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In his unpublished autobiography, David S. Rose recalled that one of his first orders of business on being elected mayor of Milwaukee in 1898 was to set up an official red light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.”

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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). Continue reading