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Big Town
Chapter Seven


Chapter 7: Morality Triumphant
          In the city, as elsewhere in this broad land, the term “morality” has a somewhat limited significance.
In ordinary usage, and especially when employed by the evangelical clergy, one is not to assume that it refers to theft, murder, arson, political shenanigan or the more discreet manifestations of avarice encountered in the business world. Rather, it refers exclusively to the individual’s conduct under the spur of the biological urge.
          According to the evangelical viewpoint it is a conduct problem of rigid simplicity. Within the bonds of wedlock the primal instinct may be indulged with freedom, if not with abandon; without that holy estate all is sin. It is the prevalence of this enlightened view, among those who regard the people’s morals as their especial province, which has brought about the state of affairs existing today.
          Visitors to the city may expect to be assured that it is a “clean town.” Prostitution, they will be told, has been done away with. Scarlet women have disappeared, and the dens of vice have been closed. Thus, it is said, males of all ages, and especially those of the rising generation, are protected against the Devil’s lure toward carnal pleasure. The visitor may even be taken on a tour of inspection including what used to be the red-light district, and what is today quite obviously a neighborhood of dismal and dilapidated rooming houses occupied largely by colored citizens who seem to be happily if chronically unemployed.
          As will presently appear, the impression thus hastily gained by the visitor is subject to certain revisions. But before filling in any missing but essential details, it will be well to examine the low estate of public morals a generation ago, and the means by which the city has risen to its present condition of avowed chastity.
          In the old days the houses of ill fame flourished openly. There were about twenty of them in the restricted district itself; and at least ten more were spotted here and there throughout the city. The district harbored about one hundred ladies who frankly practiced the oldest of the professions; and perhaps fifty more were to be found in other localities.
          These hundred and fifty were the simon-pure professionals. But there many others who, either for diversion or more substantial reward, could be induced to pay more or less frequent visits to one of the several assignation houses which operated discretely in the quieter residential neighborhoods.
          The “Line,” as the red-light district was known, did a thriving trade. On a pleasant evening, all of the houses, some of which were quite pretentious, were ablaze with light. From within came the unmodulated banging of mechanical pianos and the shouts of the revelers. Saloons adorned the principal corners, and in them the prospective customers gathered to decide which of the establishments they should honor with their patronage.
          On Saturday nights the carnival spirit reigned supreme. The sidewalks were likely to be rather crowded. Frequently there were queues of impatient customers waiting at the doors of the more popular houses. Occasionally exuberance would reach such heights that the patrolman on the beat would have to call the wagon for a load of the more obstreperous patrons.
          At other times, when business was quiet, some of the inmates of the houses were accustomed to lean out of the front windows and engage in aphrodisiac badinage with the passerby. This custom, while it doubtless lent an air of informality to the whole neighborhood, was discouraged by the madams of the more exclusive establishments.
          It was the policy of the police to let the houses run but to exercise a rigid control over them. When any lady reached the point where she felt her destiny to be indicated within the confines of the district, she was required to register her name at police headquarters, and to submit to being photographed and to a physical examination. If it was established that she was not a known criminal character, and that he physical condition was above reproach, she was allowed to enter one of the houses. She remained there entirely at the sufferance of the police, and could be removed at any time.
          There was also, in the precincts of the Temples of Venus, police supervision which usually held the bacchanalian revels within reasonable bounds.
          This state of affairs was eminently satisfactory to everyone except the Righteous. Even their dissatisfaction would have been of little practical importance had they not discovered, early in the current century, the efficacy of organized power in local politics.
          Committees of clergymen visited the Line and subsequently arose in their pulpits to paint lurid pictures of the unbridled licentiousness to be observed there. The Council of Churches enlisted the active support of the “Y’s” and the women’s clubs, bedeviled the city fathers in their public meetings, and sought out the dubious aspects of their political careers to be employed as clubs in driving them into the ranks of the crusaders.
          When election times arrived the Line was forced into the spotlight as an issue and thunderously denounced during Sabbath morning services. Candidates for office who were suspected of actively favoring the continuance of the Line were branded as moral lepers. And ward and precinct workers were organized to get out all right-thinking citizens and see that they voted for purity.
          The then chief of police, who has since been taken to his fathers, was the last to succumb to the bludgeoning of the Righteous. To the end he maintained stoutly that eliminating the houses would not abolish the traffic but would merely result in less effective control than that which existed. He also advanced the plea that the houses were very fruitful sources of information for the police, having furnished clews that led to the solution of many a petty offense against law and order, to say nothing of a number of local murders. In exchange for these views he was charged with collusion with the madams and inefficiency in office. For the sake of his official reputation he would have done better if he’d kept his mouth shut, as the city was headed for virtue and was in no mood to listen to doubters of the Cause, however expert their opinions.
