In 1913, a juicy report on Hartford’s 200 sex workers came into such demand that the city quickly ran out of copies. When city officials refused to print more, Katharine Hepburn’s mother helped pay to publish another 500 copies.
Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn and her physician husband Tom wanted to end the exploitation of women and the spread of venereal disease. Typical of the era’s social activists, they believed they could end poverty and prostitution through political reform.
They learned just how hard it was to reform the city government. And the salacious report of the vice commission exposed just how many sex workers plied their trade in Hartford — and how hard it would be to drive them out.
Hartford Sex Workers
During the late 19th century, Hartford’s social reformers starting pressuring city officials to do something about the sex workers.
In 1898, Hartford razed Gold Street tenements, which housed Irish and black families, to try to rid the street of prostitutes.
By 1907, the Hartford clergy shamed the police into storming bordellos in well-publicized raids. The police judge also changed the policy of fining sex workers and their pimps. Instead of fining them, he sentenced them to jail time.
But the police stopped raiding the bordellos once they learned the inmates would go to jail. So the judge resumed fining them, and the bawdy houses opened the next day.
Then in December 1911, Hartford Mayor Edward Hooker took the unusual step of ordering the police to close the city’s known whorehouses – about a dozen of them with about 200 sex workers.
A year later, three brothels were torn down, five became homes for law-abiding people and the remaining three were waiting for the ‘cops to let up.’ Thirty-five sex workers left Hartford.
Critics argued that closing the bawdy houses simply spread the so-called social evil beyond the red light district. Much better to tolerate and contain the problem, they said.
And so Mayor Edward Hooker appointed the vice commission to investigate and report on Hartford’s sex workers.
Vice Commission Report
The vice commission went to work exploring Hartford’s demimonde. In one salacious section, the report described a ‘carnival of fornication.’
On a rainy afternoon one of our investigators entered the wine room of this hotel, where a veritable “carnival of fornication” was in progress. Eight men and five women were smoking, singing and indulging in very, suggestive dances. Couples frequently left the room and returned in about half an hour, and the remarks made upon such occasions plainly indicated the nature of their occupation while they were away. None of the girls in this room were over twenty. The “fun” continued from 4 until 11 p. m.
The commission explored small apartments, private rented rooms, road houses, cafes, restaurants, private dining rooms or booths, hotels both great and small.
Hartford’s sex workers plied their trade in high-backed benches facing the bowling alley in a café. Some of the city’s saloons advertised ‘the joys to be found within.’
The so-called 50-cent houses took 25 cents from the sex workers for each trick and let them keep 25 cents. The first six dollars went for board, one dollar for the doctor and twenty-five cents for gas. The sex workers in such houses averaged 15 customers a night.
In one of Hartford’s respectable restaurants, detectives found a large room on the second floor with booths separated by curtains hung over iron poles. Each booth had a heavy table and four chairs. According to the report,
“Seeking advice from the waiter, one of our detectives was told to ‘Go ahead; nobody will come near this booth while the curtains are drawn’.”
The detectives noted drily that three booths were occupied and the conversation he overheard ‘corroborated the reputation of the place.’
New York City had long exported sex workers to Connecticut’s small cities. Since Hartford police tolerated the bawdy houses, sex traffickers came to the city during conventions.
According to the report, Hartford probably ranked third as a top destination for New York prostitutes.
A maritime tragedy in 1866 had exposed the scope of the human trafficking from New York. When the steamship Evening Star sank about a hundred sex workers died on their way to New Orleans from New York.
The vice commission report included a woman detective’s dealings with two white slavers from the Big Apple, 65-year-old Morris Cohen and his 32-year-old wife Lena. The detective pretended to be a madam interested in buying a brothel. The Cohens showed her around.
“We passed a saloon and a restaurant, and then opened what appeared to have been a stable door; up a flight of stairs into a low ceilinged room,” she wrote. “There was an oilcloth on the floor and a cylinder stove in the center of the room; at one side was an opening in the wall not as high as a table, supposed to be a ‘get-away’ into the next house. A young man sat there, a typical tough…
“There were two bedrooms divided by a wooden partition. The two beds had no linen on them, just a piece of dark, dirty oilcloth; there was a pillow on each with a case on, which was the only piece of white on the bed. There were three girls there. They appeared to be not more than seventeen.”
