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The brothels of Little Rock

by Tom Dillard | September 8, 2019 at 1:54 a.m.

The arrival of prostitution in Little Rock is undocumented, but the first city ordinance against its practice appeared in 1841 when the capital city contained just over 1,500 citizens.

In February 1841, the city council adopted an ordinance regulating the city's new theater, including a provision providing that "if any lewd woman or notorious prostitute be found in any of the boxes of any theatre during the time of the performance, she shall be fined the sum of 20 dollars."

The city followed up the theater legislation with an 1842 ordinance outlawing bawdy houses altogether, imposing a stiff fine on any man or woman who kept or resided in a house of prostitution.

The new ordinance was not aggressively enforced, and by 1848 a number of bawdy houses were located on Battle Row, the city's first red light district. Battle Row was the widely used nickname for a one-block stretch of Water Street near the modern River Market.

Situated just up the bank from the steamboat landing, Battle Row was a shabby collection of cheap saloons, warehouses, and ramshackle shacks housing the town's poorest. It was a place where a steamboat roustabout could get a cheap drink, but he could also get his skull fractured in a brawl or lose his wallet to thieves.

A second lowbrow hangout developed on nearby Elm Street, called Fighting Alley. It appears that most of the bawdy houses on Battle Row and Fighting Alley were small-scale operations. This changed with the coming of the Civil War.

Prostitutes have been associated with armies since classical times, and plenty of "nymphs of the night" could be found among Civil War camp followers. The late Margaret Ross, a keen student of Little Rock history who has written extensively on prostitution in the city, noted that the sudden influx of troops meant that the town had to deal with "prostitutes, con men, petty thieves, drifters, idlers, gamblers--the whole catalog of the lowest level of society."

The capture of Little Rock in September 1863 meant that a large federal army was garrisoned in the city, further worsening vice crime. The situation did not change when the war ended in 1865. Indeed, ex-Confederates accused the Reconstruction Republicans of condoning prostitution because "the inhabitants of Fighting Alley were of a darker hue than the majority of the people of Little Rock, and their votes were needed to put crafty politicians and demagogues in office." Little changed after Democrats "redeemed" the city.

Black prostitutes played a significant role in the post-Civil War vice trade, though it appears that the madams were usually whites. Margaret Ross described the prevailing practice thusly: "A prostitute became a madam by renting a house and sub-renting rooms to other prostitutes at an inflated price. The madam was not merely the business manager, she was herself an active prostitute. She received no part of the money paid to other women who lived at her house, but made her money from her own fees, the rent paid by her boarders, and above all from the liquor she sold at a sharply inflated price."

City coffers benefited considerably from fining madams. They were frequently hauled before the Little Rock Police judge, usually being assessed a fine. A Nov. 26, 1871, newspaper reported that "nine mistresses of maisons de joie paid their weekly compromise of $14 each yesterday."

Some prostitutes, especially the poorest, worked independently of a madam. Mollie Brown, for example, was accused in the summer of 1868 of plying her trade "among the shrubbery in the unfenced gardens bordering the city."

Newspaper accounts of local prostitution could be remarkably flippant. The Morning Republican of June 25, 1868, described the fining of a prostitute and her young customer who had "wondered by the brookside;" the couple "loved not wisely but too well" and were fined $10 and costs.

Perhaps the best known madam of post-war Little Rock was Kate Merrick. Like most prostitutes, Kate turned to prostitution out of economic necessity. She was a teenage mother of two when her husband abandoned the family--the "perfidy" of men often being seen behind the actions of desperate prostitutes.

Apparently like most of the early prostitutes, Kate did not have a male manager or pimp, though she would eventually have six husbands. Joseph Courville, a French Canadian and former deputy to Wild Bill Hickok in Abilene who was known as Marengo Joe, was Kate's most famous consort. They both were charged with various crimes and often appeared in court. Marengo Joe died of pneumonia in 1874 while awaiting trial in an arson case.

Starting with a simple boarding house, Kate quickly added a saloon and dance hall, calling it the Ocean Wave. She was sentenced to prison for robbing customers, though she never served. By the spring of 1881, the Ocean Wave had become so notorious that the police raided the place and sent Kate and her girls fleeing the area. But Kate was nothing if not persistent.

Jan Hearn Davenport, who has undertaken a thorough investigation of Marengo Joe and Kate Merrick, has documented the many names Kate used and her various marriages.

While periodic efforts were made to close the brothels in Little Rock, they continued unabated until 1913 when closed during the reform administration of Mayor Charles E. Taylor.

The mayor's vice commission issued a report in May 1913 which documented how little the red light district in Little Rock had changed through the decades. "There are in Little Rock 19 white houses of ill fame, all run by women, and located in a segregated district in the eastern part of the city," the report stated matter-of-factly.

"Between 50 and 75" prostitutes worked in the district, ranging in age from 16 to 45 years. "... the majority are between 18 and 25 years old, possess a good common school education, and came from homes which were pleasant."

Mayor Taylor's report provided an indirect glimpse into a bawdy house in pre-World War I Little Rock: "In all these houses there are dance halls for the inmates and patrons, where music, dancing, and beer drinking are carried on. Many of these are elaborately furnished, and their walls are decorated with lewd pictures which are intended to arouse the passions of men."

The report coldly stated that "the price for service is from one to three dollars ..."

Mayor Taylor's vice commission recommended a concerted effort to close the red light district. However, a reasonable advance notice of closure was to be provided so that the inmates could locate other work. The commission refused to consider legalizing prostitution, claiming that regulation would not be accepted in Little Rock due to "the moral sense of the community" and that legalization had been tried elsewhere and proved "a failure as a method of either controlling or reducing the social evil."

Taylor ordered the bawdy houses closed no later than Aug. 25, 1913. Closing the red light district changed prostitution but did not end the practice. The commission report acknowledged that prostitution in Little Rock had been trending for some time to "clandestine prostitution." Instead of houses of ill repute, prostitutes plied their trade at "assignation places"--usually cheap hotels.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected] An earlier version of this column was published on Nov. 11, 2012.

Editorial on 09/08/2019

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