Friday, October 25, 2013

The Girls on the Line

"Interior of The Senate, 1921."
Lillian Edwards, Alice Elliott, Fanny Lewis, Effie Reynolds, Louise Walker- These residents of Telluride were among the women willing to name themselves as prostitutes in the United States Census in 1900. That year 29 women in town listed prostitution as their profession, but it is thought that there were 100 plus women working in town at any given time. These women ranged in age from their late teens to mid forties, and came from all over the world to work in turn of the century Telluride. They came from places like Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and more than a dozen states to live and work in a town where there was 1 woman for every 4 men.

These women were an integral part of Telluride's economy in the early days. Until the temperance movement targeted prostitution, residents of Telluride did not pay any local taxes. Each madam was simply charged $150 at the beginning of each week. This money kept the town running (profitably!). The women worked out of "Female Boarding Houses" and/or "Cribs," which were mostly found on the south side of town. Some of the larger homes, like the Senate, also contained bars.

"Popcorn Alley Cribs"
Prostitution as an enterprise, started it's decline in Telluride on April 4 1902, when the town government restricted the areas where houses for prostitution could be. The legal zone was defined as the area south of the alley between Pacific and Colorado avenues, and from Alder street on the east to the western limits of town. Prostitution was still legal, but the restrictions marked the beginning of the end.

The end of legal prostitution came from Denver in 1915, when Senate Bill 88 was passed. This bill made it possible for houses that prostitutes work in to be seized and closed for a year and eventually sold by the state. The bill passed the state senate on a vote of 26-7 and was signed into law by Governor George A. Carlson in April 1915. Several things happened as a result of this decision. The first was that city attorney, D.C. Stemen, made the point that the city council could no longer collect from madams without condoning illegal activity and having to bring a case against each one. In April 1916, a local, Al Boynton, became the first in Telluride to bring action against using Senate Bill 88.  He presented evidence that George and Lena Rock were operating 6 houses of prostitution in town. Mrs. Rock turned on her competitors and gave evidence against Lena Taifni, Pete Silva, T.B. McMahon, B. Perino, and Matt Mattivi. Their establishments were closed under state law. The town council's attitude shifted towards the business with their inability to gain usable revenue from it. The prostitution that continued in the town was underground and untaxed from 1916 until the district disappeared.

See and hear more about Telluride's Red Light District in the new Telluride at Leisure exhibit, opening December 3rd.

Tierney Dickinson
Summer Intern
Telluride Historical Museum