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Red lights on Thomas Street — sex trade workers arrested and taken to police court at James and King
Sep 26, 2013

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
The January 9, 1904, raid on the Thomas Street red light district ordered by the police commission was organized by Police Chief John McRae and Sargeant-Major Munro. The constables involved were not told about the action until minutes before it was undertaken.
According to the January 11 Manitoba Free Press, the women in the brothels were resigned to their fate and offered no resistance as the police entered their establishments. Every woman residing in the houses of ill-repute was arrested with the exception of four or five who were ill. In total, the keepers of 12 brothels were arrested, along with 72 female residents as well as four male “inmates.” The number was so great that McRae was forced to order more hacks to the scene to complement the single police paddy wagon.
Because of the lack of transportation, the names of paying patrons were taken down by the police and they were then sent on their way.
“Cabs filled with women and police kept driving up to the (police) station (courthouse) door for nearly an hour ...”
Meanwhile, a crowd of 500 people — newspapers referred to them as “riff-raff” — had gathered in front of the station and as the women arrived, the police were heckled with howls and “coarse remarks.”
“The court room presented one of the most remarkable scenes ever witnessed in the city. Eighty-four women dressed in all kinds of garments, furs and finery filled the place and left only standing room for the reporters and a couple of police officers who were permitted to enter.”
The records taken at the time indicated only two of those arrested were Canadians, while the remainder were Americans.
“All were twenty years of age or older. They represented all manner of women: many were beautiful, while others were marked with the brand of dissipation. Three had just arrived from Chicago and had only been in the city for a couple of days. They did not appear as calloused as some of the others were and from their subdued manner and helpless tears it could be seen that someone’s daughter had very recently gone wrong.
“Some of them, the most in fact, were haughty with a bravado born of their knowledge of the world and their complete abandon. Driven from decent society they stood alone and answered the look of curiosity or pity with cold, shameless eyes.”
One of the women in custody was a seamstress in a brothel. She was the only woman to plead not guilty and was subsequently released by Winnipeg Police Magistrate Thomas Daly. All the other women were fined. The brothel keepers were ordered to each pay $40 plus costs and the “inmates” of the houses were ordered to pay $20 plus costs.
“You being here is something unusual to you” said Daly when imposing the fines. “You have all pleaded guilty and the fine I have inflicted is not a very heavy penalty. Chief McRae in bringing you here is carrying out the instructions of the police commissioners, who have decided that the keeping of such establishments has got to stop. Henceforth you must look forward to being brought up here every time you are found doing wrong, and this should be a warning to you to find other means of livelihood or leave the city. If any of you come before me again, I will be compelled to impose a more serious penalty, as there is a determination on the part of the commissioners to put down on this sort of thing.”
A list of the madams and their Thomas Street homes was given as: No.1 Ollie Wells, No. 2 Laura Spain, No. 3 Ruby Bryant, No. 4 Mamie Gregory, No. 5 May Blocke, No. 6 Georgie Daly, No. 7 Minnie Woods (she was later infamously known as the “Queen of the Harlots”), No. 8 Doris Venette, No. 8 1/2 Dal Wilson, No. 9 Ruby Tone, No. 10 Olga Ross and No. 11 Estelle Belmont.
“The names given by the (84) women were in most cases fictitious, but as most of the names under which the women live in the houses were also assumed, it made little difference. The police were aware of the assumed names being given, but as the women were not sworn and pleaded guilty the police did not bother. The constables and detectives got a good look at them all and will be able to recognize them if they stay in the city.”
The men rounded up in the raid were Joseph Jamie, Samuel Kaye, Pete Jolly and Max Seidel. Three men were porters at the brothels. Jamie and Kaye plead guilty, but Jolly, “who little understood English, would not admit being an inmate because he did not understand,” according to the Free Press report.
Seidel told the court he felt he was visiting a public house and thus entered a not guilty plea. He had only been in Winnipeg for a short time, having arrived from Grand Forks, North Dakota, just three days earlier.
Both Jolly and Seidel were remanded on bail of $25 each.
All the women immediately paid their fines, but Blanch Bedford, from house No.2, spent a night in jail until her fine was paid.
“After the women were released they returned to (Thomas) street, but the houses remained closed.” In fact, the brothels were guarded by police constables to prevent the women from re-entering the houses of ill-fame.
