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.
If noise were light, the bullpen would be bright as day: coughing, whoops, and curses, the occasional tossed bottle breaking. But the area was dark, shrouded in a low red fog. Ramshackle board-and-batten cribs had few windows, no ventilation, and no water. A lone faucet in the center of the compound provided “hard” water for the 50 or so women, their pimps, and the bouncers outside — large men, some wearing shoulder holsters, others with long white-ash clubs, milling around, bored to tears.
Two greeted visitors. “Private grounds,” they’d say. “No one permitted.”
Almost every crib had a prostitute outside and a name over the door: “Rosie,” “Dolly,” “Tamale Fanny.” Some had horseshoes or other good-luck charms above the name. Faded red, white, and blue ribbons added a smidge of color.
Each crib had one chair, a wash bowl, and a pitcher. But few had beds or even mattresses. Most women used a thin layer of matting over rough-hewn planks. A round, wooden headrest was a luxury.
Some decorated with tinsel. Several had an illuminated copy of the Lord’s Prayer hanging from a wall; others, small statues of the Virgin Mary or a cherub; in another, a photo of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting, “The Angels.” Fumes of booze and cheap perfume couldn’t mask more fetid odors.
Two women shared a crib. When one was occupied, the other walked the streets. Each paid $14 in rent per week. Their pimp or madam took half their earnings, and the bouncer took a fee. “Cribs represent the bottom rung of the prostitutes’ ladder,” writes Theodore W. Fuller, “the final spot when looks and pride had gone and tricks were sought for 50 cents.”
In 1888, Flora West told the Union that the Stingaree’s dark shacks and “smelly quarters” were the worst place she ever lived. “I am 28 years of age and I would be glad to quit this sporting life if I could find a way.” She had to care for her crippled mother and younger sister. More than half of the Stingaree’s “scarlet women,” she said, were the sole supporters of very poor families. Flora tried working at a department store, but “the wages they paid me would not have kept me alone, no matter how economically I might have lived.”
A Purity League woman’s husband visited the Stingaree too often, said Flora. “If this pious woman devoted a little more time at home to her husband, then he wouldn’t wander down the wrong path.” But she’s so wrapped up in her “own silly beliefs” that she neglects “that which someone else consoles.”
An unnamed woman told the Union she was “ready to return to the upper side,” but feared it was too late. Others left before their time.
In the early 1880s, they called pimps “lovers.” Charlie Gordon lived off the earnings of a prostitute named Margaret — and may have loved her as well. Reports disagree about her last name. Some say “McCutcheon,” but the Union spells it “McCutebeu.” Everyone knew her sporting name, though. She went by “Maggie Bangs.”
In early June, 1881, Maggie began drinking heavily, the result, many thought, of her frequent spats with Charlie. He’d become jealous of her wealthy clients, who promised a finer life in whispers. Charlie threatened several with trouble if they wouldn’t back away.
At 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, June 18, Charlie came to Maggie’s brothel, where they shared a room. An hour later, restless, he went outside for a smoke. As he paced the backyard, a muffled pistol shot punched a hole in the darkness.
Charlie didn’t flinch. Guns going off in the Stingaree were as common as rolled blue jackets.
Charlie came inside and found Maggie asleep. But a red line trickled below her left ear — and she held a strange, short-barreled pistol in her right hand. She was dead.
Charlie dropped to his knees. As he raised her head, blood gushed from entry and exit wounds like twin spillways. He shouted.
Police arrested Charlie. That afternoon, a coroner’s jury heard testimonies. Though trials usually took much longer to convene, no one noted the railroading urgency of this one. The reason: a suicide — just a whore.
Charlie told his version. Then Flora Asher and Myrtle Howard, who worked with Maggie, said Charlie’d become “a rather expensive ornament.” Maggie wanted to dump him once and for all.
A young, unnamed man who frequented the crib told the jury that Charlie had “too soft a thing” with Maggie, “to relinquish it without a struggle.”
On Wednesday, Coroner Stockton ruled out suicide. The pistol was a brand-new pocket revolver: a five-inch-barreled Smith & Wesson. It was an improvement on the .44-caliber “British Bulldog” favored by the English gentry and by Charles J. Guiteau, who used one to assassinate James A. Garfield less than two weeks later, on July 2, 1881.
A gun fired at such close range would have coated Maggie’s head with powder burns, the coroner said. She had few, and they were inches apart. In addition, she was right-handed and couldn’t have held the weapon far enough away from her left ear. The Smith & Wesson, which made a hole the “size of a musket ball,” had such a recoil that Maggie couldn’t have hung on after impact.
On Tuesday morning, Stockton came to court with Maggie’s skull. His index finger probed the trajectory. The bullet entered behind the left ear here, he said, went “crashing through her brain,” and came out here: his finger wormed itself out a walnut-sized hole in the right temple. This gunshot wound could not have been self-inflicted.
On Friday, June 25, the coroner’s jury delivered its verdict. Charlie Gordon was in the room before the killing. He was the first to find Maggie dead. She wanted to get rid of him, and he was “adverse to separation.”
“Putting all three things together,” writes the Union, “the jury considered themselves justified” in rendering a guilty verdict. Charlie Gordon went to jail for the murder of Maggie Bangs. Case closed.
Or was it? A brand new, double-action Smith & Wesson wasn’t the sort of weapon Stingaree pimps packed in 1881. The pistol cost $18 to $20 — ivory handles added $2 more — and it was so new the Union reporter couldn’t identify it. The S&W and its British counterpart were a gentleman’s weapons of choice: easy to conceal, devastating at short range. Plus, there weren’t that many on the West Coast in June of 1881. Charlie could have stolen one and shot Maggie. True.
But consider: could Maggie have been the victim of a fancy man’s gunfire? Only her more affluent customers might have known about the S&W — or could have afforded it. Was one of them jealous of Charlie, so green-eyed blind that he’d destroy what he could never have? And then, because he knew the courts always rushed to judgment with Stingaree lowlifes, he was certain he’d get off scot-free?
Next time: San Diego’s meanest street.
San Diego Union (February 18, 1888): Prostitutes in the cribs “are mostly of the lower class and of various races, at least a dozen negro and 30 Chinese women competing with their depraved white sisters in the nefarious traffic.”
San Diego Union (October 3, 1912): “Few San Diegans know what the bullpens are…because only the initiated dare to enter the dark doors where the way is too narrow to pass and to go down the creepy corridor leading to the…pen.”
Shelly J. Higgins, “As long as the sinner kept within bounds of the restricted [Stingaree] area…authorities kept a ‘hands off’ policy.”
Brandes, Ray, et al, “San Diego’s Chinatown and Stingaree District,” archaeological report, University of San Diego, 1986.
Casper, Trudie, “Jerry MacMullen: An Uncommon Man,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 27, number 4, Fall, 1981.
Fuller, Theodore W., San Diego Originals, Pleasant Hill, 1987.
Hensley, Herbert C., “Memoirs,” San Diego Historical Society manuscript.
Higgins, Shelley J., “This Fantastic City, San Diego,” manuscript at San Diego Historical Society.
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.
McPhail, Elizabeth C., “When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 20, number 2, Spring, 1974.
Stewart, Don, Frontier Port: A Chapter in San Diego’s History, Los Angeles, 1965.
West, Flora, San Diego Union, February 18, 1888, p.5. n
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 1
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
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 6