- Historic Sites
The Social Evil Ordinance
—More than a century ago, the city of St. Louis enacted a well-thought-out plan to legalize vice. What went wrong? Everything .
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
During the first eight months of the new ordinance the police registered 1,284 prostitutes in 136 brothels, 9 houses of assignation, and 243 single rooms. But administration of the law soon proved to be more than the authorities could handle. The police were overwhelmed with applications for change of residence, which grew from 821 in 1871 to 5,662 in 1872. A reporter found that months after the police board had given Kate Clark permission to move into her new bordello in 1873, the board of health had no record of the change of address. Women who worked out of single rooms were particularly troublesome, moving frequently and often plying their trade in the streets and in taverns—a practice forbidden by the new ordinance. The city responded by amending the law in 1871: henceforth any prostitute living in a single room would be considered a madam and thus liable to the same ten-dollar-a-month levy as the big operators. This was supposed to concentrate prostitutes in large brothels where they could be kept track of more easily; the actual effect was to encourage evasion of the law. The number of registered prostitutes in St. Louis fell by 45 per cent by the end of 1872, and while this may have reflected a certain number driven out of business, a good many undoubtedly were simply ignoring the law.
The hope that the new ordinance would substantially reduce venereal disease was also nearly lost in the administrative tangle. For the first two years, six doctors were assigned to examine all of St. Louis’ registered prostitutes—and not only to report on their venereal condition but also to collect their registration fees. Not surprisingly they fell far behind in their work, and in desperation some of them began to issue certificates of good health without conducting examinations. A police captain reported that some prostitutes held certificates dated three weeks in advance. In 1873 the doctors were relieved of the duty of collecting the fees but still they were unable to keep abreast of their medical responsibilities. Unfortunately, the women who might have benefited most from examinations and the hospital were the ones most likely to evade the law—”the poor, depraved, and reckless,” as the board of health described them, “who only manage to eke out a short, miserable existence by consorting with men equally poor and degraded themselves.”
By the fall of 1873 the social evil ordinance had come under fire. The Reverend Eliot took the matter to the courts. They would have to determine what the Missouri legislature had intended when early in 1870 it passed a new charter for St. Louis, giving it the power “to regulate” prostitution. Did “to regulate” mean to license? Had the lawmakers been aware of the implications of these words when they had cast their votes? And was this licensing a proper function for St. Louis to assume, given the fact that fornication and bawdyhouse keeping were specifically prohibited by the state?
To test the validity of the St. Louis ordinance, the Reverend Eliot in the summer of 1873 persuaded a city prosecutor to arrest Kate Clark and her next-door neighbor Lizzie Saville for keeping bawdyhouses in violation of state law. The two women were convicted, but in December the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the ruling. The high court interpreted the “to regulate” clause as clearly sanctioning licensing prostitution in St. Louis and as taking precedence over antifornication and antibawdyhouse statutes, which continued to apply throughout the rest of the state. The Missouri legislature could, of course, nullify the social evil ordinance, but only by amending the city charter, and this required a two-thirds majority vote. By now Eliot was prepared to lobby for such action.
Meanwhile, Chief of Police McDonough had become personally involved in an episode that lent more force to Eliot’s campaign. One Saturday night in August, 1873, he decided that his neighbors across the street were making too much noise. The lady of the house, Mrs. Fannie Canivan, was a former registered prostitute. This fact may or may not have influenced the chief’s behavior, but at any rate he took things into his own hands, burst into the Canivan residence, and hauled Mrs. Canivan off to spend the night in jail without bond, saying she was too drunk and disorderly to return home. She brought action against him for “malicious and willful” arrest and unlawful denial of bail. Although he was acquitted, the police board suspended him for thirty days, and in March, 1874, he resigned.
Many people felt McDonough had acted under the mantle of the social evil ordinance and that the new law was giving the police too much authority to interfere in private lives. In March, 1874, seventy-two St. Louis attorneys petitioned the Missouri state legislature to repeal the ordinance, which was “trampling underfoot rights of personal liberty and personal security guaranteed to each and every citizen however humble or degraded. …” The petitioners argued that the ordinance allowed the police to enter any house without a warrant; that they could force women to undergo gynecological examinations against their will and incarcerate them for indefinite periods without due process; and that madams might be forced to provide the police with incriminating evidence, in direct violation of the Bill of Rights. According to the attorneys, an ordinance regulating prostitution posed a more serious threat to civil liberties than one prohibiting it.