At the risk of sounding like Captain Renault from Casablanca (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”), I was dumfounded when I recently discovered that brothels were once regulated by the city of Indianapolis. Workers were required to register with the police, have weekly health check-ups, and limit their theater-going to one night a week. And electric piano-playing was strictly prohibited, except on nights when big conventions were in town.
I stumbled upon this strange tidbit of historical trivia while researching what I hoped would be (oxymoron alert!) a fascinating article about the history of streetlights. But as I looked into the topic, I found that during the first decade of the 20th century, street lights weren’t the only kind of lights to confound city officials.
Two weeks before the 1905 election, former mayor Charles Bookwalter dropped a last-minute bombshell when he told an eastside audience that his opponent’s administration granted police protection to “resorts,” as brothels were commonly called, so long as the resort and its “inmates” followed a strict set of regulations.
Bookwalter — who had been thrown out of office himself a few years earlier for failing to close gambling dens, saloons and houses of ill-repute — told a rapt audience that the police chief appointed by then-mayor John Holtzman required each inmate to personally visit the police station and register her name and the resort where she was plying her trade. The resort keepers were then assured by the police that if the inmate ever left without the keeper’s consent, she would be arrested and returned to the resort.
“There is a time in the career of every fallen girl when the call to a better life comes to her,” Bookwalter told the crowd. “If such a poor, miserable creature happens to live in Indianapolis, there is no hope for her. If she leaves the house of shame in search of the straight and narrow way, the mistress can telephone to the Superintendent of Police and she will be returned and placed in shackles of slavery that is worse than death.”
The day after Bookwalter’s speech, a front page story in The Indianapolis Morning Star laid out the details of Police Chief Kruger’s “Rules.” Inmates were permitted to be on the streets one night a week after 8 p.m. to attend the theater or other public gatherings. If an inmate wanted an additional night on the town, she was required to obtain special permission from the police.
According to the Star, it was “an every night affair to hear the night captain or the desk sargeants at headquarters talking to these women over the telephones, answering their questions as to special permission to leave the houses for one purpose or another.”
Holtzman was soundly defeated at the polls by Bookwalter. Three days after the election, Chief Kruger banned the sale of all alcoholic beverages in the resorts and prohibited the keepers from admitting any new inmates. And over the next few years, the spotlight shifted from red lights to street lights.
While the clergy had been the primary proponents in the efforts to close the red light district, merchants and businessmen were pushing the mayor to improve lighting in the business district. In August 1909, Bookwalter unveiled a plan to replace the old-fashioned arc lights with 10 new incandescent street lamps per block. The cost would be largely underwritten through the sale of advertising on the lamposts.
When that plan failed to materialize, Bookwalter floated Plan B, which basically consisted of replacing the existing lights with new arc lamps on taller and heavier poles. This plan also faltered due to concerns over the aesthetics, but Bookwalter remained intent on solving the lighting problem before he left office. In December 1909, he announced that Merchants Heat & Light Company would install 12 lamps on Washington Street between Meridian and Illinois at no cost to the taxpayers. The business community would pay for the new lamps, which featured an artistic design with five globes.
Although the spotlight may have shifted from city’s vice problems during Bookwalter’s administration, the red light districts continued to thrive just blocks away from the downtown business district. In October 1907, The Indianapolis Star reported that the chief of police personally escorted three local ministers on a “slumming” tour of the city’s resorts. Warned in advance of the unusual guests, the inmates tossed aside their cigarettes, donned their most ladylike gowns, and entertained their visitors with religious-themed songs.
Highlights of ministers’ tour of the underworld include visits to resorts in the so-called “Bleached Blonde” district along west Washington Street, and then stops at some of the more notorious houses on South Senate Avenue, West Court Street, and West Pearl Street. At the “Stone Palace” resort at 150 South Senate, the ministers were even treated to a magic show. Although no immediate reforms were initiated following the tour, one of the ministers, the Rev. H.N. Quisenberry of the College Avenue Baptist Church, told the Star that he was seeking contact with the classes of people who populated the underworld as material for a future project.
