In the early 20th century, the city of Springfield set aside a few square blocks where prostitutes were allowed to ply their trade without interference from police. The theory behind the quasi-legal “segregated district” was to keep the rest of the city free of bordellos and streetwalkers.
Like many such initiatives, the idea was only partly successful.
Mayor John Schnepp created the segregated district shortly after taking office in the spring of 1909, part of what Schnepp – and the Illinois State Register, which acted as Schnepp’s house organ – said was a wide-ranging crackdown on Springfield’s wide-open prostitution industry.
The city council wasn’t involved in forming the district, and its boundaries were never explicitly laid out. However, the segregated district apparently was understood to take in Madison and Jefferson streets along with the cross streets from Seventh to Ninth streets. The 1914 Springfield Survey said simply the district was “immediately north of Washington and east of Seventh Streets.”
Anything went, in prostitution terms, inside the segregated district. Outside it, however, police vowed to close down houses of prostitution and quickly arrest streetwalkers.
Before the district was created, the Register said:
(T)here were houses of prostitution in the best business districts of the city and in some of the best residence districts of Springfield. … (T)he city was literally infested with “street walkers,” and immoral women were regularly “hustling” at railroad depots and other public locations.
Pre-Schnepp, the newspaper said, the routine was for each prostitute to be arrested for disorderly conduct once every three months. She would pay a preordained $3 fine – an actual cash outlay, with costs, of $7.10 – and go back on the street, with no other consequences.
The collection of this blood money, which has been a practice during many former administrations, has been a most revolting blotch upon the fair name of Springfield and a means of much grafting by dishonest officeholders. …
The city has been cleansed the past few years, and the recent measure in which the quarterly fine system is abolished is a fitting climax to a long and tedious fumigation of municipal debauchery.
Under the present administration the number of prostitute women has been reduced to a minimum, and male hangers-on, known in police circles as “pimps,” have long since been given ordered to leave the city. The recent order issued by Mayor Schnepp and most rigidly and commendably executed by Chief of Police (Henry) Kramer and his aids (sic), demanding that houses of prostitution be confined to a given district, has segregated these resorts and so cleaned upper floors of business buildings until it is no longer damaging to be seen entering a stairway in a business district. Streets that once were included in the tenderloin district are now looked upon as respectable localities. East Washington street between Seventh and Ninth streets now has flats tenanted by respectable families, while flats over store rooms within this limit were formerly looked upon as bawdy houses of the most severe type.
While Schnepp’s action may have had an impact on the activities of prostitutes outside the district, it probably changed little inside it. For instance, “Madame Brownie” (Augusta Kellogg), Springfield’s best-known madam, opened her house at Eighth and Jefferson streets, in the heart of the segregated district, about 1875.
An Illinois State Senate vice commission – also known as the “white slave commission” – that held hearings in Springfield in 1913 wasn’t so sure, however, that no prostitutes were working outside the segregated district. In fact, the panel was told that “call girls” were widely available through seedy hotels and cafes elsewhere in downtown Springfield.
Grace Clybourn, an investigator from Chicago, said proprietors at suspect hotels had told her how the system worked. The hotels would “hire” women for legitimate work – “chamber work … see to the register and take care of the office” – but in the evening would be expected to “entertain people that come in.”
“What do you mean by entertaining people?” the commission’s chairman, Lt. Gov. Barrett O’Hara, asked Clybourn.
“Well, the men,” she replied.
If no women were available at her hotel, one proprietor told Clybourn, she had a list of other women she could call. “She said when she couldn’t get a girl on the phone, she went around down to the cafes and got some girls that sat in the cafes,” Clybourn said, adding:
I asked her if I got a flat in Springfield if I had to have police protection. She advised me not to. She said if you have police protection that the police when they knew about you grafted on you so that there wasn’t anything left.
Another commission member wanted to make sure Clybourn’s testimony was absolutely clear.
