The Social Evil Ordinance

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A little over a century ago an ambitious woman named Kate Clark, who kept a house of prostitution at 112 South Eighth Street, St. Louis, decided to move her business to larger quarters at Sixth and Elm. In any other American city she would have kept her intentions secret or quietly arranged to pay off the police. But this was St. Louis; and on March 14, 1873, Madam Clark confidently wrote directly to the chief of police for “a permit to keep the house on the northwest corner of 6th and Elm Streets for bawdy house purposes. If permitted to occupy the house, I will comply with all the rules and regulations of the ordinance.”

This extraordinary ordinance—commonly known as the “social evil law”—recognized a brothel as a legitimate enterprise that, like a saloon, had to be licensed by the city. Passed by the St. Louis city council on July 5, 1870, and patterned after the well-established regulations of several European cities, the ordinance required brothel keepers and prostitutes to register with the police and pay fees to the board of health. The money was to be used to pay city physicians who examined prostitutes for venereal disease and to aid the hospital where infected women were confined. Next door to the hospital a “house of industry” was planned for women who might choose to learn domestic skills, in hopes that they might pursue a more respectable line of work.

Other American cities prohibited prostitution in law while in fact tolerating it in wide-open vice districts. The prohibition reflected respectable opinion; the toleration, public acceptance of prostitution as a necessary evil. No less a figure than Queen Victoria’s personal physician had argued that, without access to prostitutes, men would seduce or rape innocent women. Other doctors suggested that prolonged sexual abstinence for men might lead to physiological disorders and insanity. Then, too, prostitution was big business from which a great many “respectable” people—real estate agents, landlords, lawyers, doctors, and bail bondsmen, as well as police and politicians—derived a handsome income.

St. Louis based its licensing ordinance on the fundamental premise that, as one prominent local doctor said, prostitution was the “inevitable accompaniment of city life.” By abandoning the legal prohibition against it, which had been feebly enforced at best, the city fathers hoped to bring prostitution under real control. While the regular medical examinations checked the spread of venereal disease, open police surveillance would substantially reduce the crime and disorder that accompanied life in bawdy houses. Finally, licensing brothels in certain designated locations could help protect neighborhoods where their presence would depreciate the value of homes and property.

When the St. Louis city council passed the social evil ordinance by a vote of sixteen to five, it won broad support. The Missouri Republic acknowledged that the ordinance “practically legalizes immorality … [but] the evil cannot be suppressed and therefore the wisest course is to regulate it with proper bounds.” The St. Louis Times congratulated the city council on “the first step taken by any legislative body in this country toward regulating by law that ‘social evil’ which for ages has engaged the attention of moralists.” The clergy generally withheld comment, either because they supported the ordinance or were too embarrassed to mention it. The public by and large seemed to think that the new law should be given a fair trial. Even the Reverend William G. Eliot—grandfather of T. S. Eliot—who hated the law and would prove to be its most steadfast opponent, privately confided to his son in 1871 that the law is established here and so far as visible present results go, it is working satisfactorily to the public.”

One of the most enthusiastic backers of the social evil law was James McDonough, the St. Louis chief of police. In October, 1871, he invited police from across the country to come to St. Louis and see the system in operation. Both McDonough and Mayor Joseph Brown proclaimed it a great success, telling their visitors that streetwalking, the number of brothels, and the number of men visiting them had been greatly reduced. Some visitors were much impressed, but others remained skeptical: one from Washington, D.C., said, “Never have I seen so open and undisguised an exhibition of bawds … exhibiting themselves at every door and window.… We went into one of these institutions where, of all the diseased women I ever saw, there was the most disgusting.…” On the other hand, a Kansas police officer who had visited St. Louis many times reported that he saw fewer streetwalkers than ever before.