Bookwalter did face one scandal involving the resorts during the final weeks of his term. In later November 1909, the Star reported that a grand jury was investigating claims that the police department was directing the lucrative resort business to a handful of favored physicians. Under a rigid police department rule in effect at the time, each of the city’s more than 2,000 inmates of resorts were required to display a physician’s certificate of medical examination each week. The women were charged $1 for each weekly check-up – or about $100 per month in modern day currency.
According to the Star, six “diamond bedecked and stylishly gowned keepers of resorts” were called to testify. Police Chief Metzger defended the examination requirement, maintaining that it was the only rule that the otherwise illegal businesses were required to follow.
Meanwhile, the excitement over the city’s new system of street lighting had amped up, thanks to a contest sponsored by the Commercial Club. In June 1910, the club offered a $25 prize to the individual who could come up with the best word or phrase to describe the new lights. More than 2,500 suggestions poured in from throughout the U.S. The winning entry was “Broadways & Brightways,” beating out close competitors “Indianapolite” and “No Dark City.” Other suggestions that wound up on the rejection heap included “The Electric Smear” and “The Vendetta of Night.”
Now that the business district was fully illuminated by street lights, newly elected mayor Lew Shank was facing intense pressure to extinguish or at least dim the red lights in the resort districts. However, the city’s police chief believed that the best way to control the spread of prostitution in the city was to segregate the resorts into a clearly defined area and require them to operate under a strict regulatory framework. If the resorts were forced to close, the chief maintained, the inmates would scatter to respectable neighborhoods where they would ply their evil trade.
The Shank administration added 11 new “rules” to the physical examination requirement that already was in full force. Among other things, the sale of liquor was prohibited, inmates were required to be 21 years or older, and neither minors nor electric pianos were allowed on the premises. In addition, the women were not permitted to solicit business from the windows of the resort.
In early 1912, members of the Men and Religion Forward movement, led by former mayor Caleb Denney, asked Mayor Shank to take immediate steps to begin shutting down the resorts. Shank initially rejected this request out-of-hand, declaring that “with the houses closed, there would be more women on the streets, more good girls ‘ruined’ and more women of ill repute thrown into the residential districts.” The following day, however, the mayor backed away from this position, stating that he would be willing to close every resort in Indianapolis “if suitable provision for the future and care of the inmates is made and they are not thrown mercilessly into the street.”
Following up on his suggestion, a group of prominent club women offered to work with the inmates to help them either return to their families or find suitable employment and housing. Largely comprised of leaders in the suffragette movement, this group was led by Dr. Amelia Keller and incuded Grace Julian Clarke, Mrs. Meredith Nicholson, and Laura Donnan, an attorney and IPS principal. Other groups pledged to work with the legislature to establish a farm where fallen women could learn useful skills.
In April 1912, the chief of police issued an order prohibiting the opening of any new resorts and banning the entrance of any women from outside the city to work in the existing resorts. Discussions with the women charity workers about closing the resorts quickly stalled, however, when the mayor balked at giving them police powers or equivalent authority. Instead, the police chief offered the women a letter to present to the resort keepers that read as follows:
“To Whom it May Concern. This will serve to introduce you to _______. You should extend to her all possible courtesies.”
Despite repeated requests to issue the women police powers and establish a date certain for closing the resorts, Shank continued stalling. In July, the executive committee of the Church Federation of Indianapolis decided to hire two prominent attorneys to begin impeachment proceedings against Shank for failing to enforce the law prohibiting prostitution. On July 18, Shank issued an order setting December 1 as the deadline for closing all brothels. The order also “strictly prohibited” the already illegal practice of streetwalking. Shank maintained this his decision to finally close the resorts was not influenced by the threat of impeachment.
By early October, the resorts were largely deserted. Where the women went, however, was anyone’s guess.
Not surprisingly, vice continued to flourish in Indianapolis despite the much-ballyhooed closing of the resorts. As his term was winding down in the fall of 1913, Shank told the Star that he regretting closing the resorts because it had done nothing more than shift the women to saloons and so-called “winerooms.” Expressing his disgust with the rampant immorality, Shank said he would not be mayor of the city again “if someone would offer him the office on a silver tray with a bell on it.”
Shank resigned from office a month before his term ended under threat of impeachment proceedings. He then went to New York city and performed with a trained horse in vaudeville. Eight years later, he was re-elected mayor of Indianapolis.