To further sanitize the street, it was renamed Minto Street in honour of the September 1904 visit to the city by Canada’s governor general, Lord Minto. The Minto Armoury, built in 1912 and also named after the former governor general, is across the street from where the Thomas Street brothels once stood.
“The need of the hour now is for some means of taking care of these women,” according to a commentary in the Voice, January 15, 1904, “and it is important not only for the pitiful condition of the poor wretches, but because our last condition would be more baneful than the first, if evil is simply de-colonized and scattered.”
The last words written in the labour-oriented newspaper turned out to be prophetic. The police commissioners really had no plan to deal specifically with the now homeless prostitutes other than to tell them to get another job or get out of town — none of which were really viable alternatives under the circumstances of their trade.
In his pamphlet, The Problem of Social Vice in Winnipeg, DuVal wrote that he had placed “in the public press, a card of readiness to relieve any of the unfortunate girls who wanted to be sent home ... Those sent home were given first-class tickets with sleeping car and money for meals to keep them out of temptation ... Do not therefore take us (the ‘noble men’ who stood by him) for a set of heartless legalists ...”
There is no indication of how many girls from the Thomas Street brothels took up the offer — undoubtedly, very few, or they left and then quickly returned judging by subsequent events —  but if the church ministers, Sharpe and the police commissioners felt the raid would bring an end to prostitution in the city, they were all sadly mistaken. Some of the evicted women began to ply their trade on the street, while others set up shop in other areas of the city.
The streetwalkers tended to concentrate along Main Street and Portage Avenue and became quite numerous. Unfortunately for many women not engaged in the world’s oldest profession, walking down either of these streets could result in men mistakenly soliciting their services for sexual acts in exchange for money — a rather embarrassing confrontation for the young women.
 “The women ... disposed of their houses (on Thomas Street), and moved to better locations closer to their customers. Doris Vennette, for example, moved several times before land­ing permanently on Annabella Street, where she remained for the next twenty years. Minnie Woods, who enjoyed a thirty-year reign as queen of the brothels, moved from Thomas Street to James Avenue (ironically, 100 metres from the then police station at the corner of James and King Street), where she lived until the Annabella-McFarlane (segregated) district was opened in 1909” (Gray).
Another article in  the Voice (October 6, 1905) said the belief that removing the “immoral colony” on Thomas Street would, “presto,” bring about change was ill-founded. The newspaper said “there has been ample cause for complaint here and there throughout the north end of houses being rented and kept as bawdy houses or places of prostitution. The same has occurred in other parts of the city, in fact, in some parts to a greater extent than in the north end.”
It was further stated “that the harassing and shifting on of the wretched participants is no remedy to the evil, but to have these houses scattered throughout the residential districts, and to a considerable extent beyond police surveillance ... This blot is widespread and flourishing in the city ...”
According to a report prepared by  Court of Queen’s Bench Justice H.A. Robson, entitled the Royal Commissions on Charges re Vice and of Graft Against the Police and dated January 11, 1911, Thomas Daly, the city’s police magistrate, said in an April 20, 1909, letter to the police commission, that since the raid on the houses on Thomas Street, the brothels had become scattered across the city and thrived despite the best efforts of the morality squad of the police department. The morality squad received funding of $5,000 from city council, which was a considerable amount for the era, and showed that council was bowing to public pressure and taking the proliferation of prostitutes across the city quite seriously.
Daly said the city council and police commission policy was ineffectual in controlling the spread of prostitution, which had dramatically expanded its operations since the 1904 raid.
McRae pointed out that the basic reason why prostitution was able to thrive in Winnipeg was because the city had “a very great many young unmarried men,” which “increases the difficulty of settling the question of social evil.”
The relocation of brothels into other areas also meant that conflicts arose with residents already living in the neighbourhoods. The Free Press reported on December 20, 1904, that bawdy houses on Langside and St. Marys were attacked by angry citizens.
There were said to be four brothels on Langside Street “occupied by women who have been convicted of being keepers or inmates of houses of ill-fame, and for the third time in three weeks these places were assailed by indignant parties who smashed windows and created a disturbance which annoyed the residents for blocks.”
(Next week: part 4)