Vignettes: 19th-century brothels and the lost history of prostitution on the Minneapolis riverfront.

Penny A. Petersen is author of Minneapolis Madams, the surprising and riveting account of the Minneapolis red-light district in the late nineteenth century and the powerful madams who ran it. In their heyday Minneapolis brothels constituted a substantial economic and political force in the city. Penny digs deep into city archives, newspapers, and other sources to illuminate the Minneapolis sex trade and its opponents. Usually written off as deviants, madams were actually crucial components of a larger system of social control and regulation. Here are a few vignettes that didn’t make it into the final book.

Minneapolis’ First Street red-light district on the Mississippi River. This is a portion of the map “Bird’s Eye View of Minneapolis,” published by A. M. Smith in 1891.

“Five Women Arrested for Contempt of Police Commission”

One 1887 newspaper reported a telling interaction between African American madam Ida Dorsey and a police captain who paid an early morning visit to her First Street district bordello. From the beginning of her career in Minneapolis, Dorsey was a source of fascination and frustration to those in charge. There was the urge to mete out harsh punishment to her, coupled with the resigned recognition that Dorsey was usually just beyond reach because of her connections to the elite.

Dorsey “danced the nac-nac [can-can, a dance then banned in the city] and otherwise disported herself in a wild and bacchanalian way. She also expressed a contempt for the immortal police commission and doubted the ability of the policemen to find anything but their way home after dark.” In the captain’s estimation, Dorsey’s speech “amounted to sacrilege” and arrested all the women in the house “with the exception of the profane and impious Ida,” who had miraculously escaped.

With a few words, Dorsey had goaded the policeman into arresting her staff for something they did not do, that was not illegal namely speaking ill of the police commission, and letting her go free. Her actions heaped ridicule upon the captain, who was described as having “an exalted idea as to the importance of his own position,” while providing her establishment with free publicity. The reporter concluded that the women would probably appear in court “this morning for contempt of the police commission and Capt. McKernan.” [1]

“Police Court”

As two 1871 newspaper articles illustrate, the commercial sex industry was tolerated in Minneapolis and St. Anthony, then a separate town on the east side of the river, but certain conventions had to be observed. In one account, “four wild gazelles [prostitutes], Lottie Prarauche, Mollie Ellsworth, Mollie St. Clair and Jennie Jones were fined $10 and costs for residing in a house of ill-fame.” This was the standard fine for such an offense and the four would likely return to the court the following month to repeat the process.

The story reported that “Officer Day arrested two women on Seventh Street, near Buchanan [Northeast] named Jennie Green and Vonia Roberts, who have been keeping for some time a house of ill-fame in the said locality. Their violation of the propriety and dignity of the statute of the city has been flagrant.” The women were brought before the court, pleaded guilty, and were fined only $5, on the condition they leave town immediately. While recognized red-light districts had not quite coalesced along the riverfront on Main Street and First Street at this early date, bordellos would not be accepted in some neighborhoods. Apparently, Green and Roberts had blatantly broken too many rules and were forced out of the city. [2]

“Places of Sin”

Early in 1894, Alderman P. W. McAllister proposed a “startling ordinance” to register all prostitutes in Minneapolis as well as “the names of owners of property used for immoral purposes.” McAllister was hoping to compel all, not just some, sex workers to pay the monthly fines and “to get at the people who rent property to the women at exorbitant prices.” The suggestion produced “an uproar, everyone laughing and talking at once” in the council chambers. Apparently, McAllister’s action inspired the Penny Press to compile a list of all the property owners of bordellos and the madams who operated within the city. The list and several accompanying articles were later reprinted in the Minneapolis City Council Proceedings.

One account opened with the question of who is “interested in the houses of ill-fame in Minneapolis besides the ‘madams’ who run them, and who owns the property?” Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer was a broad swath of citizens had a stake in the commercial sex trade, ranging from the clients who patronized it, to the landlords who extracted exorbitant rents from the madams of “$100 to $150 per month for a weather beaten structure for which they could not get $25 per month from anyone else.” Many madams could “tell startling stories of being imposed upon shamefully by merchants who pose as highly respectable church members,” all the while supplying bordellos with overpriced goods and services. Newspapers also benefited from the established bordellos. One article noted that McAllister only “gave the technical [legal] description of the property, instead of the street and number, so that the average man is greatly in the dark as to precisely where all the houses of ill-fame referred to are located.” The Penny Press helpfully supplied the missing addresses of the bordellos, which likely increased newspaper sales in the process.

Despite the fact that prostitution was illegal, it had operated openly in the city for so many years “that it has come to be regarded as a semi-legitimate business, so long as the women pay their licenses–or fine, if you like the word better–every month, and keep what is known as an orderly house.” Noting it was obvious “to everyone who has read the laws bearing on the subject” that the police could shut down every known bordello, but “experience, however, has taught public officials that such a policy is not the best one, nor conducive to the best interests of a city.” Closing brothels operating within established red-light districts moved the businesses to other parts of the city making it harder for law enforcement to maintain surveillance and disturbed a whole new group of neighbors. Perhaps it was not unexpected when McAllister withdrew “his motion for the numbering and registration of all lewd women of the city” and those who owned the bordellos. [3]

“Well-Known Christians See a Few Sights in Minneapolis”

In 1890 a Saint Paul newspaper carried an account of an apparent competition between two Minneapolis branches of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in their fight against liquor and prostitution. The contest had begun when Rev. G. L. Merrill had “personally conducted [an] excursion to the haunts of vice” both to spread the gospel and to gather material for future sermons.

