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Red lights on Thomas Street — bawdy houses scattered across the city following police raid in 1904
Oct 03, 2013

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 4)
The women in the Langside bawdy houses protected themselves by discharging revolvers through broken windows in the direction of the angry mob amassed in front of their establishments. While the mob tossed rocks to smash windows and hurled verbal insults at the inhabitants of the brothels, the  threat of gunfire from the prostitutes effectively kept their indignant neighbours at arms’ length. As a result of bullets and missiles flying through the air, “for some time the street was the scene of an uproar that resembled a frontier fight,” according to a December 20, 1904, article in the Manitoba Free Press. Fortunately, no one was injured during the Langside Street confrontation. 
The single brothel on St. Marys Avenue, “occupied by a notorious character,” was also attacked by a mob.
The occupants of the Langside houses of ill-fame hired lawyers to find and prosecute the rioters, while also arguing that they fired their revolvers at the mob for fear of being physically assaulted.
Local newspapers reported it was the third such attack by a mob on the Langside brothels, which in the end had little effect, as windows were quickly replaced following each confrontation and the brothels soon reopened for business. 
But the continuing public demonstrations by residents in the neighbourhood eventually forced the hand of the police commissioners, who instructed the officers of the morality squad to intensify their investigations in order to obtain enough evidence against brothel madams and inmates to make arrests.
An example of the renewed enforcement against the houses of ill-fame was the case of Grace Osberg, who was charged with running a bawdy house on Langside Street. Her trial commenced on February 16, 1905, and the Winnipeg Tribune used the headline, Sensational Case Opened, to describe it.
During the trial, one witness even testified that the proverbial “red light” had been hung at the entrance of the Langside house. The witness, a Mr. Liddell, who lived on the same street, said he had observed men going in and out of the house at all times of the day.
Morality Inspector W.J. Leach said he knew the defendant, and told the court that she had previously lived on Pacific Avenue and before that at No.2 Thomas Street.
According to Leach’s testimony, he had visited the Langside house on January 19, 1905. He knocked on the door and a woman named Frankie Larue asked who was there. When he gave his name, the light was turned off. Osberg then came to the door and let the inspector inside. When he went to a bedroom door, it was held closed from the inside. Leach forced it open and found a young man sitting on the bed. He took the man’s name, which was the procedure followed by the morality squad when dealing with patrons of the brothels.
In the February 17 Free Press account of the trial,  Leach said he didn’t think the man was related to either Osberg or Larue, implying that some nefarious act was being, or about to be, perpetrated.
Leach testified that during his past attempts to investigate what was occurring in the house, alleged customers fled through the back door before Osberg let him in through the front door.
When Leach met a man named Wilson in the house, the man would not say anything about the reputation of Osberg other than that she had previously had a house on Thomas Street, the location of the January 9, 1904, police raid, which drove prostitutes to find other locations in the city to ply their trade.
Osberg was released on $100 bail and ordered to appear in the police court at a later date. After numerous remands of her case, the Tribune reported on August 15 that Osberg failed to appear and a warrant for her arrest was issued. It was further reported that Osberg had fled to the U.S. to evade prosecution. As a result, her case was never resolved in a Manitoba court.
“Under no circumstances will cash bail be accepted for these women,” vowed Magistrate Daly when he was told that Osberg had skipped town.
Besides the Langside and St. Marys raids, other police raids were conducted over the next couple of years on bawdy houses located on Boyd Avenue, Higgins Avenue, Henry Avenue, Austin Street, Martha Street, Lizzie Street and Pacific Avenue, among others.
Ironically, one raid was conducted on an alleged King Street house of ill-fame that operated out of “private apartments” above a “gospel meeting house” (Free Press, February 4, 1904).
During an October 1, 1906, meeting of city council, a petition, dated September 22, from angry residents of the Pacific Avenue neighbourhood was discussed. 
Speaking on behalf of the petitioners, J.E. Connor said he had been instructed that the occupants of the bawdy houses were keeping within the provisions of the criminal code (Free Press, October 2). “Nevertheless, the residents of the district were constantly annoyed and should be relieved. The petitioners particularly objected to the example being set to children by the presence of these women on the streets mentioned (in the petition).”
The residents who signed the petition were from wards 4 and 5. They alleged that the brothels were within an area bounded by Tecumseh Street on the west and Princess Street on the east, and by Alexander Avenue to the north and Pacific Avenue to the south.
The petitioners claimed that within these boundaries there were “numerous houses  of ill-fame which are openly patronized during the day and night by persons of bad character ...”
