That Time Prostitution was Decriminalized in Wisconsin

In his unpublished autobiography, David S. Rose recalled that one of his first orders of business on being elected mayor of Milwaukee in 1898 was to set up an official red light district. “I started to make an investigation,” he wrote, “And ascertain what would be the best and safest policy for society, for the rising youth, for the suppression of crime.” Mayor “All the Time Rosy” was a Democrat and a machine politician, more or less Wisconsin’s analog to Tammany Hall, and arch enemy of Progressive “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, who is more or less Wisconsin’s patron saint.  Rose instructed the chief of police to pursue a policy of containment: sex commerce inside the boundaries of the River Street district would be ignored, and outside it would be fiercely prosecuted. The city flourished, Rose remained popular for decades, and Milwaukee grew its reputation as an “open town.”


Milwaukee Mayor David S. Rose (source: Milwaukee Historical Society)

Milwaukee was just one of many U.S. cities that decriminalized prostitution in the late 19th century, usually in the name of two things: preventing venereal disease, and protecting children. I say decriminalized rather than legalized, because it was not, in fact, ever legal to exchange sex for money. Rather enforcement became selective and strategic, to keep the sex trade regulated and geographically isolated, not necessarily in that order. Towns and cities all over Wisconsin tried some version of the decriminalization experiment until the rise of the Progressive movement turned the tide of public opinion against the regulation approach and toward a policy of abolition. Today we know about the “segregated vice” system mostly through the work of the Progressive reformers that dismantled it. In May of 1913, the Wisconsin State Senate passed bill, “to provide for the appointment of a committee to investigate and report on the subject of white slave traffic, and kindred subjects.” The committee would come to be known by the name of the State Senator who chaired it as the Teasdale Vice Committee. From 1913-1914 the Vice Committee deployed undercover private investigators throughout the state, to report on the true status of the segregated districts in Wisconsin.

Abraham Flexner, who is best remembered for importing the European system of medical education to the U.S. (and let me tell you it’s been slow going trying to get U.S. medical education to relinquish Flexner’s curriculum), was also an anti-vice reformer. He wrote in 1918, “Regulationist and abolitionist are absolutely agreed that prostitution exists and on a vast scale; that it is infinitely damaging; that something must be done about it. They disagree only as to what that something must be.” Those in favor of segregated vice districts and those opposed to it were equally vehement in their condemnation of commercial sex and their dire warnings that prostitution was a threat to decent citizens everywhere. They used the language of infectious disease to describe the sex trade, and they addressed it with policies that used the tactics of the burgeoning field of public health. “Regulationists” tried to quarantine prostitution, while “abolitionists” tried to eradicate it with both treatment (prosecution) and prevention (sex education).

The Public Health Threat of Venereal Disease

Infectious disease is ubiquitous in the arguments for any kind of public action relating to prostitution (note that I am using the historically accurate term although in contemporary life I prefer the term “sex work” when discussing consensual transactions among adults). Syphilis and gonorrhea were major public health burdens, for which preventive measures were doubtful and cures either useless or worse than the disease. It was widely believed that most venereal disease was spread by prostitutes and that most prostitutes were infected. So a major component of regulation was the registration of prostitutes for medical inspection. Registration and inspection was tried in American cities at least as early as the Civil War, in order to keep soldiers healthy. Soldiers, of course, were not registered for inspection. Later, during World War I, many states would pass inspection and quarantine laws again. Physician Dr. Katharine Bushnell (more on her in a moment) called it “indecent assault” for women to be “exposed to the masturbating hand of a vile doctor” while infected men were left in peace. I feel like Dr. Bushnell and I would get along.

