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!”
Of the Door of Hope, a prostitute wrote, “The name alone would keep me away. Every woman in this district is just where she wants to be. We don’t need anyone to reform us.”
On November 9, 1912, the superintendent of police, health, and morals, John L. Sehon, announced closure. Chief Wilson, a Sehon appointee, promised to enforce the order but warned that “others will come, and I see no means of preventing it.” He added, “When all is said and done, these women are still women. They are outcasts, but not criminals, and while I will do my duty, I do not propose that this order shall work any unnecessary hardship upon them.”
Sehon wanted the raid kept secret to prevent “a general scattering to other parts of the city.” But before dawn, on Sunday morning, November 10, about a dozen women and several male “lovers” — pimps — donned heavy coats, threw hastily packed bags into several carriages, and clopped through a thick fog to the Santa Fe Depot. The women, rumor had it, were madams warned in advance. They took the “Owl,” the first morning train, to Los Angeles. “These women,” the Sun reported the next day, “were more wanted by the police than any of the unfortunates taken to headquarters.”
Because prostitutes couldn’t leave the district, for years messenger boys on bicycles ran errands for clothing, trays of food from the Minneapolis Cafe, and liquor. As dawn broke on November 10, messengers cycled through the district, ringing the thick brass bells on their handlebars and pounding on doors: THE COPS’RE COMING!
A few women left, but most didn’t. “Sehon,” wrote the San Diego Sun, “had half-promised to bring down the lid. But below the dead line, they didn’t dream it was coming down so soon.”
At 8:00 a.m., Wilson and over 30 officers and detectives left police headquarters and marched to the corner of Fourth and Market. Armed with pistols and billy clubs, half of the group moved forward. They formed lines across entrances to the “bullpens,” rows of cribs, mid-block, between Third and Fifth. The remaining officers at Market divided, making way for Black Maria, the department’s paddy wagon, to lead the way.
Wilson blew a whistle, long and piercing.
“Get into your clothes,” he shouted. “Be quick about it. The Stingaree is to go. You are all under arrest.”
Although the raid was allegedly a secret, clusters of males formed on street corners, eager for “an exciting look” at the “painted girls.” Packs of men, many with their hats pulled low to hide their faces, scampered after the paddy wagon and queued up when it halted.
First stop: William Olson’s Oasis at 416 Fourth. Four women, rubbing sleep from their eyes, and six men climbed into Black Maria. At the station, the women were booked. The men, who proved they were upstanding San Diegans, were set free.
During the raid, writes Pliny Castanian, “not a single ‘John’ was taken into custody. Prostitution in those days was strictly a female crime.”
When Wilson’s squad moved to the Canary Cottage, a few doors down from the Oasis, a trend became clear: onlookers expecting a pageant of “painted wine girls” in alluring attire would be disappointed. As they emerged from the Cottage, the Dewey, the Green Light, and other dance halls and brothels, most of the women dressed as if for church: long, dark coats that touched the tops of their high-buttoned shoes, and wide-brimmed picture hats, several plumed with ostrich feathers. They wore no makeup and huddled together in the damp air.
“There was nothing of the anticipated spectacular,” wrote the Union, “to repay [onlookers] for the trouble of the early morning walk.”
Around 8:00 a.m., the circulation manager of the Union phoned his wife. “Big day at the office. Better have breakfast without me.” He hung up and raced to the Stingaree to see what he could see. The next morning, just under the headline, the Union printed a photo of a man, hands on hips, leering over the shoulder of a police officer at the parade of bundled women: the circulation manager.
Since the paddy wagon had a ten-passenger limit, the arrested women became so numerous the police decided to herd them to the station. If one lagged behind or threatened to bolt, an officer would blow a whistle and shake his billy club at the offender.
“There was not a single case of resistance or protest,” wrote the Union. “The women laughed their way to the station good naturedly… [they] treated the round-up as a joke.”
“Some wept, others cursed,” wrote the Sun. “Some tried to be gay. The attempt was pitiful. All were miserable.…Witnesses of the scene will never forget it. It will never be duplicated in San Diego.”
Throughout the raid, and for weeks later, most residents of Chinatown stayed indoors, fearing that they would be next.
By early afternoon, the police had rounded up 138 women and Rags, a heavily perfumed terrier that trailed behind his owner, a prostitute named Goldie. They filled the police station’s “big room,” at 732 Second, smoking enough cigarettes to create a fogbank. Mrs. F.W. Alexander of the Purity League spoke. It wasn’t the league’s intention to coerce the women “in any way,” she said, “just to bring some happiness into their lives and help them reform.”
