“Some people may think that this is the most virtuous place under the sun, but let them look over these pages, and perhaps they may open their eyes in amazement at the amount of crime committed nightly in “this City of Brotherly Love.”
So began an anonymously-authored Guide to the Stranger, or Pocket Companion for the Fancy Containing a List of the Gay Houses and Ladies of Pleasure in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, published in 1849.
“Many hundred men, yes, I may say thousands, are weekly led into the snares employed by the wily courtezans [sic],” whose estimated numbers “are ten thousand and upwards.”
Actually, we have no way of knowing. But we do know from the Library Company’s online exhibition—Capitalism By Gaslight—that “the trade thrived … that prostitution grew into “a highly lucrative business for some girls, young women” and the “widowed or abandoned” who “turned to prostitution to support themselves and their children.” The so-called oldest profession “allowed young women (many of them African Americans) a modicum of economic and social independence they could not have had otherwise. Savvy women worked their way up to become successful madams who lived in relative comfort.”
Prostitutes, or sex workers—“disorderly women as they were frequently called—were familiar figures in the landscape of the disorderly city” wrote historian Marsha Carlisle. “They moved freely and openly in parks, on the streets, and in places of amusement. Along with paupers and peddlers, they used public spaces to their own advantage. … Their brothels were households in mixed neighborhoods, but their working environment included the streets, the parks, the theaters and local taverns.”
Prostitutes based in the dozens of brothels west of Washington Square solicited in nearby theaters (Arch, Chestnut and Walnut Street Theatres) whose owners appreciated the fact that sex workers attracted paying customers. According to Carlisle, “prostitutes had displayed themselves from the third tier of the theater from the beginning of American drama. They came to the theater from the brothel households in groups, often several hours before curtain time. Once there, they made contact with customers, old and new, in the upper gallery, to which there was a special entrance for their use.” At one point, Philadelphia’s theaters were said to “swarm” with “crowds of painted prostitutes,” who “exhibited their shamelessness” in the “broad glare of the lamps.”
Mary Shaw and her clients could easily escape the “broad glare.” Shaw’s well-appointed “bed house” flourished just a few steps south of Walnut Street, just down Blackberry Alley. The guide credited Shaw as a landlady “of the cleverest sort” known “for her amiable disposition and kindness of heart” in addition to a most convenient location. No less than seven other brothels lined Blackberry Alley (now Darien Street) which ran two blocks from Walnut to Spruce.
Yet, there’s no historical marker to be found.
At #4 Blackberry Alley, according to our guide, the “talented, accomplished, motherly, affectionate” Mrs. Davis maintains her “temple of pleasure” doing “all in her power to add to the comfort of her friends and visitors.” All of her boarders were “young, beautiful, volatile and gay. . . . You will find few houses like it. None better.”
A few steps further to the south, Susan Wells’ house, was rated “quiet and comfortable.” Hal Woods’ was considered “tolerably fair.” Therese Owens’ got labeled a “second class house.” Furthest south, nearly where Blackberry Alley opened to Spruce Street, one would find Ann Carson’s “genteel loafer crib…”
Houses, whether highly recommended or not, tended to provide reliable protection from the authorities. After police picked up the 15-year-old Maria Walsh parading the streets wearing “a revealing calico dress,” no bonnet, and “bright copper earrings” (“signs of a public woman”) she was charged with vagrancy and sentenced to a month in jail.
But owning real estate didn’t always keep the authorities at bay. According to Carlisle, “Blackberry Alley became the target of a nine-house raid that resulted in the arrest of sixteen men and thirty-eight women” in 1854.
Some brothels warranted dire warnings. Just two blocks west of Blackberry Alley, on Locust between 10th and 11th Streets, lived and worked “the bald and toothless” Mrs. Hamilton. “Beware of this house,” warned the guide, “as you would the sting of a viper.”
Around the corner at No. 43 Currant Alley (now Warnock and Irving Streets) still stands Mary Baker’s “very good house” where clients would be “free from danger. The young ladies are all gay and beautiful.”
Another cluster of houses were found further to the west, at 12th and Pine Streets. They ranged from Mrs. O’Niel’s “Palace of Love,” to Mrs. Rodgers “good house—perfectly safe” to that of Catharine Ruth (alias Indian Kate) where readers were advised to “be careful.” Not far away, Liz Hewett ran “a tolerable second rate house” and “My Pretty Jane,” operated her “shanty” a “resort of very common people.”
A block south on Lombard, above 12th Street, one might encounter Madam Vincent’s “low house.” Readers were warned to “be cautious when you visit this place, or you may rue it all your lifetime.”
South of South Street, beyond the city proper, were areas beyond even the slightest suggestion of policing. “One of the worst conducted houses in the city” the guide reported of Sarah Ross’s, located at German Street (now Fitzwater) and Passyunk Road. “The girls, though few in number, are ugly, vulgar and drunken. We would not advise anybody of common sense not to say there.”
And the guide ventured into the notorious heart of Moyamensing, Bainbridge Street between 4th and 8th, finding “numerous brothels of the lowest order…houses of prostitution of the lowest grade, the resort of pickpockets and thieves of every description.” Nothing less than “the underbelly of the city,” confirmed Carlisle, who shared tales of the feared “Duffy’s Arcade,” a gallery of windowless 8-by-10-foot rooms, and the “gambling hell and brothel” known as “Dandy Hall.” Only one visit to these places could lead to “utter ruin and disgrace.”
“The stranger is earnestly admonished not to go there” urges the guide.
But historians, the keepers of public memory, must.
[Sources: A Guide to the Stranger, or Pocket Companion for the Fancy Containing a List of the Gay Houses and Ladies of Pleasure in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection (Philadelphia: 1849); Marcia Carlisle, “Disorderly City, Disorderly Women: Prostitution in Ante-Bellum Philadelphia,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 110, No. 4 (Oct., 1986), pp. 549-568; Capitalism by Gaslight: The Shadow Economies of 19th-Century America (The Library Company of Philadelphia: 2012).]