Prostitutes in Milwaukee registered with the police, but inspection was voluntary, and may have relied on a reputation for contagion being bad for business. When asked about medical inspection for their workers at the Teasdale Committee hearings, several madams testified that they had had medical inspection at their establishments every week. A madam named Sarah Worcester claimed she mandated inspection, “unless it was a girl I knew positively could take care of herself . You take an older girl, they know how to take care of themselves, and just as well as any physician.” It is difficult to know exactly what taking care of oneself meant to Sarah Worcester, but it may have included preventive measures such as using lubricant to prevent vaginal abrasions (which may have helped), or washing with vinegar, alcohol, or caustic chemicals (which probably didn’t).

The premise of registration, that doctors had some ability to diagnose and treat venereal disease, may have been fatally flawed. During this period, condoms were associated with contraception rather than protection against disease. Until 1910, syphilis treatment meant taking mercury, a regimen based in humoral theory of disease, of dubious value in treating symptoms and no value in curing the disease. Gonorrhea might be treated by medicines or injections intended to induce sweating or urination. Differentiating syphilis from gonorrhea was haphazard. Diagnosis relied primarily on visual inspection for lesions or pus, thus missing the large proportion of infections that were asymptomatic. Salvarsan, the first empirically sound treatment for syphilis, was made available in the US the same year that the River Street district was closed.


Minty Flavored Mercury (Source: The Herb Museum)

Anti-vice reformers frequently argued that the failures of medical inspection  was a reason to abandon the toleration system. One doctor who had carried out inspections in LaCrosse testified to the Teasdale Committee that since all prostitutes eventually developed venereal disease,  “In my opinion, the examination could not be of the slightest value in the way of protection.” Another doctor called examination, “one of the greatest farces that could exist,” and a third quipped, “If you begin registering venereal diseases, you can register 90 per cent of the people of Milwaukee.”  Proponents of abolition felt the only way to control venereal disease was to reduce contact between prostitutes and their clients, by educating men on the value of sexual continence, and by making prostitutes harder to find. In his history of VD titled No Magic Bullet, Allan M. Brandt argues that some Progressives saw venereal disease as a necessary evil, because fear of it was a deterrent to promiscuity.

Gonorrhea and syphilis shortened the life expectancy of prostitutes working during this period, but government interest in venereal disease was about protecting the “innocent” public rather than prostitutes themselves. Brandt quotes physician Prince Morrow describing one city’s registration law as “directed against a particular class of women for the protection of a particular class of men.” Regulation was also motivated by the protection of white, non-prostitute women, from infection by their husbands. Children central to this argument as well, as congenital syphilis exposure was, and remains, a fearsome complication of childbirth. Keeping young people out of the segregated districts was always a regulatory priority, and apparently a total failure. The Teasdale Committee’s investigators uniformly found minors where they weren’t supposed to be.

Prostitution as Crime or Tragedy

Present-day medicine for sex workers frames four major categories of occupational exposure: sexually transmitted infection, violence, addiction, and other mental health conditions. The Regulationist approach concerned itself only with the first of these, but all of these matters were important to Progressive reformers. There is in fact a paradox in the framing of prostitutes between “Regulationists” and “Abolitionists” that is not obvious from their policies.

Although Regulationists advocated toleration, they understood prostitution primarily as a crime, and prostitutes as criminals. The sheriff of Sheboygan testified in favor of his city’s red light district for the Teasdale Committee, saying, “My justification to the people of this county for permitting this crime to continually be committed here is to protect others.” Mayor Rose declared, “The harlot is the most dangerous criminal…that roams the earth…Is it not safer to herd them off by themselves, in a corral by themselves, and prevent them from breaking out?”

Advocates for abolition, in contrast, though they favored enforcement of anti-prostitution law and intensive prosecution of prostitutes, saw the existence of the sex trade as a societal tragedy, overlaid with epidemic alcoholism, exploitation of workers, and subjugation of women. “The great majority of prostitutes,” reads the Teasdale report, “Now outcasts from the society of respectable women, have come to their present status through the deception of men, through the use of intoxicating liquor, through economic pressure, through loneliness and isolation leading to bad company, or through assault and the use of force.” Vice Commissions across the country emphasized that the criminals they wished to prosecute were pimps; they considered prostitutes victims of a criminal economy. It was progressive reformers who rebranded venereal disease as the “social disease,” the response to which was social hygiene, a movement dedicated to reforming sexual practice and preventing sexual disease for the good and health of the population.

