Bob Hansen is on vacation. This column first appeared in July 2002
There never was any shortage of entertainment in 1887 Burlington. If there was not a freight train of Swedish immigrants idling at the rail siding, then there was a fancy steamboat loaded with high society "swells" stopping at the levee.
And if these attractions failed, then there always was the prostitute punch–out that likely was to erupt at any moment in the downtown district.
It was no secret that the town fathers often turned a blind eye on the activities of this "oldest of all professions," for it was an important segment of the town's economic life. Farming youths, steamboat deckhands and traveling salesmen not only frequented the town's many bawdyhouses, but also poured money into neighboring bars and gambling dens.
In 1909, a heavy tax on prositution houses and gambling dens added $14,000 to city coffers annually. The painted ladies and slick cardsharps were paying for the town's schools and roads — but that didn't mean the town had to like it.
A wander through newspaper accounts from 1860 to 1910 finds that activities of these "outcast" women often attracted public attention and condemnation. A local "lady who had the shape of a brick" was castigated for getting customers drunk and taking their wallets, but no mention is made of the men who patronized this particular hooker.
When the town hosted troops during the Civil War, prostitution became epidemic. The river held many "gunboats," or floating bawdyhouses, and the islands sprouted cabins intended only for this flourishing trade.
Burlington historian Phillip Jordon wrote, "The levee district was a labyrinth by day and a nightmare after dark, a dangerous maze where even those that knew it well walked with prudence."
But if Prudence was busy that night, there always was action elsewhere.
"Officers, with more money than enlisted men, found female companionship in somewhat more luxurious houses on Valley Street and the west end of Jefferson Street."
City authorities sought to bring the situation under control by closing houses, arresting inmates, and taking them to court. Generally, the girls paid small fines in morning court and were again in business that evening. If forced to leave town, the kimono girls packed a few belongings, hung a sign reading "See you tomorrow" on the door and left, to return the next day.
By the mid-1880s, Burlington's prostitution business had taken a lower profile, with city regulations confining the hookers to houses on lower Main Street, Valley Street, and the west end of Jefferson, but occasionally the women crossed these boundaries.
On a November Sunday morning in 1887, while the respectables of the town were preparing for church, a group of the Jefferson Street "courtesans" were making their way home after spending their off–hours at a Front Street tavern.
The ladies seriously were "in their cups" and one of them had the idea they should pay a visit to a group of competitors on North Main Street and to voice their displeasure. As perhaps 25 women marched up the street, a similar group that lodged in a seedy hotel next to the county courthouse met them.
Words led to pushing, pushing led to shoving and finally churchgoers were greeted by the sights and sounds of nearly 50 colorfully–clad or unclad women slugging it out on the courthouse stairs, as more than 100 tavern patrons cheered them on.
Respectable citizens "could not avoid hearing the oaths and ribald exclamations of the outcast women and some degraded men who surrounded them. Policemen attempted to disperse the crowd," the Gazette newspaper reported.
The battling women united in the face of police pressure, and the battle quickly grew into a riot. Some of the police were to later report minor injuries, and the courtesans demonstrated an unseemly familiarity with the officers who were attempting to disperse them.
This caused the newspaper to editorialize, "We have called attention to this infamous Main Street den, which is worse in degree, but not in kind, to the smaller ones scattered about the city. It is certainly high time that something should be done about it."
But, of course, nothing was done. There were a few fines, and a few of the ladies spent Sunday afternoon relaxing in county jail cells and, in the end, nothing significant would transpire.
A few days later, the Gazette added a postscript. "The riot in front of the courthouse and the impunity with which these pariahs carry on their trade does not speak well for the city and for the chief of police."
It took pressure from the State House in Des Moines in 1909 before the town would make its first serious attempts to shut down this trade which was known as the "white plague."