"Minneapolis Madams": New book by Penny Petersen tells the story of pioneering prostitutes

Out for a bike ride one sunny day in the year 2000, Penny A. Petersen and her husband, Ted Tucker, discovered a beautiful building that looked strangely out of place to Petersen, an authority on Minneapolis neighborhood and architectural history.

She described it as “a handsome, three-story, Richardsonian Romanesque building” more appropriate to an exclusive upscale residential neighborhood than the historically grubby railroad yard, mill district, and saloon-laden Washington Avenue that once surrounded it.

Petersen looked up the building permits and discovered that one electrical permit described the building at 212 South 11th Avenue as a sporting house and another called it a house of ill fame—both euphemisms for brothels.

That was her first surprise: Minneapolis openly permitted the construction of a bordello in 1890.

There was no surprise at learning that, after “a purity crusade,” three madams were sent to Stillwater State Prison. Petersen's second surprise came when she learned of their pardons—signed by Gov. John S. Pillsbury and endorsed by the Minneapolis mayor, 13 aldermen, 10 of the jurors, “a majority of the officers” of Minneapolis and Hennepin County, and a municipal judge. Pillsbury had initially supported the purity crusade that put them in prison in the first place.

Sending prominent madams to prison became a political mistake in Minneapolis, Petersen said in a recent interview.

When major players in the sex industry were imprisoned, prostitution spread from the more clearly defined red-light districts and public houses into the public streets of the entire city, she said—and the city lost income from their regular fines and court appearances.

Petersen discovered that, although prostitution was illegal, the madams appeared in court once a month, paid their regular fines, and returned to work for the month. Sometimes newspaper coverage even provided addresses of the brothels.

In 13 years of research, Petersen found many other brothels and other surprises leading to her book Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront, published this summer by the University of Minnesota Press.

About 300 people attended a book-release party on June 27 at the Mill City Museum, which sold out the about 90 copies the museum store had in stock, said David Stevens, the museum’s public program coordinator.

“We will never look at Minneapolis or the riverfront in quite the same way again; for that, we thank you,” Stevens said, introducing Petersen. “It’s a special thrill because this book has been a long time coming.”

In a half-hour presentation followed by questions, Petersen showed maps and pictures of the three main red-light districts in Minneapolis from the 1870s through 1910 and discussed a range of issues from morality to politics and business.

She avoided current issues about legalization of prostitution, saying that her knowledge ends with the official closing of the brothels around 1910. She also does not know the current very different use of the 212 building. “Do not knock on that door,” she said.

Young female immigrants to Minneapolis found few options in the city where they were paid little and treated badly, especially as domestic servants. For some girls, the choice may have been starvation or prostitution.

“If you’re going to be a prostitute, it’s better to have a bordello. If you’re a streetwalker anything can happen to you—and sometimes did,” she said.

The madams didn’t like streetwalkers any more than fancy restaurants would welcome a hot dog vendor out front, she said.

Little is known about the “inmates,” as the workers in brothels were called, but most stayed in the business only a few years. They often changed their names and moved to start new lives. On rare occasions, one could become a madam—certainly more likely than a mill worker ever becoming owner of a mill, she said.

Petersen, who works as a researcher for Hess Roise in her day job, had to dig harder than usual for information on local prostitutes and their buildings. She searched local newspapers, census records, court documents, building permits, and other property records, but few local histories recognized the influence of the madams, who didn’t leave memoirs and family photo albums.

As fire insurance gained traction in growing cities like Minneapolis in the 1880s, Sanborn insurance maps provided information on building materials, for example brick or wood, and some building uses. An annotation of "FB," or female boarding house, could be cover for a brothel, she said.

Some madams left large estates and probate records. Some mechanics’ liens show how successful a house was or whether it had trouble paying bills, she said.

One house ordered specific details about the bricks, decorative bricks, and specifications for a furnace that would keep the house at 70 degrees regardless of the temperature outside, Petersen said.

One madam, Nettie Conley, appeared to benefit from her brief stint in Stillwater prison.

“Prison becomes a graduate or professional school for her,” Petersen said. “She changed her business model significantly. She had been serving lumberjacks, contending with fights and other hassles. She goes to prison, meets older men and has time to think that she can do way better as Minneapolis is getting richer and richer,” Petersen said.

