House of prostitution standoff, 1885

While a crowd gathered outside, a stylish bordello madam held off a Springfield police raid for nine hours in August 1885.

Police tried to serve a warrant on Retta Rawlins’ “house of assignation,” which was upstairs in a building on the west side of Fifth Street between Washington and Jefferson streets, about 1 a.m. Aug. 21, 1885. Acoording to the Illinois State Journal,

When the police applied for admission they were refused, so they quietly set guard at the front and rear entrance, to capture any inmate that might seek to escape. The watch was a long and tedious one, and about 6 o’clock in the morning the night men were relieved by the day men, who continued upon watch until about 10 a.m.

At that point, Rawlins’ attorney arrived. He and city Superintendent of Police Charles Phillips went up the stairs and allowed the six occupants – three women and three men – to sign bonds guaranteeing they would appear in court that afternoon.

All three women, including Rawlins, were suspected prostitutes. Two of the men were customers (both apparently signed fake names to their bonds), while the other was Rawlins’ father.

By the time the standoff ended, 300 people had gathered around the building. Trying to avoid public embarrassment, the group inside refused to appear in public even after signing their bonds. It might have been worth it.

“Even after the police had left, the men refused to come down and face the curious crowd, and about 2 o’clock in the afternoon a huge basket, containing dinner for the party, was sent over from the French restaurant,” the Journal reported. (The French Restaurant, which apparently did not serve French cuisine, was a saloon/restaurant on Washington Street near Third Street.)

The article went into detail about the track records of the three women, especially Retta Rawlins.

The Rawlins woman has lived here for several years and has several times been arrested for keeping a house of ill fame, but as a general thing she has escaped by calling for a jury and demanding proof of the bad character of her house. She has until recently been classed among what are called “kept women, a mark of distinction between prostitutes living alone and those who live in a house together with other lewd women.

In appearance she is ultra stylish and is a profitable patron of the best millinery and dress making establishments. She is a woman of some education and refinement, and report has it that several men have failed in business here from becoming fascinated with her and squandering their money to gratify her whims.

One of the other women (“It is thought that … she is a married woman,” the Journal said), gave a fictitious name. So, apparently, did the two male customers, and both the police and the newspaper were considerably more circumspect about identifying them.

Edward Fletcher is the name inscribed on the police register, but it is easy to see that another name had been written and was afterwards erased with a knife. … The real name is known, but as some of the other visitors were screened by aliases, the Journal does not see fit to expose the only one who (at first – ed.) was willing to sign his bond with his real name. …

It is scarcely to be doubted that the true names of the men engaged in this abominable nastiness have been concealed from the public by officers of the law, and it is sincerely to be regretted that, in this respect, they have fared better than their female companions, who are every whit as good as they are.

Rawlins’ father faced no charges, and the two customers apparently paid fines. Retta Rawlins, however, pleaded innocent to keeping a house of ill fame.

“Rettie will fight the case to the bitter end,” the Journal reported the next day, “and will endeavor to prove the respectability of her house and that her visitors were there on legitimate business.”

If the case ever went to trial, however, it escaped newspaper notice.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.


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3 Responses to House of prostitution standoff, 1885

  1. Melinda McDonald says:

    Fascinating as always. So well written and reported!

  2. Bob says:

    Not sure about 1885 city directory, but Babeuf’s 1884 city directory uses an asterisk next to the names of certain women to denote their profession.

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