowler’ within.”
The seamier aspects of vice were found on the west side, where there was a notorious district known as the Black Hole; on the south side beyond Polk street, where stood Hell’s Half Acre and Coon Hollow. There was even a small district on the near north side. In general it could be said that all the river wards had their open vice districts and that they continued to have them well past 1900.
“On the west side there are places where it is impossible for a man to walk at night without being solicited,” wrote the compiler, “and in passing through in the daytime there are ten chances to one that if he gazes in the direction of the house windows gayky dressed and gaudily painted sirens will seek to lure him to destruction. Some of the girls are white and some are black, but all alike, alas! have the same black purpose of heart.”
Without qualification this booklet asserted that there were men who made their livelihood scouting at the railroad stations and enticing fresh young country girls, just arrived in the city, to horrible dens by false promises of good jobs in pleasant surroundings.
“We have many instances where girls have been thus entrapped,” it was asserted, “and when once in the house, were forcibly detained under lock and key until one of three things occurred—escape, submission, or death.”
Such a picture might be dismissed as overdrawn if it were not that the police records of the time bear them out. The various stations received numerous requests seeking missing girls in the bordellos and too often found them there, unable or unwilling to leave.
Thirty-six years passed from the episode of The Sands to the advent of the World’s Fair of 1893. Prostitution lived, grew, and prospered. The fair itself was a boon to the business; never before had the city held so many visitors with money and sportive inclinations.
Chicago was wide open in the most unpleasant sense of the term—perhaps this was because its citizens, in addition to being busy, were too close to see the situation from a proper point of view.
Map from W. T. Stead’s “If Christ Came to Chicago,”
William T. Stead5 jolted them out of their complacency.
Stead was an Englishman who had been editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. He had the investigative temperament. It is something of a mystery why he should have come so far from home to start a crusade against vice; London might have furnished him an ample field for his talents.
But come he did, about the end of the fair. After looking rather thoroughly into conditions he did two things—he called a meeting of Chicago’s best citizens, and he wrote a book which he called “If Christ Came to Chicago.”
It was a startling work. At its front was a map of the Nineteenth precinct of the First ward, bounded by Harrison street, Polk street, Clark street, and Dearborn street. In this precinct, as shown on the map, were in 37 brothels, 46 saloons, and 11 pawnshops. The nerve center of the district was Custom House place (Federal street).
Along the west side of this place between Harrison and Polk streets were twenty-two disorderly resorts. On the east side were five. Around the corner on Harrison street were two more.
Stead posed, and answered a question:
If Christ came to Chicago what would be do with the Nineteenth precinct of the First ward? One thing is certain—he would not pass by in the other side like the high priest or the Levite.
Stead interviewed a number of resort owners. He visited Carrie Watson’s and spoke of the magnificence and of the carriages at the door awaiting their owners, the patrons. Also he went to see and talk with Vina Fields, colored, whose house was at 138-40 Custom House place.
All the girls in the Fields house were colored, but the patrons were white men; colored men were not allowed to enter. The proprietress told Stead that during the World’s Fair she had had sixty “boarders.” At the close of the exposition this number was cut to thirty or forty.
After writing that Vina Fields was “a very interesting woman,” Stead continued:
The rules and regulations of the Fields house, which are printed and posted in every room, enforce decorum and decency with pains and penalties which could hardly be more strict if they were drawn up for the regulation of a Sunday school.
Stead discovered that Madame Hastings, whose resort was at 128 Custom House place, paid the policemen on the beat $2.50 a week each, with free drinks and free meals whenever they demanded such handouts.
The routine of the day at Madame Hastings’ was monotonous enough. In the morning just before 12 the colored girl served cocktails to each of the women before they got up. After they dresses they took another refresher, usually absinthe…
Then the day’s work began. The girls sat in couples at the windows, each keeping watch in the opposite direction. If a man passed they would rap at the window and beckon him to come in.
Policemen did not permit this type of soliciting, and the girls were frequently arrested.
Stead made a list of all the houses in Custom House place and adjoining streets. It showed that houses from 197 to 228 Plymouth court were owned by a railroad company, or at least that the taxes were paid by the company.
