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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.

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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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