To Keep Those Red Lights Burning: Dallas' Response To Prostitution, 1874--1913
Crowell, Gwinnetta Malone
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This thesis examines the responses of city leaders, purity reformers, and citizens to prostitution within two red-light districts in Dallas between the years 1874 and 1913. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, prevailing social and moral standards judged prostitution both illegal and illicit. Yet sexual double standards, urban anonymity, and predominately male populations (especially in frontier and boomtowns) meant that it was often ignored or tolerated in segregated areas, or red-light districts. As towns grew into urbanized centers, houses of ill fame (which contributed to the financial development of many towns through fines and court fees) became more entrenched. Dallas followed this trajectory between 1874 and 1890, as a large red-light district, "Boggy Bayou" thrived on the city's southwestern side. One famous bordello keeper, Lizzie Handley Duke made a fortune that allowed her to retire out of state with her reputation intact. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the visibility of these bordellos, and the "social evil" of prostitution more generally, became increasingly controversial. Beginning in 1886 in Dallas, purity reformers along with the city mayor initiated a call for action against commercialized sex, which had little effect on most of the city council. Here, as elsewhere in the nation, attitudes about prostitution and prostitution reform were never uniform. Some held to the Gilded Age notion that prostitution was a necessary evil, protecting virtuous women from males unable to control their sexual urges or desires. Others, such as Tony Upchurch of the Church of the Nazarene, sought to end prostitution as a means of saving souls. Still others followed the national Progressive movement that perceived prostitution as a force of moral erosion in society and lobbied for laws abolishing "the vicious trade". While Dallas did not lack anti-prostitution reformers, those reformers competed with a frontier past, entrenched prostitution interests, and an urban political culture that believed the eradication sought by social purists was unworkable (and unprofitable). In the first decades of the early twentieth century, the controversy over prostitution came to a crisis point. In 1906, at a point when major cities across the nation were closing down their red-light districts, and after the city had begun to develop a reputation for cultural conservatism, local officials took the amazingly liberal position of legalizing prostitution in a small, segregated district. Immediately, a citizen's group emerged to protest the existence of the district "in their backyard"--but not the concept of a red-light district per se--and sought to use new state laws to subvert the city's plan. Between 1907 and 1910, Dallas' new urban commission resisted their efforts, believing they had found a workable middle ground. Neither open tolerance nor total annihilation would persist, but would be replaced by a segregated district in a marginal and "obscure" location. By 1913, however, a critical alignment between backyard protectionists, purity reformers and state law overcame the urban commission. Though prostitution did not disappear in Dallas, officials abandoned all efforts to regulate it.