The Boundaries of Sin: Terre Haute “Legalizes” Prostitution
(This blog post is an excerpt from the author’s latest book, Terre Haute’s Red-Light District)
Terre Haute already had a bad reputation by 1906. Newspapers and national magazines called it a “sin city” and a “wide-open town.: It was, they said, a lawless town awash with gambling, illegal sales of booze and prostitution. They weren’t all wrong.
Under the title “Terre Haute Pictured as a Hell Hole.” The Saturday Spectator of July 7, 1906 included an editorial sparked by recent out of town newspapers’ coverage of Terre Haute. The editorial adopted the same “Why is everyone picking on Terre Haute” response to any negative story on the city.
The particular article that sparked the outrage had appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the most important midwestern paper. It did not hold back.
“The red light district is the scene of a hundred all night carousings with the police looking on. The saloons make no pretense of obeying the law. Gambling is lid free. The street and parks are infested with hoodlums who annoy women, and street fights of the most brutal character are common.”
wild saloons were always present and serve drivers of the city’s economy.
The Tribune article contributed to the renewed efforts to “regulate” the west End once more. A key statement in the article was the phrase “streets and parks.” There were brothels in all areas of Terre Haute, even the more “upscale” neighborhoods. It is likely that someone was within an easy walk to a brothel, no matter what part of the city. Of course that angered the good citizens. They constantly made complaints to the officials. Get them out of my backyard was the cry.
There had been earlier efforts to set boundaries, but in the Terre Haute tradition, enforcement was lax. Things came to a head in the summer of 1906. Bidaman was impeached in July due to hands-off policy on vice. There was impetus for change. On August 6 the Common Council accepted the recommendation of the Board of Public Safety set new boundaries for the West End. Originally the Council wanted to end the eastern border at 3rd St., but it kept creeping to 4th Street. The de facto borders became the Wabash River on the west to 4th street, Cherry Street was the Southern boundary, Eagle Street the northern. The West End’s boundaries were basically set for the next 65 years.
It may seem odd to some that a city would “officially recognize “vice and accept its presence, but Terre Haute was actually following a trend that began in the 1890s. The more advanced and far thinking reformers, sometimes known as mugwumps, felt that “reputational segregation” of vices like gambling, prostitution and saloons into a designated area benefitted the city and its population. They believed a segregated area would weaken working-class political parties by restricting the areas candidates could meet voters and have a ready source of income from payoffs by vice operators. By concentrating these parties into one tiny part of town it would weaken their chances to control city-wide elections. As we shall see, it did not reckon with the West End and Terre Haute politics.
Thus Terre Haute was following a trend already adopted by cities like New Orleans, Shreveport and Houston. There were outcries that by creating red light districts through official ordinances cities were condoning and legalizing vice. It was unconstitutional they cried. Not so said the US Supreme Court in 1900. Cities were merely using “legitimately exercised local police powers.”
Some may wonder why the city allowed the red light district to be located literally across the street from the court house and a block from the county jail. In theory it allowed authorities to keep a close eye on the goings on. If things started get out hand they were there to tamp it back down again. In many ways that was the case. Cynics might say it allowed them to keep an eye on a source of their income.
Underlying all of this were some basic home truths. There will always be vice. It has always been with us. You cannot successfully legislate morality in all cases. The borders were meant to contain vice in a certain discrete area and keep it from seeping into the wider community.