- 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
Opposition to the ordinance also had been growing among the clergy. To this Mayor Joseph Brown unwittingly contributed. The aspect of the social evil system that appealed most to him was the possibility of the public hospital being used for the moral as well as physical regeneration of its inmates. But none of the St. Louis clergy showed any interest in preaching there, so in November, 1873, Brown himself delivered a sermon there, lashing out at men of God “in elegant churches with richly cushioned pews” who failed to minister to the poor in city institutions.
The churchmen struck back by attacking the whole system. When, in February, 1874, a bill was introduced in the state legislature to repeal the clause in the St. Louis charter permitting the city “to regulate” prostitution, the pastor of the St. Louis First Congregational Church went to Jefferson City to lobby for its passage. Other Protestant clergymen supported repeal, and the Catholic hierarchy of St. Louis encouraged the circulation of petitions against the ordinance. Newspapers, too, began to condemn it. The Democrat explained that the leading Protestant and Catholic pastors’ calling for repeal was “pretty conclusive evidence … that regulating sexual vice … has shocked the moral sense of the people.” Why it had taken three and a half years for the shock to register, the paper did not say.
Anna Dickinson, a nationally known women’s rights leader, came to St. Louis to denounce the ordinance because it did not require promiscuous men to register with the police. What women needed, she said, was not new opportunities to perform as prostitutes but job and educational opportunities equal to those of men. Some four thousand St. Louis women signed petitions for nullification.
Meanwhile, during February, 1874, a number of Missouri lawmakers decided that what was really needed was a firsthand investigation of the Operation. Sixteen state legislators began an evening tour of the vice district, but only three came home. The others spent the night at Kate Clark’s, Lizzie Saville’s, Madam Stillman’s; the St. Louis Globe concluded that at least the lawmakers would “wake up this morning with practical experience of the workings of the Social Evil system.” The publicity did little to advance the cause of the ordinance. By mid-March, 1874, after a tumultuous debate and complicated maneuvering, opposition forces mustered the two-thirds majority in the state senate necessary to repeal the “regulate” clause in the St. Louis city charter. Repeal in the lower house was a foregone conclusion, but few imagined that only one of ninety-one assemblymen would vote to sustain the ordinance. By the spring of 1874, licensed prostitution was finished in St. Louis.
In nullifying the social evil ordinance, the Missouri legislature assumed the burden of finding some alternative. The obvious choice was to impose on St. Louis the same ban imposed throughout the rest of the state. In the absence of licensing, the social evil advocates themselves favored a return to the prohibition—but the legislature thought otherwise. In the spring of 1874, Missouri Lieutenant Governor Charles P. Johnson, a well-known St. Louis criminal lawyer, along with two state senators from the city, sponsored a bill to prevent the sort of abuse of police power in St. Louis that allegedly had occurred when the social evil ordinance was being enforced. It was feared that the St. Louis police, armed with incriminating evidence they had gathered under licensing, might extort protection payments from prostitutes and madams. In passing this bill the state lawmakers declared, in effect, that the St. Louis police could be trusted neither to regulate nor to suppress prostitution and that they should, under penalty of fine, ignore the operation of brothels. For the first time, in fact, the state made explicit provision for fining policemen who entered brothels without a warrant or who attempted to extort money, gifts, or favors from prostitutes and madams. Moreover, the new law had failed explicitly to prohibit the keeping of a house of prostitution—a crucial omission in the light of a subsequent court ruling which held that nullifying licensing did not automatically renew state prohibitions against brothels. They could no longer be licensed, but they were not illegal.
The new legislation did not entirely end police authority over prostitution—streetwalkers were arrested under vagrancy statutes, and efforts were made to prosecute madams under the common law. But by the spring of 1876 St. Louis police became very cautious in raiding houses, and in time prostitutes were bringing police officers into court on charges of false arrest. Between 1874 and 1879 St. Louis came as close as it ever would to “decriminalizing” prostitution-a legislative experiment as radical as licensing.