The report was also flecked with references to that other Progressive remedy for social disease, eugenics. Writing in the 1960’s, Roy Lubove wrote, “The reformers drew their intense indignation from their conviction that where prostitution went, there also went disease and moral degradation, race-suicide and physical enervation.” I recently wrote about the eugenicist concept of the “moral imbecile,” which for women strongly implied hereditary tendencies toward sexual promiscuity. The Teasdale Committee’s investigators included an assessment of the prostitutes’ intelligence, using descriptors such as “subnormal” or “bright” in their reports—determined how, it is unclear. They also assessed the women for character traits such as vanity. Despite their eugenic anxiety, the Committee found that “mental defectives” were “comparatively few in number,” and that mostly “women wish and strive to avoid immorality and unnatural sexual lives.”


Poster from 1918 promoting abstinence for men (source: US National Library of Medicine)

Whether men could also be trusted to strive for morality was a major point of contention. Regulationists argued that the demand for prostitution was inelastic, because men biologically required sex, and regulated vice provided a necessary outlet. “Men are, and always have been men,” said Mayor Rose in his memoir. “Tell the man that there is no place where a prostitute may be found, and he will create a prostitute, or a mistress, for himself.” Writing in the 1980’s, historian Neal Larry Shumsky documented advocates for the regulated vice system arguing that attempts to repress male sexuality would only lead to widespread rape. Reformers on the other hand rejected both the doctrine of male sexual necessity and the belief in vice districts as rape prevention. University of Wisconsin sociologist and gung-ho eugenicist E.A. Ross testified for the Teasdale Committee that, “the prostitution that you find in a town is not the gratification of a pre-existing demand…the demand has been very skillfully stimulated, so that you have a business which stimulates the demand for its goods, just as dry goods merchants stimulate the demand for dry goods.” The scrapping of sexual double standards for men and women became a recurring reformist theme.

The Teasdale Committee also seemed to have an agenda for seeking out evidence of “sexual perversion,” though in their efforts to avoid salacious language they leave a present-day reader many possible interpretations as to what specific perversions they had in mind. In a 2005 article for M Magazine, journalist Larry Widen reported that two decades after the closing of the River Street district, its most famous madam, Kitty Williams, was caught and prosecuted for running a house for men to meet for sex. Historian Don Romesburg has highlighted how Progressive Era investigations occasionally stumbled upon evidence of male youth engaged in prostitution, but considered it outside the scope of their investigations. Considering that in Chicago during this time period, the Tribune had an intractable problem with newsies turning tricks in the alleys around their distribution center, it seems implausible that there was no male youth prostitution occurring in Milwaukee. But the Vice Commission does not discuss it in any of the long discourses on the corruption of youth. Perhaps these children were not the ones they were trying to save.

White slavery and racial and nationalist tensions

Remember my pal Dr. Katharine Bushnell? Well in the 1880s, before segregated vice came to Wisconsin, she initiated a statewide investigation into brothels in lumber camps. She and her crew of female investigators interviewed over 200 brothel workers, and reported on evidence of forced prostitution, kidnapping, and violence. Dr. Bushnell’s work in exposing sex trafficking was greeted with great hostility; as an out-of-stater she was accused of insulting and slandering Wisconsin and its male politicians. In addition to weathering the usual accusations of masculinity, ugliness, and loose morals, Bushnell became involved in some highly public conflicts, including a libel case, before her testimony for the State Legislature led to a new law. It was nicknamed The Kate Bushnell Bill, and forbade “procurement,” the recruiting of young women into the sex trade.