After a long silence, a woman replied, “We haven’t eaten. Could we have breakfast?”
A short time later, police produced coffee and ham sandwiches.
For the next seven hours, Chief Wilson interviewed the women one at a time in his office. He sat at a table with deputy city attorney D.F. Glidden and an immigration officer. Wilson created a dossier for each one. He asked their names, where they were from, and would they prefer to reform or leave San Diego the next day?
Many gave their last name as “Doe.” The younger ones said they were born in 1888, so they wouldn’t be arrested as juveniles, though about 70 percent were between 13 and 17 years old. Wilson estimated that at least nine-tenths of the women had come to San Diego in the last six months, since the closing of Los Angeles’s red-light district.
Wilson heard their stories and urged each to reform. Then he ordered those who wouldn’t to appear in municipal court the next morning for sentencing. Only two chose to reform.
One woman told Wilson: “I would like to be good again, but the world won’t let me. It must keep me as I am. Please don’t say any more. God! Don’t I know? Haven’t I tried?”
The next morning, 136 prostitutes filled the municipal court. Some sat on rough pine benches; others stood around the rostrum and even behind Judge George Puterbaugh as he sentenced five at a time to vagrancy — a misdemeanor, under the Penal Code, and subject to a $100 fine. Puterbaugh added a proviso: if they’d leave town by 3:00 p.m., he’d suspend the fine.
The women’s behavior surprised deputy city attorney Shelly J. Higgins: “Even though I was charged with the duty of closing them out of business, I had to admit I witnessed nothing in their conduct or language that I could criticize or reproach them for.”
That afternoon, 16 women bought steerage on the steamship Governor for San Francisco. Most of the others made a mass exodus from the Stingaree to the Santa Fe Depot. The Pacific Transfer Company piled its wagon-bed trucks with valises and trunks, crammed with unfolded clothing, bric-a-brac, and small keepsakes (most had only enough personal belongings for one suitcase). Groups walked to the station “in their most fashionable duds.” Behind them, carrying the women’s suitcases, carpetbags, and birdcages, were bartenders and bouncers — many about to lose their jobs — along with, wrote the Union, “opium sellers, gamblers, runners, and panhandlers.”
The next day, the San Diego Sun closed the lid on the district: “Thus the Stingaree, called a necessary evil by some, a cancer and an eyesore by others, the Stingaree, which had survived many crusades and administrations, making it famous from ocean to ocean, has ceased to be.”
Prostitution in the Stingaree — where 100 stray cats now ran loose amid, as health inspectors discovered, filth, open sewers, and disease-infested shacks — had stopped. And its inhabitants moved on, many buying train tickets to Los Angeles.
But most bought round-trip tickets. They didn’t come back, knowing that Wilson would identify them and throw them in jail. Instead many sold — or just gave, some say — the return tickets to L.A.’s evicted ladies of the evening, who rode south, became “hostesses” in Mission Hills, or walked the streets beyond the Stingaree.
In 1913, police arrested 92 women for prostitution. In 1914, writes Clare V. McCanna, “that number more than doubled.”
Harry McKee (quoted in the San Diego Union): “What a lot of tommyrot! [Closing the Stingaree] doesn’t solve any problem!”
Mrs. Rae Copley Raum (San Diego Union): “We have said to the women of the redlight, ‘You aren’t fit to stay here, get out and be unfit to live some other place.’ We haven’t struck at the root of the problem.”
Reverend E. R. Watson (San Diego Union): “I think the men who go down to those places are just as bad as the women, and I believe it is wrong to arrest the women and not arrest the men.”
Brandes, Ray, et al., “San Diego’s Chinatown and Stingaree District,” archaeological report, University of San Diego, 1986.
Castanian, Pliny, To Protect and Serve: A History of the San Diego Police Department and Its Chiefs, San Diego, 1993.
Higgins, Shelly J., This Fantastic City: San Diego, San Diego, 1956.
McCanna, Jr., Clare V., “Prostitutes, Progressives, and Police: The Viability of Vice in San Diego, 1900–1930,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 35, number 1, Winter 1989; “San Diego’s Stingaree,” True West, July, 1985.
MacMullen, Jerry, “The Day They Shut Down Old Stingaree,” San Diego Union, August 8, 1973.
McPhail, Elizabeth C., “When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 20, number 2, Spring 1974.
Smith, Benjamin F., “Short on Poetry, Long on Action: a Brief Biography of J. Keno Wilson,” Brand Book Number Two, San Diego, 1971.
…articles from the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, and the Los Angeles Times.
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 1
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 2
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 3
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 4
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 5