Police arrested the Cohens and the court convicted them.
Why Sex Work?
But what led the sex workers to their profession? Anarchist Emma Goldman wrote that exploitation by men forced women to sell themselves.
Others blamed low wages. In 1911, a U.S. Department of Labor study found that nearly half the prostitutes surveyed had previously worked in factories and shops before turning tricks.
The Hartford vice commissioners noted that most working women did not earn a living wage, estimated at $10 a week. But they concluded low wages didn’t explain why women turned to prostitution. Poverty did.
“It is not so much the insufficiency of the wage of the girl at the time she takes the first step towards prostitution as the environment of poverty in which she has grown up that gradually leads to the state of mind and to the situation which make that step possible,” the report concluded.
The vice commissioners reported on an undercover detectives’ interviews with 66 of sex workers. They concluded the sex workers may have started out as respectably employed women who occasionally prostituted themselves for presents and tips. Then they joined the majority of sex workers and relied on prostitution to support themselves. Finally they ended up in brothels.
“Various factors in their lives, especially age, mental deficiency, alcohol, disappointment, and the venereal diseases hasten to unfit them for their particular business until, at the end, they either marry, die, become keepers themselves or land in jails and workhouses as common bums,” concluded the report.
Most – 61 of 66 – hadn’t yet reached 30 years old. Nearly all had hard luck stories. Many, like No. 52, said they were ruined by men.
“After the baby was born she was so ill that she never left her bed for ten months,” the report said. “He married a doctor’s daughter here. Since then she has been reckless. Her family cast it up continually until she had to leave home. This was eight years ago. Now she is careless in her appearance, rough in her manners and thoroughly hardened. She appears rather ignorant and claims she is in the life only for the money. She shows indications of being a drug fiend.”
No. 32 married the fellow who ruined her. He only stayed with her for six months after the baby was born. “When he found out I would not hustle for him he shook me,” she said. “I tried working in a factory but it was too hard.”
No. 33, another ‘low-type girl,’ started working in a brothel at age 16. She once serviced 23 men in one night. “She referred to it as the hoodoo number,” the report said. “That night she refers to as a banner night because she made $15 for herself.”
No. 44 married when she was fifteen years old. Until the baby died her husband was all right. “After that he blamed me for its getting cold. We live in the same house but do not occupy the same room. He has a girl on Main Street whom he goes to see. She hustles the streets too.” Her husband knows of her going out. “I won’t divorce him and he could never save the money.”
No. 57 was married. Her husband forced her out to meet men. She was afraid to tell anyone.
No. 27, once a church girl, went to work in a factory. “Believe me, what I did not learn,” she said. She left home because her mother beat her so much. She and her beau left town and came to Hartford. But, she said, “We are going to beat it in three weeks. He is going to Washington, D. C, and I am going there to work during the big time.” (Inauguration week).
No. 64 uses heroin. She worked as a waitress in a cheap restaurant in Hartford, “I grew tired of the continual drudge in a restaurant; and too many chances were given me.” She married about eight months ago and supports her husband with her earnings as a prostitute. He has been out of work for some time.’ She has low ideas and is ignorant, but is a very fair looking girl.
The report also maintained that closing the brothels reduced prostitution. “People are afraid to rent to women since the houses were closed,’ one anonymous person told the commission. “I have lived here all my life and I never saw things as they are now; a woman ain’t safe on the street after seven o’clock if she is straight.”
The vice commission recommended 15 ways to further raise the city’s moral standard. They included including keeping the brothels closed, repressing sex workers anywhere else they did business and paying for more detectives.
When the report came out, people snapped up 500 copies in two days. Suffragists printed up another 500 and sold them for 25 cents.
Hartford City Council did nothing. Suffragists like Kate Hepburn’s mother then passed out fliers attacking the majority of councilors for ‘tolerating commercialized vice.’ But 17 of the councilors who didn’t back up the vice commission ran for re-election, and 15 won.
According to the Hartford Courant, Hartford’s red light district stayed closed, but prostitution spread out. Sex workers found new ways to attract and service customers. They made assignations by telephone and met their customers in cars.
To read the whole report, click here.
Image of 1913 Slum: By Creator:Arthur S. Goss via Toronto History from Toronto, Canada – Slum interior, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24335179. This story was updated in 2023.