Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront
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Sex, money, and politics—no, it’s not a thriller novel. Minneapolis Madams is the surprising and riveting account of the Minneapolis red-light district and the powerful madams who ran it. Penny Petersen brings to life this nearly forgotten chapter of Minneapolis history, tracing the story of how these “houses of ill fame” rose to prominence in the late nineteenth century and then were finally shut down in the early twentieth century.
In their heyday Minneapolis brothels were not only open for business but constituted a substantial economic and political force in the city. Women of independent means, madams built custom bordellos to suit their tastes and exerted influence over leading figures and politicians. Petersen digs deep into city archives, period newspapers, and other primary sources to illuminate the Minneapolis sex trade and its opponents, bringing into focus the ideologies and economic concerns that shaped the lives of prostitutes, the men who used their services, and the social-purity reformers who sought to eradicate their trade altogether. Usually written off as deviants, madams were actually crucial components of a larger system of social control and regulation. These entrepreneurial women bought real estate, hired well-known architects and interior decorators to design their bordellos, and played an important part in the politics of the developing city.
Petersen argues that we cannot understand Minneapolis unless we can grasp the scope and significance of its sex trade. She also provides intriguing glimpses into racial interactions within the vice economy, investigating an African American madam who possibly married into one of the city’s most prestigious families. Fascinating and rigorously researched, Minneapolis Madams is a true detective story and a key resource for anyone interested in the history of women, sexuality, and urban life in Minneapolis.
appealed to popular attitudes regarding women, Europeans, and the general decline of public morals. As resident physician of the Blackwell’s Island penitentiary hospital, Sanger interviewed two thousand New York City prostitutes. He concluded that a woman who entered the sex trade died, on average, after four years in the business. As her charms quickly faded, a prostitute would always move from wealthy clients to miserable dives where 27 28 Women’s Work of All Kinds “none will be too low
“illusions, mechanical wonders [and] curiosities.” Another entertainment was the minstrel show at Theatre Comique (shown here in 1884), featuring white male performers in blackface and female performers in short skirts. Photograph of the Palace Museum by Arthur B. Rugg; photographs courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. 68 The War on the Madams vergin’ on ﬁfty, [who] cracked out an occasional song and took such steps as their rheumatic anatomy would allow.”45 The Theater Comique, a
recorded at Hennepin County until several years later. Dorsey probably beneﬁted from the secrecy as well. The property was not associated with the sex trade, as it housed a grocery shop at street level and several families in the apartments upstairs. Dorsey seemed to be diversifying her holdings by acquiring income property, perhaps in anticipation of a life outside of the commercial sex trade. Finally, sometime in the early years of the twentieth century, Dorsey began an association with
feat through demolition and recasting the built environment after European models.77 CLOSING THE ELEVENTH AVENUE DISTRICT The campaign to permanently close the Eleventh Avenue red-light district may have begun as early as 1907. While some outraged citizens might gather in mass meetings to call for the closure of bordellos, another group of reformers took a diﬀerent approach. Accompanied by a reporter and police escort that would allow them visit brothels without a subsequent blot on their
(no title), Minneapolis Tribune, February 8, 1881; “The Pioneer Press,” Minneapolis Journal, April 21, 1881. The petition also Notes to Chapter 2 185 listed the total amount of monthly municipal ﬁnes paid by each madam for the period January 26, 1878, to June 30, 1880: Campbell, $856; Conley, $750; and Johnson, $937. 33. Proceedings of the City Council of the City of Minneapolis from April 13th, 1880 to April 12th, 1881 (Minneapolis: Tribune Job Printing Company, 1886), 184. At that time, all