The Cribs. In 1887, a reporter for the San Diego Union grew a beard, wore threadbare duds, and stealth’d through San Diego’s red-light district. He was shocked to see drunks on every corner. Some clung to lampposts like masts on a roiling sea; others crawled or snored in the mud, oblivious to the horses and wagons sloshing up and down lower Fifth Avenue.
When he turned west on J Street, the reporter complained: “No man can pass along the streets without being hallooed at by the shameless women.”
A “soiled dove” hallooed.
“Ma’am,” he replied, “I have ten reasons why I cannot do that — and the first is money.”
“Then,” she said, waving a dismissive handkerchief, “never mind the rest.”
We’ve been walking, through time, up Fifth. If we keep going north after 1901, we’d reach City Hall. Sailors on leave who came from the wharf would turn left long before then.
Wherever you go in the Stingaree, Till Burnes will cross your path. When he does, let him pass. The combative, hair-triggered impresario owned some of the best and worst saloons in the district.
In 1886, Burnes opened the White House, at the northwest corner of Fifth and I. The single-story brick structure served “the Finest Brands of Liquors and Cigars” and boasted a brand-new Monarch Billiard Table. The combination, advertising claimed, made the White House the “Most Attractive Saloon in Town.”
In time, Burnes changed the name to the Acme. Along with a billiard parlor, polished oak-wood bar, and elegantly dressed hostesses, the Acme offered reading and reception rooms, watched over by “magnificent oil paintings,” and all the eastern newspapers.
One night, after he closed his bar at 4:00 a.m., Burnes went to play guitar at a nearby saloon. Three drunks wobbled in and hassled a customer. A fight broke out. The five-foot-six-inch Burnes, who did his own bouncing, stopped the squabble and ordered the drunks outside.
As Burnes retuned his guitar, the door swung open: metal flashed into the light and spit out a roar. Pedro Verdal, seated at the bar, slumped over.
Burnes ditched the guitar. He drew down, fired twice.
The interloper crashed to the floor.
The drunk and Verdal recovered from their wounds. And Burnes — like Pete Cassidy and the district’s other nefarious proprietors (not to mention San Diego’s affluent “fancy” males) — never went to court.
The Stingaree stretched far to the east, but the most densely populated area of prostitution was two city blocks between Fifth and Third Avenues, and Island and J.
After the turn of the century, the competition became so fierce that prostitutes had to invent distinctive means of self-promotion, especially those outside the central area. So 20 “ladies” from the four-story Golden Poppy Hotel at 837 Fifth wore dresses in 20 different pastel colors.
They walked the streets in regular shifts, strutting as if for the Easter parade. The door and wallpaper of their rooms at the Victorian-style hotel (now Georges on Fifth) were the same colors as their dresses. If one enticed a john, he wouldn’t know her name or room number. But he knew her hue.
“What color?” asked Madame Coara back at the hotel. The silver-haired palm-reader liked to smoke cigars with her feet up. When she got an answer, Coara handed the man a marble the color of the dress and gave him directions upstairs.
As in other cities, San Diego’s prostitutes had a caste system, from upscale to bottom rung. Madame Coara’s streetwalkers fell somewhere in the middle.
Madame Goldstein’s the Turf, at the northeast corner of Fourth and J, and Madame Ida Bailey’s pale-yellow Canary Cottage, at 530 Fourth, were “the aristocracy of the Stingaree,” says Henry Schwartz. Goldstein and Bailey’s women dressed for the opera. They carried on sophisticated parlor conversations with “gentlemen callers” and made a fairly decent living from the city’s “fat wallets.”
Long before Coara sent out employees in pastels, red-haired Ida Bailey’d hire a four-wheeled barouche from the Diamond Carriage Company. She took her girls for Sunday drives through residential San Diego. These tours, writes Jerry MacMullen, “horrified and aroused the rage of the decent housewives…but the men thought it was funnier than hell.” Madame Ida, “you might say, [was] the forerunner of outdoor advertising in San Diego.”
The Canary Cottage, the Turf, and the Green Light — a two-story frame structure on Third between I and J — rarely got raided. When they did, the proprietors received advance warning. On one occasion, as police assembled unannounced before the Canary Cottage’s white picket fence, two of San Diego’s movers and shakers shimmied down the rubber tree out back, tugged up their trousers, and hopped the six-foot fence.
Ida’s nymphs du pave had news for those who saw prostitution as victimization. “It’s the most honest deal of all,” one remarked, “cash money for services rendered. Plain and simple.” Many said they enjoyed “the bright side of the fast life,” which may have incensed San Diego’s moralists most of all.
When the Purity League wanted to build the Door of Hope, a home for the Stingaree’s “fallen women,” a “lady” wrote to Union: “The name alone would keep me away. I say every woman in this district is just where she wants to be. We don’t need anyone to reform us.”
She never plied her trade in the cribs.
Behind Pete Cassidy’s, at 452 Fifth, rows and rows of shacks ran through the middle of two blocks, from Fifth to Third Avenue (through the Horton Grand Hotel today). The route connecting them, sometimes wide, sometimes just a single-file passageway between brick buildings, was called Wildcat Alley.
Directly behind Cassidy’s, 20 cribs faced a compound labeled “the bullpen.” The single rooms ran wall-to-wall like connected cabins. Rooms behind the cribs made the compound resemble a honeycomb.
When someone on the lam entered the bullpen, writes Shelley J. Higgins, he “seemed to disappear as if by the hand of magic.” He could vanish into one of the “blind” rooms behind the cribs or dash up Cassidy’s stairs and hightail it across a network of runways connecting the roofs of buildings.