“If Christ Came to Chicago”
W. T. Stead
“If Christ Came to Chicago!” did not have a very wide circulation in Chicago, and only a few copies of it are available today. It is difficult to estimate the influence that Stead had in stirring up sentiment for the eradication of red-light districts. The underworld regarded him as a harmless crank. Because he was an outlander, the good citizens doubtless resented his suggesting courses of action to them.
For his time he was radical on a number of questions, including church unions. Seemingly without accomplishing much, after writing his book he went back to London, where he wrote voluminously almost until his death in 1912. It was a full twenty years after his visit before Chicago’s good citizens got around to their stern, purposeful demand that the last red-light districts be wiped out in their entirety.
In his book he asserted that the Civic Federation of Chicago, incorporated in 1894, was the outgrowth of the meeting he called while he was investigating vice here. This organization has always been active in promoting civic welfare.
Lyman J. Gage, later secretary of the treasury, was the first president of the federation, Mrs. Potter Palmer was first vice president and R. M. Easley secretary. Among the others were Jane Addams, Franklin MacVeagh, and Emil J. Hirsch.
The Custom House district began to fade in the late years of the nineteenth century. Legitimate business was finding the loop constricted and was pushing in on the segregated houses. The space was needed, and the madames had to pack and move out.
Finally, about 1903, there was a final hegira district was made free of prostitution in openly recognized resorts. The inmates and the bosses of them merely moved into the south side levee, which lay between 18th and 22d streets, Clark street and Wabash avenue.
Minna Everleigh (left) and Ada of the Everleigh Social Club
With its accessions from the blocks further north, the levee became one of the largest and most notorious segregated districts on earth and a byword for vice. And there arose the Everleigh club, operated by the Scarlet Sisters. It outshone the gilded splendor of Carrie Watson. The owners dared to advertise it over the country as, next to the stockyards, Chicago’s greatest attraction.
Their fame was their downfall. The advertisements of their resorts angered Mayor Harrison and in 1911 he thrust them forth. It was not long afterward that the whole district was closed by State’s Attorney John E. W. Wayman. Where stood the Everleigh club in the levee’s heyday is now only a board fence and a vacant lot. Vic Shaw’s resort, a little less expensive than the Everleigh club, was made into a tenement for colored people.
It was a titanic effort of the better elements of the citizenship that brought about this stern clamping down on the levee’s great and its lowly alike.
In a previous article was related the story of how a group of citizens in 1910 petitioned Mayor Fred A Busse to appoint a commission to study Chicago’s vice and to make recommendations for its better regulation. The mayor appointed a commission of thirty, the council furnished an appropriation of $5,000, and a widespread investigation was begun.
Mayor Busse went out of office just at the time the report of the vice commission, headed by Dean Walter T. Sumner of the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, was ready for the authorities. Mayor Harrison succeeded him, and with pressure being exerted for the cleanup indicated by the report, directed his first shaft at the Scarlet Sisters Everleigh.
Simplified drawing of the 1936 Chicago Tribune Map
OTHER LEVEE ESTABLISHMENTS
First Ward Ball
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.
Freiberg’s Dance Hall
One of the last brothels to be closed was Freiberg’s Dance Hall which celebrated its last night on August 24th, 1914
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.
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.
CHINATOWN MOVES IN
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
1 Charles Washburn was born in Chicago and began going to school of life at the age of 14 as a copy-boy on The Chicago Tribune. He took a respite from newspaper work in 1910 to conduct a circuit of nickelodeons, first of the cinema houses. In 1912 he returned to The Chicago Tribune as a reporter. After the war he became a broadway publicist and for 12 years has been George M. Cohan’s press agent. Currently (1936) he also represents George Abbott and Phil Dunning.
2 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.
3 Christopher Columbus Crabb died in January, 1935, was a retired sewing machine salesman and his estate was valued at $50,000.
4 The actual sum of Lizzie Allen’s estate was $1,000,000, willed to Mr. Christopher C. Crab, Chicago Tribune, February 19, 1904.
5 John T. Stead was one of the 1,517 persons who lost their lives on the steamship Titanic on its maiden voyage on April 15th, 1912.