Illustration from the 1910 book War on White Slave Traffic (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps this precedent led Wisconsin’s anti-vice reformers to expect to find evidence of forced prostitution endemic to the regulated vice districts. Popular fantasies of White Slavery were omnipresent during the Progressive Era, and much scholarly work has been done unpacking the meanings of the fantasy and especially its racial overtones. Wisconsin’s regulated vice districts, however, did not prove to be a hotbed of kidnapping or corruption of the unwilling white woman, felled by a hypodermic needle in a dimly lit theater. Admitting that they had failed to find evidence of the white slave trade they had imagined, the Teasdale committee redefined the term. “The more liberal interpretation of the term ‘white slavery,'” it claimed, “Covers every instance where restraint is placed upon the free action of women and girls, through intimidation, debt, or pure lack of personal responsibility, thus keeping them under the influence and control of men and women who exploit their bodies for money.”

Although this redefinition was probably spin, historian Mara Laura Keire has argued that “debt peonage” is integral to the myth of White Slavery, because it explained away prostitutes’ lack of interest in being rescued. The Teasdale investigators’ interviews with prostitutes found that fewer than ten percent “desired to leave this life.” Roy Lubove speculated about the persistent popularity of the White Slavery myth, “Surely it was easier to wax compassionate over the young innocent forced into hell than to be concerned over the tough, hardened prostitute who wished reformers and uplifters would go there.”

A ledger from an anonymized Milwaukee brothel that was part of the Teasdale Committee’s evidence has survived. Its records do not suggest that this establishment, at least, held women in debt peonage. Though some of the women’s earnings were given back in order to buy sundries ranging from silk stockings and cigarettes to laxatives and dental care, each woman still netted at least five dollars a day—the same as a Ford Motor employee.

Whether or not all prostitutes were slaves, they were clearly not all white. Though it is difficult to judge how representative was the sample, of the sixty prostitutes profiled by the Teasdale Committee’s investigators, ten were classified as “Colored.”  One of the functions of the “sporting culture” was to allow socializing among people of different backgrounds, especially to allow whites to socialize with blacks. Keire argues that under regulationism “City officials deliberately privileged segregation by reputability over separation by race, thereby perpetuating a heterogeneous urban underworld.” Milwaukee historian John Gurda’s book The Making of Milwaukee documents the 50-cent Sporting and Club House Guide to Milwaukee listing a brothel run by a madam called Jack Hunter, employing only “Colored” girls, catering only to white men. One of the Vice Committee’s investigators, who reported one palm garden in which white and black prostitutes solicited clients of other races, and equally shockingly, “White and colored persons, strangers, are allowed to drink together at the tables.”

Class, and especially immigration, were also implicated in debates over segregated vice. Milwaukee was a town of immigrants, with over 85% first and second generation in the 1890 census. Wisconsin’s port towns and lumber towns also had high immigrant populations, primarily men who had migrated for laboring jobs. The Teasdale Committee concluded from its own data that no “nationality” was especially prone to producing prostitutes, or at least that without a larger sample “no conclusions can be drawn.” However it singled out immigrant men as being a danger to innocent white American women, as male sexual necessity would drive them to commit rape. Foreign-born men were also especially suspected of being pimps.

The End of the Experiment

Milwaukee’s segregated vice system lasted until 1910, when one of Rose’s successors to the mayoralty, socialist and future Vice-Presidential candidate Emil Seidel, presided over the closing of the River Street district. He padlocked the door of Kitty Williams’ fancy brothel. The police department, still led by the same chief as in Rose’s day, reverted to a policy of total repression.

Lamenting the lost red light district, Mayor Rose wrote, “Milwaukee had one when I was first elected mayor. It was bounded on the east by Broadway; on the west by ninth street; on the south by Oneida street, and on the north by North Water street. Milwaukee has a red light district now. It is bounded on all sides by the city limits.” When Howard Teasdale retired from politics in 1929, the Milwaukee Sentinel ran a brief notice, calling the vice commission his most notable achievement, and summarized its effects thus: “In Badger towns [it] brought heated denials and protest and little else.”