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THE RAID. On September 10, 1909, city prosecutor Edgar Luce, chief of police Keno Wilson, and a detective named Smith crossed the Market Street “dead line” and took a stroll through the Stingaree, San Diego’s notorious red-light district. Expecting enough material for several steamy columns, a reporter from the San Diego Sun went along.

In March, Luce authored an ordinance converting dance halls into non-alcoholic “temperance saloons.” He arranged the walk to see which ones complied. A liquor license on the wall would prove they hadn’t.

They began their inspection at 10:00 p.m., when the district awoke from a day-long slumber. Even though he wore plain clothes, denizens recognized Wilson. Curtains cracked an inch and floated shut. Locals sought the shadows. They walked quickly, knowing that if they ran, Wilson would nab them for crimes unknown. Though only on the job for six months, the six-foot-three-inch cop with the handlebar mustache already had a reputation for being “short on poetry, long on action.”

The first stop: Ed Hayes’s Legal Tender dance hall, corner of Fourth and J.

“Where’s your government license?” Luce asked the bartender.

“Right here.” The haggard-eyed man jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “But we only serve soft drinks.”

“Crack me a fresh bottle,” said Luce, staring the man down.

The bartender popped the lid from a Silver Gate soda. Luce took a sip of the bitter, sparkling fluid. “Nope,” he said, shooting his companions a sour-eyed squint, “a man couldn’t get a jag on that.”

The quartet visited eight cheap dance halls. In several, they saw underage boys in the company of “half-drunk” women. At the Pacific Squadron, Luce spotted a “bright-looking, well-dressed little fellow,” as a reporter later wrote, “on the road to ruin.” Luce grabbed the youngster by the ear, paraded him outside, and told a beat cop to take him to juvenile hall.

“These are final orders,” Luce announced to saloonkeepers in the Sun article, “boys this age are barred from your establishments,” or else.

Expecting alcohol-crazed blue-jackets cracking each other’s skulls, and brazen nymphs du pave in dishabille, the reporter couldn’t hide his letdown. The Stingaree, he wrote, is “well cleaned up.” It will “remain there, for the new city administration doesn’t want to…spread it all over town. But it is not what it used to be.”

Luce, however, saw a morass of “social evil.” He vowed that, if they didn’t mend their ways, he’d close every dance hall and saloon “in the very near future.”

Between 1910 and 1912, cities across the nation conducted cleanup campaigns: trash hauled more often, crackdowns on vice, and even laws against spitting in public (to prevent the spread of TB). In San Diego, reform grew to a frenzied pitch. The Vice Suppression Committee — aka the “Purity League” — urged the city to polish its image for the upcoming Panama-California Exposition of 1915 and “slam the lid on the Stingaree.”

In October 1912, ministers and prominent women, among the latter Mrs. R.C. Allen and Dr. Charlotte Baker of the WCTU, gathered over 200 names on a petition to close the “hell hole” once and for all.

Most civic officials, led by Chief Wilson, argued that San Diego was better off having a “segregated” district for “half world” activities. If the police closed the Stingaree, Wilson said, prostitutes would “scatter” to other parts of the city. Having them in one place made it easier to “keep an eye on them.”

Dr. Baker, one of San Diego’s first female physicians and a leader of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, argued against the “scatteration theory.” She’d visited Los Angeles, which closed down its red-light district early in 1912, and claimed that evicted prostitutes would stick together. The key was to “keep them moving” and not let them settle.

Unlike other reformers who advocated a moral crusade against vice, Dr. Baker made her case for medical reasons. Since an estimated “25 percent of the race” will suffer from venereal disease, “we ought to wage against it a campaign as scientific and as thorough as…we are waging against tuberculosis.”

“The Stingaree became a three-cornered political issue,” wrote Jerry MacMullen, “involving the Navy, the sporting element, and what were called at the time ‘long-haired men and short-haired women.’ It was the victory of the latter in a municipal election which upset City Hall and put in a reform party.”

On October 2, 1912, the Purity League demanded official closure. Hearing that San Diego would “open up,” prostitutes who’d been run out of Los Angeles came south. They rented rooms at boarding parlors, hotels, and apartments, and plied their trade outside the Stingaree. Addicts evicted from L.A. also came to San Diego, writes Ray Brandes, “to obtain cocaine, morphine, and opium.” The “snow birds” (i.e., the addicts) sought out Sunny Ramsey, legendary “King of the Coke Fiends,” at his basement residence at 15th and I.

Though prohibited from going to the “upper side” — north of Market Street — many local prostitutes crossed the line. “You may walk down any street in the city,” the Union reported, “and pick out a dozen fallen women any night of the week.” Wilson had his officers arrest those streetwalkers for vagrancy. The punishment: leave town.

So many men propositioned women who weren’t prostitutes, there was talk of an ordinance allowing the women to carry revolvers.

The Purity League’s demand prompted diverse reactions. “I had nothing to do with it,” said Mayor James E. Wadham. A letter to the Union puzzled: “Why have preachers and the Purity Union undertaken to dictate the community morals? The majority of citizens of San Diego are satisfied with the existing conditions.” R.H. Harbert, an African-American minister, argued that “the social evil will not be uprooted or killed by closing the Stingaree.”

Conditions in the district, countered Reverend R.D. Hollington, “touch upon the health of some of the boys in the high school of this city.”

The Purity League promised to reform prostitutes at the Door of Hope, a “home for fallen women” recently moved from Front Street to City Heights. The city “should dump its human garbage someplace” else, property owners shot back. “Let the hysterical reformers maintain their own homes!”

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rickeysays Aug. 5, 2009 @ 3:38 p.m.

The “Purity League”: A group that said everyone else should live like them, according to their definitions of right and wrong. Todays equivalent: Every person who voted for prop 8.


Jeff Smith Aug. 6, 2009 @ 11:02 a.m.

Thanks RefriedG, muchisimas. You made my day.


David Dodd Aug. 6, 2009 @ 1:16 a.m.

Great series, Jeff Smith. This type of historical journaism is dead anywhere else, I salute your efforts.


danwhitehead1 Aug. 8, 2009 @ 2:09 p.m.

All of the Stingaree articles have been absolutely fascinating. Apparently the San Diego city government has always been just as smarmy, arrogant and self-righteous as I found it to be during the 30 years I lived and worked there. I guess that proves true the old saw: "The more things change, the more they stay the same". Also apparently, the so-called upper crust of the city was the same hypocritical, double-standard bunch during the days of the Stingaree as they were during my time there, proving the truth of another old saw: "The upper crust are nothing more than a bunch of crumbs held together by dough".


downtownphotoguy Aug. 24, 2009 @ 10:28 a.m.

I have enjoyed this series tremendously. Informative and entertaining at the same time. I have an office in 437 J Street, which is a lovely old building. I'm told it has been a bordello, a hotel, and an orphanage. When I climb the steep stairs from the entrance to the second floor, I wonder how many drunken sailors have been thrown down them in days gone by. If you know any stories about this building I'd love to know them!


HenrySloanIII Aug. 27, 2009 @ 9:29 p.m.

Intriguing, captivating series to say the least. It's been interesting to walk around down there and picture some of those long ago (foundational?) situations and capers. In sum, just an excellent read for six installments. The subject matter is fascinating and the author is a master craftsmen. What are the chances of Mr. Smith's historical writings on San Diego reaching print in book form? I'd wager there would be a market for it.


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