Q. The girls that you talked with told you that they entertained men at these hotels? A. Yes, sir.
Q. That was their business? A. Yes, sir.
Q. That any other work was merely a pretext? A. Yes, sir.
(Schnepp was the first witness the commission questioned in Springfield. Even though he had created the segregated district four years earlier, Schnepp told O’Hara he couldn’t outline its exact boundaries or, indeed, say much about how it operated. “I don’t know very much about the district,” Schnepp testified.)
The Springfield Survey, a massive study of social conditions done in 1914, reported that the segregated district took in “33 recognized houses of prostitution containing white women … and a considerable number of Negro houses with something like 60 inmates.” The usual price for an encounter was $1 to $2, although three houses charged $3 to $5, according to the survey’s findings.
The “recognized houses” of prostitution in the district grossed somewhere above $185,000 a year, the survey estimated. “(I)t is clear that one reason why suppression of commercialized prostitution is so difficult. Even though specifically forbidden by state law, is the size of the profits of the traffic.”
The district had some advantages, the survey concluded.
Inmates of the houses may not leave the district or be on the street after 7 p.m., according to a police ruling quite strictly adhered to, while street walking, except in the Negro section of the city, is very rare. No case of open solicitation in the downtown section was seen and in vey few instances were women on the streets suspected of being in search for trade.
However, after a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of a segregated vice district, the survey’s managing board came down in favor of abolishing Springfield’s segregated district.
Human weaknesses make prostitutes, it is said, but segregated districts make “white slaves.” By abolishing the segregated districts you destroy to a great extent the commercial features of vice so that no one but the girl herself can sell a girl, and the profit to be made from drawing girls into lives of vice is so greatly diminished as to reduce to a minimum the number becoming prostitutes.
Aided by a tougher state law on prostitution, Sheriff John A. Wheeler (1871-1925), elected in 1914, shut down the segregated district in October 1915. Wheeler cited a number of reasons, including the district’s connections to official corruption and crime. As a physician by trade, however, his main hope was to reduce the incidence of venereal disease – “approximately 80 percent of the venereal diseases is caused by professional prostitution,” Wheeler said.
The district closed quietly, newspapers reported.
Farewell parties of the denizens of the underworld in that section given to their friends of days gone by proved but mockeries. Each peal of laughter from the inmates carried with a wail and the pianos jingled seemingly but funeral dirges. …
The district has dwindled down to a point, however, where there are only a few houses which represent any considerable investment. Sheriff Wheeler has made it plain that the law must be complied with to the letter in these places and those who, through protection, have been powerful in the past will be dealt with as severely as their less influential contemporaries if they try to evade the law.
Madam Brownie’s house was already shuttered; Augusta Kellogg had died three months earlier.
Closure of the segregated district wasn’t the last word, however. One writer of a letter to the editor of the Register, published in April 1916, echoed the old argument that the district had kept prostitution out of the rest of Springfield.
Ten months ago, the class of people prosecuted in this attempt to cure were confined in one district of the city. And, I believe, very near every citizen who had arrived at the age of reason knew just where it was located. Now, any body looking for that form of entertainment went direct to that district and bothered none of the decent members of Springfield’s population. Is this the case under present conditions? No, emphatically no! …
The writer’s wife has been accosted three times on the streets of town, within the last few weeks. Why? Because men not knowing who is who try every woman they see. Another time she was followed by an oldish man and accosted on the steps of our home and she has since had this man pointed out to her as one of the sheriff’s force. …
If Mr. Wheeler is looking for things immoral, he should have been on West Adams street recently, when some of the members of the Springfield High school were preparing for a track meet at the Armory, and went dashing through groups of ladies and children on the sidewalk, wearing nothing as far as could be seen but a short mackinaw coat. That is very decent, isn’t it?
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Since unmarried immigrant women who couldn’t stay with a relative were often “boarded” at hotels, even the Leland Hotel, in exchange laundry and maid service, it would be interesting to know how many immigrant women were forced into prostitution as a condition of their hotel “room and board.” Maybe this is also why so many immigrant women married almost as soon as they set foot in Springfield.