Victorian-era Findlay was hotbed for ‘houses of ill-fame’

URBAN LEGEND has it that the upstairs half of a building on North Main Street, in a stretch known as the Riverside Block (115-117 N. Main St.), built in 1890, was a brothel. Signs identifying the business were frowned upon by either the madam’s landlord or the city, so the woman hung a giant stone phallus from the roof of the building, pointing down toward the business. (Photo provided to The Courier)

By BRENNA GRITEMAN
LIFE EDITOR

In the late 1880s, Findlay went “boom” with the discovery of natural gas.

That discovery brought oil workers, railroad workers, land speculators, phone lines and factories. In other words, it brought single men.

“And then with that came crime and alcohol and prostitution,” says Joy Bennett, Hancock Historical Museum curator and archivist.

Findlay’s enterprising young women learned they could make significantly more money working in, or owning, a brothel than they could laboring in a laundry facility or operating telephone company switchboards.

And, one University of Findlay graduate student points out, the city learned that it could make significantly more money by turning a blind eye to the city’s many “houses of ill-fame.”

Joy Brown, a university employee and part-time student in the university’s rhetoric and writing program, has been studying Findlay’s brothels since October. According to her research, the city completed $1.1 million in building projects in 1888-89. This included construction of the courthouse, a waterworks, a natural gas and supply system, electric plant, Main Street bridge, and street grading and paving.

Raids of brothels contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the city and even helped pay the salaries of the police conducting the raids: “They (prostitutes) were very much a cog in the system,” Brown says.

The going raid rate

The Hancock Historical Museum is not exactly rife with information on Findlay’s Victorian-era brothels, so much of Brown’s research comes from old newspaper articles archived at the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library and from old court documents scrawled in proper cursive.

“I would love to find someone’s diary” detailing the subject further, Brown says, although her research has unearthed plenty of anecdotal evidence.

Brothels were common even before the oil and gas boom.

The May 8, 1868, edition of The Hancock Jeffersonian states: “Findlay has too many houses of ill-fame, too many places where bad whiskey is sold, too many men who have no visible means of support. — Such a condition of things will engender crime in any community. Is there not some way to obviate these things?”

Perhaps this is why the following year, in 1869, the Council of the Incorporated Village of Findlay passed an ordinance “to suppress and restrain disorderly houses and houses of ill fame.” Persons found guilty of violating said ordinance “shall be fined in any sum not exceeding 50 dollars, or imprisoned and kept at hard labor not exceeding 30 days, or both, at the discretion of the mayor.”

It seems this ordinance was later violated by the city itself when, according to a Jan. 24, 1889, article from The Hancock Jeffersonian, “A detachment of police went down to the house kept by Kitty Brown, on Putnam Street. They captured the proprietress, four women and four men, who were brought up before the mayor. The Brown woman (pleaded) guilty to keeping a house of prostitution and was assessed $53.60 fine and costs (about $1,300 in 2017 currency), which she paid. The eight inmates were given $8 (fines) each, which they paid and were released.”

Bennett notes that Kitty Brown’s brothel, situated right along the railroad tracks, made it a hotbed for illicit activity. “She was mentioned in the newspaper quite a bit,” she says of the Putnam Street property owner.

While there was no designated “red light district” in Findlay, Brown estimates that with a population of about 10,000 in the late 1880s, Findlay supported at least 50 brothels. Houses typically had four to eight working ladies, along with one madam and, often, a runner.

“There was obviously a demand, and supply was provided,” Brown says.

On one winter night in 1889, the Jeffersonian reported two raids on Walnut Street, again violating the city’s $50 cap on ordinance violators. At the first house, kept by Jennie Moore,

“The proprietress, three girls and 10 men were caught and hauled to the mayor’s office in the patrol wagon. The proprietress was fined $53.60 and the girls and men $8 each. All settled.”

A second raid just down the street, at a house kept by Ada Jones, brought the arrests of three women, six men and a “runner for the house,” identified as William Bennett. Each was fined $8, except for William Bennett, who paid $15.

“Eight bucks seemed to be the going rate, from what I could find, for fines,” Brown notes.

In nearly every documented instance, the women had the money to pay their fines on the spot and return to work that same night.

Both Brown and Bennett speculate this may be why, instead of jailing the madams — many of whom were rather notorious — the city chose to fine and release them.

“Honestly, to some extent, the prostitutes were the most wealthy people in town,” Bennett says.

A lasting landmark

Findlay is not alone in owing some of its early infrastructure to prostitutes and the men who solicited them.

“The more frontier it was, the more apt it was to be settled on the backs of prostitutes,” Bennett says of budding American cities.

This doesn’t hold true for much of the East Coast, having been founded by the Puritans, but many cities in the Midwest and beyond — including Cincinnati — had large red-light districts.

Further, many Victorian-era prostitutes had high standing in society and were known to be well off financially. A woman working in a factory might make $3 a week, for example, while a woman working in a brothel made about $25, Bennett says.

In many respects, prostitutes from this era were some of the earliest feminists, she explained. They had nice corsets and pantaloons and lived in well-kept homes, which they earned for themselves without the help of a husband.

What they lacked, of course, was the same respect shown to the men of the town — many of whom made up these ambitious working women’s customer base.

A certain lack of respect is apparent in newspaper write-ups, which frequently editorialized on the lifestyles of the city’s prostitutes and madams. Such was the case in an April 9, 1901, headline in the Findlay Daily Courier, which states that for Josie Foote, “Shock of arrest of herself and daughter assists ravages of sickness.”

Foote and her 17-year-old daughter had been arrested at their East Crawford Street brothel the night before. The 39-year-old matriarch had been bedridden with kidney disease for several months and, the next morning, the date of her scheduled court appearance, she was found dead in her home. The newspaper goes on to speculate that “Some trouble was experienced in meeting the fines imposed upon the several inmates and the worry produced along with her anxiety for a daughter’s safety, that had been arrested in the raid, undoubtedly hastened the sick woman’s end.”

As the oil and gas boom dried up, many of Findlay’s pop-up businesses disappeared, “roughly by the turn of the century,” Bennett says. At the same time, Findlay’s police department was growing in resources and manpower. Most of the city’s brothels shut their doors or moved on to new horizons.

One clever Main Street proprietress may have gotten the last laugh, however, in her commission of a structure that was to last more than 70 years.

Urban legend has it that the upstairs half of a building on North Main Street, in a stretch known as the Riverside Block (115-117 N. Main St.), built in 1890, was a brothel.

Signs identifying the business were frowned upon by either the madam’s landlord or the city, so the woman hung a giant stone phallus from the roof of the building, pointing down toward the business. The gargantuan structure can be seen in the background of the North Main Street bridge dedication on July 4, 1935, as well as in a photo in the historical museum’s archives taken in 1974.

“It was a landmark for quite awhile,” Bennett says.

Griteman: 419-427-8477
Send an E-mail to Brenna Griteman
Twitter: @BrennaGriteman



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