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Sirens, Courtesans & Ladies of Ill-Repute

Bettie – no last name – in Tucson in the early 1900s.

Bettie – no last name – in Tucson in the early 1900s.

Frontier Tucson had a red-light district like most Western towns. In the late 1870s and ‘80s, prostitutes operated along Maiden Lane in the Wedge between Church and Main. (The Wedge was later demolished to allow for the widening of Congress Street).

The average prostitute’s room or crib was furnished with a double bed and a chair. To attract customers, she sat in the window wearing flashy clothes and heavy makeup.  She might also sit on the porch, raise her feet to the railing, show off fancy underwear and call out: “Come on in, I will show you a good time.”

Rarely are the full names of the prostitutes recorded. They were known as Dijon, Carmen, Toko, Goldtooth, Louie’s Girl, Toughluck, Dutch, Tempest, Four Foot Ten, Cross-Eyes Alice, Eight Street and Madam X. And, when written about, were described euphemistically as sirens, courtesans, soiled doves and nymph de pave.

The 69 prostitutes working in Tucson in 1910 came from France, Mexico, Germany, Japan, Russia, Poland, Belgium, Ireland, Hungary and the United States. The women served a diverse accumulation of teamsters, bull-whackers, soldiers, military officers, miners and otherwise upstanding citizens.

George O. Hand, saloonkeeper and diarist, left records of his visits to prostitutes and what he paid for their services: March 9, 1875, Cruz $1.75; April 10, Big Refugia $2. (What made Refugia worth 25 cents more than Cruz is not noted). His candor was unusual. Most men preferred anonymity.

Houses of prostitution were operated by permit granted by a committee composed of the Tucson city recorder, Tucson city bacteriologist and Tucson chief of police. Numerous city ordinances governed their operations. Ordinance No. 48 dealt with health issues:

“In order to prevent the spread of contagious or infectious diseases within the city and to control houses of ill fame, it shall be the duty of the health officer or his deputy to visit monthly all houses between the first and tenth day of each month and examine each female inmate therein for the purpose of ascertaining whether she may be infected with any such disease, and if found free from such disease, the above named officer shall supply the person examined with a certificate, which certificate shall give the name and residence examined and also state the fact of her healthful condition.”

If any woman was found in the house after failing an examination, she could be fined “no more than $50 and imprisoned along with her madam for up to 30 days.”

Rules also prohibited minors from entering the houses between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., unless they had a lawful excuse.

In general, the City Council and mayor preferred to ignore the issue of prostitution. They would leave the women alone as long as they operated behind closed doors, shaded the windows facing the street and did not make a spectacle of themselves. But the prostitutes were hard to ignore, often making bawdy public displays.

Finally, the good women of Tucson revolted. On November 2, 1891, a delegation of 72 women sent a petition to the mayor and City Council asking that no house of prostitution be allowed to operate within 750 yards of City Hall, the school or any public building.

The petition was voted on and passed and the next day the Arizona Daily Star ran a banner headline: “The Mayor and City Council Cover Themselves With Honor.”

But the prostitutes moved their businesses from Maiden Lane to Gay Alley and kept right on working. Gay Alley (named for Mervin D. Gay) remained Tucson’s red-light district for more than 40 years. Today it is under the Tucson Convention Center parking lot.

Prostitutes were also prohibited from entering any bar or saloon for the “purpose of drinking, playing or carousing or to make any public meretricious play of herself.” For such behavior, she could be fined $15 to $20 and/or be sentenced to10 to 28 days in jail. Nor was she allowed to sing, recite, dance, play on a musical instrument or engage in a game of chance in the saloon.

By unspoken rule, prostitutes stayed on a designated side of the street when shopping on Thursday afternoons and never acknowledged any of the men who were their clients.

In 1905, Levin Manning won the mayoral campaign and set about to eliminate both prostitution and gambling. He won on the gambling issue but not on prostitution.

Ordinance 456 changed the name of Gay Alley to Sabino Street. Headlines announced: “Gay Alley is no more. Notorious Street is given a virtuous name.” It made no difference.

World War II saw another increase in prostitution, and Ordinance 971 was passed on April 5, 1943, allowing police to arrest men who frequented houses of prostitution. The law, patterned after one passed in Phoenix, made it illegal to solicit or sell sex. But it wasn’t until 1976 that Tucson police began to arrest men for patronizing prostitutes.

Photo private collection: research by Jane Eppinga.
©Arizona Capitol Times.

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