“Within a few years of getting out of prison, she builds her places on Main Street and First Street,” Petersen said. “Two years out of graduate school, she’s running her own business. I don’t know anyone else who has established her own business that successfully two years after graduate school.”

She goes from serving “lumberjacks to lumbermen,” stays in the business for more than 30 years, and dies a very rich woman with substantial real estate holdings, Petersen said.

“Sarah Carnahan was a fourth madam indicted in 1880, but she claimed to be too sick to go to court. Still she somehow managed to run her own business during the month the others were in jail,“ Petersen said.

She’d probably seen purity crusades before and must have judged correctly that she could wait this one out, Petersen said.

In the late 1870s Carnahan owned three lots and three houses near the corner of Third Avenue and First Street South, Petersen said.

She said some of the madams were smart entrepreneurs.

“Edna Hamilton and Jennie Jones came from Chicago,” Petersen said. “They were smart; they had a lot of competition in Chicago. There was more happening and less competition in Minneapolis. The place was younger and they found a rich field to explore here in the 1880s. They were partners until Jones died about 1899.”

Minneapolis had three major red-light districts: First Street South near Third Avenue; Main Street in St. Anthony; and 11th Avenue South.

The sequence and dates are hard to document. “I can date one on Main Street from 1872,” Petersen said. “Nettie Conley was there...I have a feeling Main Street was the first district, but I can’t prove it.”

Conley never gave an exact address until she purchased the site for the upscale bordello where the Brown Ryan livery stable building stands today at the foot of the stairs down from Our Lady of Lourdes Church where she operated in the shadow of the steeple, Petersen said.

Petersen found another surprise: Ida Dorsey, who built the beautiful and last surviving building of the red-light districts.

Dorsey, who grew up on Kentucky, was at least part African-American and celebrated the intrigue and danger of interracial sex, offering women of many shades of color. Local black leaders attacked her, on the one hand, for the shame of her profession and, on the other hand, for her segregated practice of denying business to black men as she became more successful.

She developed a long-term relationship with Carleton Pillsbury, grandson of a Minneapolis mayor, nephew of the founder of the flour-milling company, and great nephew of the governor. Dorsey may have played to Pillsbury’s fascination with stereotypical African-American culture; he performed in black face and published stereotypical sheet music.

After his death, she occasionally called herself Mrs. Ida Pillsbury but was denied her claim to part of his estate, Petersen said.

Confining prostitution to districts came easily because the city already had liquor-control districts as a way to restrict the other major vice of the time. Politicians condemned liquor, for example, but didn’t want to deny Germans their beer gardens in Northeast Minneapolis or liquor to the Scandinavians in the Cedar-Riverside area.

Several prominent women, including Charlotte Van Cleve, formed the Sisterhood of Bethany to help “fallen women,” including prostitutes and unwed pregnant girls. The Sisterhood was more successful at helping unwed mothers than reforming prostitutes—who could earn more in a bordello than in the trades they’d learn.

When Kate Noonan shot and killed a young banker, newspapers characterized her as a deranged woman, but because Van Cleve had known her as a worker in her home, Van Cleve helped the young Noonan learn a trade as a dressmaker and encouraged her friends to hire her. In Noonan’s trial, witnesses said the banker had stalked her and drugged her before their affair.

The Sisterhood was so well connected that they began receiving a portion of the monthly fines collected from the madams. Thus, they supported the pardon of the imprisoned madams, Petersen said.

Other reformers who ultimately succeeded in shutting down prostitution hated both the prostitutes and the Sisterhood, who had a large annoying agenda on such issues as votes for women. 

As the city closed the brothels, some madams devised ways to continue operating in more clandestine ways; some retired with their real estate holdings; and the First Street area near the railroad depots became run down with “cages” that attracted transients from along the tracks.

While St. Paul has celebrated its colorful criminal past, Minneapolis has always considered itself morally superior to the corrupt capital downstream, Petersen said, adding examples of the intercity rivalry.

Petersen has also written Hiding in Plain Sight: Minneapolis’ First Neighborhood, a book about the historic homes in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood of Minneapolis. She will discuss Minneapolis Madams at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 9 at Magers & Quinn Booksellers.


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Bill Huntzicker's picture
Bill Huntzicker

Bill Huntzicker is a Minneapolis writer and teacher.