Subsequently, a group of about ten men and women from the rival Central W. C. T. U., armed with copies of a religious tract called “The Sure Road to Eternal Bliss,” conducted their own tour of the entertainment district near the First Street red-light district. The reformers had followed the path of the more typical pleasure-seeking clients starting at a saloon that offered live performers as well as alcohol and then moving on to bordellos, although with a different purpose in mind. Their first visit was to the Jumbo Saloon on Washington Avenue South, “where they sat in the wine rooms, listened to a short-skirted, sharp-voice female” give a vocal performance. From there, they found “their way to the somber-hued, oriental classic retreat [bordello] owned and operated by one Ida Dorsey” located at 116 Second Avenue South. The visitors sat there silently “while the dusky damsels who there abide chewed gum, stared and talked in an unintelligible jargon.” When it became obvious that the visitors would not order alcohol or pay the piano player, they were told to leave. Next the group visited a brothel at 201 First Street South operated by Jenny Irwin, but were told at the door “unless they would spend their sacred shekels for beer and in all ways conform to the ancient admonition, ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ they would not be allowed in. These representatives of nineteenth century high moral ideas asserted their willingness to conform to custom, but basely betrayed their hosts, and once in the parlor they sat down, but none of them said ‘Open a bottle.’ The men looked scared and the women foolish.” The writer contrasted their behavior with that of Morrill, who when he “went slumming he paid his score like a man” offering money in exchange for information. The madam told the visitors to “buy some beer and be sociable or get out.” She ordered the “professor” to start playing the piano and “one of the devotees of pleasure slightly elevated her skirts and began the can-can, but the visitors had had enough” and fled, abandoning their plans to visit “several gilded palaces of sin” in the course of the evening.

The reporter asked what good had come from this excursion, observing if the reformers really wanted to talk to the bordello inhabitants about changing their lives, an afternoon call would have more effective instead of interrupting the women while they were working. He did not believe the reformers were improved by the tour as the “knowledge of evil never did any one any good. This expedition simply gratified a whim and furnished the participants something to talk about for the next few weeks.”

The reporter, who likely accompanied the group, had also gotten something from the adventure, namely a subject for his story that highlighted the absurd actions of people in rival Minneapolis. [4]

“Wayward Mabel–Prefers a Life of Shame to Home Comforts”

Women entered the nineteenth century sex trade for any number of reasons with economic necessity probably being foremost. Some, however, chose it for reasons that are harder to unearth as illustrated by an 1894 newspaper account. Eighteen-year-old Mabel Folstrom favored the life of a parlor prostitute over living with her mother. After Mrs. Folstrom had, with the aid of the police, removed Mabel from a First Street bordello, the young woman was arraigned in municipal court where she “maintained an indifferent careless demeanor, which shocked” the regular observers, saying she might go home with her mother, but “I will not live there.” Despite her mother’s efforts, Mabel “has been frequenting bad places for a year, and says she would rather live there than at home.” Perhaps for Mabel, the attention, excitement, independence, and relatively high “wages of sin” were more appealing than life at home. Judge Holt sentenced Mabel either to sixty days in the workhouse or a stint in the House of the Good Shepherd, a reform organization. [5]


Penny A. Petersen is a researcher for a historical consulting company in Minneapolis. She is author of Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront and Hiding in Plain Sight: Minneapolis’ First Neighborhood, a history of the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. She has worked as a historic site interpreter and site technician for the Minnesota Historical Society at St. Anthony Falls.

“An utterly engrossing, behind-the-bordello look at the collision between the Mill City’s commercial sex industry, civic corruption, and advocates for sexual purity in the 1800s, Minneapolis Madams is always empathic, never prurient, but often shocking. A gem of sexual and social history, this book illuminates the boudoirs of the long-forgotten red-light districts with insight, wit, and humanity.”
—Paul Maccabee, author of
John Dillinger Slept Here

“Penny Petersen’s unique and well-researched history of a group of Minneapolis madams in the late 19th and early 20th century poses universal fundamental questions that are as relevant and controversial today as they were then. This book will challenge as well as enlighten readers.”—Arvonne Fraser, author of She’s No Lady and former U.S. ambassador to UN Commission on the Status of Women


Blog source material:
[1] “A New Charge–Five Women Arrested for Contempt of Police Commission,” St. Paul Daily Globe, August 22, 1887.
[2] “Police Court,” Minneapolis Tribune, May 18, 1871 and January 7, 1871.
[3] “List,” Penny Press (Minneapolis), February 14, 1894; “List,” Penny Press (Minneapolis), March 3, 1894; “Places of Sin,” Penny Press (Minneapolis), March 8, 1894; Proceedings of the Minneapolis City Council, March 9, 1894, 170-177.
[4] “Visited ‘Tough Joint’s–Well-Known Christians See a Few Sights in Minneapolis,” St. Paul Daily Globe, August 10, 1890.
[5] “Wayward Mabel,” Penny Press (Minneapolis), February 14, 1894.

One thought on “Vignettes: 19th-century brothels and the lost history of prostitution on the Minneapolis riverfront.

  1. Most brothels these days are a den of sexual activity. I think it is important to also consider that there are people who maintain brothels the way they have to be.

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