History, History Column

Bawdy Places

Kate Waller Barrett, 1858-1925
Kate Waller Barrett, 1858-1925

Prostitution laws of Virginia 18.2.347: Keeping, residing in or frequenting a bawdy place. As used in this Code, “bawdy place” shall mean any place within or without any building or structure which is used or is to be used for lewdness, assignation or prostitution. Prostitution was a prosperous Alexandria business, from the Civil War until the 1980s.

“Bawdy place” defined: “It shall be unlawful for any person to keep any bawdy place, or to reside in or at or visit, for immoral purposes, any such bawdy place. Each and every day such bawdy place shall be kept, resided in or visited, shall constitute a separate offense. In a prosecution under this section the general reputation of the place may be proved.” During the Civil War Alexandria’s Gadsby’s Tavern, then known as the City Hotel, was proven a bawdy place. (Commonwealth v. R.M. McClure, Proprietor of the City Hotel, 1864)

“During the Civil War,” the Virginia Department of Historic Resources explained, “the Tavern buildings were considered a ‘tourist attraction’ for their association with George Washington.”

“We did Patriot duty in the city of Alexandria until April 1863,” Union Army Lt. Charles E. Grisson wrote. “There were about seventy-five houses of ill fame in that [occupied] city and of course duty compelled us officers to visit them to see that everything was quiet, etc. The girls would do anything for us in order to keep on [our] right side for if we chose we could clean them out without ceremony—Suffice I never had so much fun!”

On July 22, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln approved an order to dismiss Union Army Capt. Hugh Harkins for his involvement in a pickpocketing incident in a bawdy place located at 301 King Street. Harkins, then drunk, was terminated despite his service record.

In 1993 Alexandria city workers discovered an ark, a shack that was part of a wooden barge buried in the dirt. Built in 1900, the ark was “the only known survivor among the thousands of houseboats, gambling barges and floating brothels that lined the Potomac River from the Civil War to after World War II.”

Small floating houses of prostitution were mostly painted red or blue. They flourished because Virginia had no jurisdiction over the Potomac River. “The Potomac is one of the few border rivers in the nation where the state line is not in the river but along the tidal high-water mark of one shore—Virginia’s shore,” The Washington Post reported.

“The Potomac’s hundreds of ark brothels filled virtually every cove and harbor,” The Washington Post observed. “One well known spot was opposite Mount Vernon, where at least 15 arks were moored from 1890 to the 1930s.”

The ‘90s cost Alexandria its civic reputation. “Conditions in the city of 18,000 inhabitants were disgraceful,” The Washington Post exclaimed. On February 12, 1897 Police Chief James F. Webster announced “any person, rich or poor, white or black, leading an immoral life, where it can be proven, would be brought to justice.”

In 1901 Alexandria’s Citizens’ Progressive Association championed an alternative slate of political candidates. Businessman E.S. Leadbeater was among them. In 1906 Leadbeater, Councilman from the First ward, proposed “to reduce the appropriation for the Alexandria police department,” The Washington Post said. “Passage…meant a reduction in the salaries of everyone connected with the [poorly performing] department. [Leadbeater] called attention to a number of abuses [including] the admission of boys to houses of ill-repute, the unsanitary conditions of such places and other alleged violations of the laws.”

Leadbeater, a druggist, agreed with many of Alexandria physician Kate Waller Barrett’s on-going reform efforts. Barrett, who published Fourteen Years’ Work among Erring Girls in 1901, was a national spokesperson for the Florence Crittenton Mission. The Mission, established in 1883 by wealthy New York wholesale druggist Charles Nelson Crittenton, served prostitutes and unwed mothers.

Barrett was a practical woman. She favored “close police supervision” of bawdy places, no liquor sales to ill-reputed patrons, and “an honest living for the girls.” Alternative employment was often synonymous with $8 a week sweat shops.

“I guarantee to any girl who is now in a disreputable life an opportunity to fit herself for any profession in life that she may desire to fill—provided that she has the ability and character that would be required of a girl from any other walk of life who would desire to take the same training,” Kate Waller Barrett wrote The Washington Post in 1913. “I say this, because in the past quarter of a century I have assisted women who have been in immoral lives to fit themselves for every profession now open to women except for the law.” Many of the women working in Washington and Alexandria’s red light districts were college graduates.

When Washington, D.C.’s red light district closed in early 1914, Alexandria’s prostitution problem “became acute. At that time Judge Louis C. Barley notified the keepers of the various houses that he would not tolerate the harboring of any women from the city of Washington,” the Alexandria Gazette reported.

“Later, however, another situation arose due to the influx of men from Washington and soldiers from the forts in the vicinity of Alexandria,” the Alexandria Gazette continued. “Drunkenness on the street cars increased at an alarming rate, and for several weeks the conditions on the late trains between Washington and Alexandria were such as to make it uncomfortable for regular riders. Several serious disturbances caused by Washington visitors to Alexandria’s red light district brought the matter again to the attention of local police courts.”

Alexandria’s segregated red-light district “located for more than half a century on the street that bears the name of the great Confederate General Robert E. Lee” finally went the way of on June 15, 1914. Mayor Thomas Fisher accompanied Chief of Police Goods “to the nine resorts in North Lee Street, when notice of the court’s determination was served.” The National Florence Crittenton Mission “offered to provide homes for any of the women who wished to reform,” but there were few takers.

Old habits die hard. Prostitution continued; a byproduct of panics (1872 and 1893), also the Great Depression. St. Asaph Street produced poolrooms; prohibition took its toll and the “vice industry thrived.” Commercial camps of ill-repute peppered the Potomac shoreline.

In 1979 Alexandria became the first Virginia jurisdiction to ban instant bingo, a church-supported form of the game sometimes linked to scandal. “Earlier in the year, Alexandria Prosecutor William L. Cowhig resigned after being acquitted of bribery trials involving bingo,” The Washington Post noted.

In 1980 the former president of the Alexandria Bar Association James L. Burkhardt was indicted by a federal grand jury “on charges of conspiring to funnel regular cash payments to unnamed public officials in order to ‘buy protection’ for a large Washington area prostitution ring.” Burkhardt served as legal adviser to sex parlor kingpin Louis M. Parrish. The cash payments were allegedly given to Prosecutor Cowhig.

In 1982 Alexandria residents had had enough. Council passed an ordinance prohibiting “soliciting for immoral purposes.” Under the ordinance the consumer was as culpable as the seller.

“Prostitution is a difficult problem to eradicate,” police spokesperson Lucy Crockett said in 1984 regarding solicitations occurring mainly along the King Street-US Route 1 corridor. Corridor hook-ups continue but now the bawdy places are hotel rooms. Rooms often booked through the escorts section of Backpage.com.

Written by: Sarah Becker, © 2015
Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes