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Minneapolis Madams

Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Minneapolis Madams
    Book Description:

    Sex, money, and politics-no, it's not a thriller novel. Minneapolis Madams is the surprising and riveting account of the Minneapolis red-light district and the powerful madams who ran it. Penny Petersen brings to life this nearly forgotten chapter of Minneapolis history, tracing the story of how these "houses of ill fame" rose to prominence in the late nineteenth century and then were finally shut down in the early twentieth century. In their heyday Minneapolis brothels were not only open for business but constituted a substantial economic and political force in the city. Women of independent means, madams built custom bordellos to suit their tastes and exerted influence over leading figures and politicians. Petersen digs deep into city archives, period newspapers, and other primary sources to illuminate the Minneapolis sex trade and its opponents, bringing into focus the ideologies and economic concerns that shaped the lives of prostitutes, the men who used their services, and the social-purity reformers who sought to eradicate their trade altogether. Usually written off as deviants, madams were actually crucial components of a larger system of social control and regulation. These entrepreneurial women bought real estate, hired well-known architects and interior decorators to design their bordellos, and played an important part in the politics of the developing city. Petersen argues that we cannot understand Minneapolis unless we can grasp the scope and significance of its sex trade. She also provides intriguing glimpses into racial interactions within the vice economy, investigating an African American madam who possibly married into one of the city's most prestigious families. Fascinating and rigorously researched, Minneapolis Madams is a true detective story and a key resource for anyone interested in the history of women, sexuality, and urban life in Minneapolis.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8857-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. [Illustration]
    (pp. viii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. INTRODUCTION: The Public Women of Minneapolis
    (pp. 1-14)

    In 1867 a Minneapolis Chronicle article sounded the alarm on the “Social Evil,” as prostitution was often called: “It is the duty of a public journal to look after the morals of the community, and warn the people when the approach of an evil threatens to destroy or mar their happiness.” The newspaper’s concern was prompted by a rumor that “notorious prostitute” Mary Robinson, a successful St. Paul madam, was planning to open a bordello in Minneapolis. While the historical record proves otherwise, the reporter seemed to believe Robinson’s plans would be the first documented instance of the commercial sex...

  7. ONE Women’s Work of All Kinds: Paid Labor, Sex Work, and the Reform Movement
    (pp. 15-52)

    In 1874 a nineteen-year-old woman named Mary Rasette came to Minneapolis and found work as a domestic. But according to a Minneapolis Tribune article, she soon “willfully entered a life of shame” when she joined a bordello run by madam Mollie Ellsworth. Once Mary’s father learned of her situation, he removed her from the brothel despite her objections. She later escaped from his custody, and a reporter concluded that it was “probable she has left the city.” While one can only speculate, Rasette may have been avoiding an abusive family situation or looking for adventure, new opportunities, or better wages.¹...

  8. TWO The War on the Madams: Purity Crusades and Liquor Patrols
    (pp. 53-92)

    The brawl between Gillette and Knox may have been the first mention of Nettie Conley in the local press, but it would hardly be the last. Men like Gillette and Knox would frequently abandon their reason, as well as their cash, while in her company. Over her long career as a public woman, Conley openly operated brothels and neither purity crusades, fines, nor a prison sentence kept her down for long. Accounts of men fighting over her favors only added to her reputation, as well as providing her with free advertising. The raven-haired, gray-eyed Conley would be featured in local...

  9. THREE Red Lights along the Riverfront: The Madams Make Their Move
    (pp. 93-122)

    The 1880s had been a time of opportunity for Minneapolis madams; as the city grew in wealth and population, so did they. During this decade, a rough balance was reached between the forces of reform and those representing vice. Neither liquor nor prostitution could be eradicated, but both could be contained within designated geographic areas. Periodically, especially large fines would be levied against some madams, and occasionally one would be sent to prison. Still, from 1881 to 1890, only two Minneapolis madams served any time at Stillwater penitentiary.¹ The arrangement allowed reformers the appearance of being in control, while the...

  10. FOUR Reforming the City: Doc Ames, “White Slavery,” and the End of an Era
    (pp. 123-156)

    Late one April morning in 1910, when most inhabitants of the Eleventh Avenue red-light district were likely asleep, the police department began “the biggest and most sweeping raid in the history of Minneapolis.” Acting at the request of County Attorney Al J. Smith, they swarmed to the “territory on Second Street between Tenth and Twelfth Avenues and Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues between Second Street and Washington Avenue,” enclosing it with “a cordon” of uniformed policemen, while “scores of plain clothes men” started “serving twenty-four warrants on the proprietors. By 1:30 p.m., nineteen were under arrest.” Only the madams, not the...

  11. FIVE Vice Report: After the Bordellos Closed
    (pp. 157-174)

    Once the Minneapolis city fathers made the decision to suppress rather than segregate prostitution, there was a demand (ironically, perhaps) that the entire issue receive serious study. In July 1910, fiftyseven prominent men petitioned Mayor James C. Haynes to conduct an investigation of what they termed the “Social Evil.”¹ Soon a fifteenmember commission headed by Marion Shutter, a Universalist minister, was investigating how law enforcement, saloons, dance halls, economic conditions, home discipline, and “the influx of a new type of foreign element” that has “without question, tended to lower the social and morals stands of the community,” related to prostitution.²...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 175-214)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 215-228)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 229-229)