In addition, the petitioners said that automobiles and hacks appeared at the bawdy houses every day of the week, causing curious children to gather, “thus sowing the seeds of moral depravity, which is highly injurious to the best interest of our boys and girls in addition to the outrage committed on the feelings of all respectable citizens.”
The petitioners noted that the Thomas Street raid in 1904 had resulted in the spread of the bawdy houses across the city, and another raid in their neighbourhood would probably have the same outcome. But they still wanted city council to take action “to rid the neighbourhood of this obnoxious pest and restore it to the peaceful and orderly condition which previously existed.” Prostitution would thus become someone else’s problem in another area of the city rather than along the streets in their neighbourhood.
Speaking on the petition, Alderman James Harvey said Winnipeg was worse off “today” than ever before in terms of the “social evil.”
City council passed a motion referring the petition to the police commission, asking the board “to take steps to abate the nuisance complained of as early as possible.”
The response was to initiate street patrols by regular officers, constables and special constables on Pacific and Alexander avenues. They were instructed by the police commission to “enforce the law to the limit.”
The October 13, 1906, Free Press noted that the “action was the first to be taken by the (then) police commission in dealing with the social evil, and is the first move toward driving from Winnipeg all women of questionable character. Special policemen will also be found to-night (sic) on several other streets where there are said to be houses of ill-fame.”
In the article headed, Indignation of the Citizens, the Tribune of September 9, 1908, reported that “houses of prostitution right in the heart of Winnipeg (on Lizzie Street) are driving out respectable citizens.”
W.H. Smith, a resident of Lizzie Street, said since the prostitutes had arrived three years earlier, “To live on Lizzie Street now is a disgrace.”
He said that a June raid had helped for a while, but that “all the bad characters had returned” and the situation had gone from “bad to worse.”
“I and my wife keep a boarding house which will accommodate forty boarders,” Smith told a Tribune reporter. “But we cannot secure respectable women to help us owing to the character of the street.”
Smith complained of a depreciation in property values as a result of the influx of brothels, which was echoed by other residents of the neighbourhood.
T. Atchison, described as one of the old-time residents of the district (Ward 5) with one of the largest landholdings said: “I had to leave the district owing to its intolerable state. There was a time when there was no nicer place to live in Winnipeg. Now it is impossible to sleep at night for the noise alone. Ward five is being overrun by the scum of Chicago, Buffalo and other North American cities, characters who are too bad for these places come and flourish in Winnipeg and the hands of the police are tied.”
Atchison said he had been offered $100,000 for his property “some time ago,” with $30,000 as a down payment.
“I only wish I had taken it,” he said, “if  I had known the pitch that things were coming to.”
Pointing to two cottages adjacent to his place of business, Atchison said he could of let them for $40 a month. “All manner of ruses were employed to induce me to allow them to become houses of ill-fame,” he alleged.
Instead, Atchison rented them to “respectable English families” for $17 a month.
M. Bull, manager of the Royal Bull Soap Works, who was also a member of a delegation that was scheduled to meet the police commissioners to protest the thriving sex trade in the neighbourhood, said that one of the bad features of the presence of the brothels was “the number of men haunting this district hunting for these resorts.”
“Some time ago,” he told the Tribune reporter, “before I was acquainted with the condition of things, I suggested to an employee that he should take a house in the neighbourhood of the works for convenience. He then explained that he would live here for anything. It is not safe for a woman to walk in some of the smaller streets unaccompanied, she is liable to insult.”
Mayor James Ashdown told the same reporter that members of the police had informed him that they were prepared to allow the prostitutes to remain in the neighbourhood, since the sex trade already thrived there and it was as suitable as any other area for that purpose.  
When the mayor approached Winnipeg Police Chief John McRae with this information, the police chief denied that such was the case. McRae did claim that he wanted to clean up the city, but cases he brought before the judges were continually dismissed. 
According to Ashdown, the existing regulations governing the sex trade were too lax to effectively curb prostitution.  It was a complaint that had been asserted for years by those wanting to battle against “social evil.” Even the ministerial association admitted, “regulation of this vice has been found impossible” (Tribune, December 6, 1905).
It should also be noted that dismissals sometimes arose as a result of the police chief’s own advice to the judges.
Police arrested madam Mary Pauline Brew, who was subsequently released by Winnipeg Police Magistrate Thomas Daly on the advice of McRae. The latter had obtained a legal opinion “that the prosecution on the charge of keeping a bawdy house could not stand.”
(Next week: part 5)