          Eventually, due to the increasing din and the organized voting units, Righteousness prevailed, and the houses were ordered closed.
          It took five years to close them.
          At first the madams and their girls simply refused to believe it and continued to operate at full blast. The police, under the lash of the Righteous, increased the force in control of the district and began to make wholesale raids and arrests. Offhand it would seem that this should have been a short campaign if a merry one. But it developed that there was another factor in addition to the police and the madams; and that factor was a “satisfied customer.” While the minions of the law were raiding one resort, amorous citizens would quietly enter five others. And when these in turn were raided, they would seek safety in flight. It seemed that there was an alarmingly large number of individuals who had not been successfully inoculated with chastity, and who insisted on returning time after time to the scenes of their former joys.
          Even being caught in a police raid meant comparatively little to many of the customers. They simply posted bail under assumed names and refrained from appearing when the case was called into court. What finally won the battle was the madams, who were in the thick of the fray at all times, became worn out. The girls, whose earnings were reduced if not entirely eliminated, began to drift away.
The red lights were extinguished, the mechanical pianos ceased their thumping, shutters were closed, and the Line, as such, was no more.
           There were, as stated above, thirty houses of ill fame and about one hundred and fifty ladies of pleasure in the city in the old days.
Today there are no such houses. But there are no less than three hundred professional prostitutes. This hundred per cent increase would be notable even if the district had not been abolished, as the city’s population has increased by less than forty per cent in the same  length of time. Furthermore, this figure is conservative. During the past year the police arrested more than two hundred fifty of them. And the vice squad admits frankly that there are at least fifty more on whom they have never been able to get enough evidence to justify an arrest.
          The courtesan of today enjoys some marked advantages as compared with those who resided in the old district. Instead of living under crowded conditions in a house which announced her shame to all the world through the medium of a red glass light in the front door, she occupies a nicely furnished apartment, either alone or at most in company with one other lady of her profession.
          Nor is she restricted at all as to the location of her domicile. As long as she pays her rent and avoids uproarious gayety, she may reside – and she often does reside – in the most expensive and exclusive apartment houses. Neither the tenant of the next-door apartment nor the proprietor of the building can have her evicted, except at the risk of incurring a suit for defamation of character. Some of the apartment houses cater almost exclusively to these ladies. On harbors thirty of them; and it may be added that it is one of the most orderly dwelling places in the city.
          The present system also offers the ladies distinct financial advantages. Formerly they received but a small percentage of the gross receipts of their industry, the balance going to swell the assets of the madames, many of whom have died in recent years possessed of quite substantial stores of this world’s goods. Today the individual girls get it all. Furthermore they are able to select the most generous of gentlemen who seek appointments by telephone. And finally, they can swell their earnings considerably by keeping on hand a small stock of liquor which they can retail to their customers at fancy prices.
          It may be that the professional ladies of the present entertain fewer gentlemen than did their older sisters, even though there are twice as many of them to do the entertaining. Of course they are not as readily accessible; though anyone who seeks the advice and guidance of a taxi-driver can be assured of prompt and efficient service. Indeed, a stranger in the city need not go even that far, as there are many ladies who are ever ready to visit the traveler in his hotel room.
          Not all of the ladies enjoy the most luxurious of comforts. They vary considerably in the degree of intelligence which they bring to their profession; and consequently some of them do not fare so well, being forced to occupy meaner quarters in cheap apartment or rooming houses. But generally speaking they are far better off than in the old days. Their hours are their own, they can live where they will, they can select their customers and receive no more of them than they wish, and their earnings are distinctly better.
          Whatever the advantages of this situation, so far as the daughters of pleasure are concerned, there seem to be some reasons for questioning the benefits accruing to the general public from the triumph of purity.
          The main difficulty, from the police point of view, lies in controlling the traffic. It is one thing to arrest, prosecute and convict a woman who lives in a notorious house of ill fame. It is quite another thing to convict, if not to arrest and prosecute, a lady who lives quietly by herself in a respectable apartment house, and who, according to the evidence usually available, does no more than entertain a number of gentlemen callers. Since the second-offence penalty for prostitution is one to three years’ imprisonment, the ladies are strongly given to defeating the state’s first case. For this reason the usual police practice is to file a lesser charge, carrying a lesser penalty. In such cases the offenders are allowed to post bail or bond. Needless to say this is forfeited, at least by the gentlemen involved, in the vast majority of cases; though an occasional thrifty soul shows up in court, in the hope that a small fine will yield him a return from the bail or bond so posted.
          But in any case, and regardless of the charge to be made, there must be really conclusive evidence to present to the Court. If the offenders are not actually caught flagrante delicto, there must be at least ample sworn testimony as to immodest attire or similar evidence of amorous activities.
          Viewed from the standpoint of public health, the present-day lady of pleasure is probably even less of an asset than her sister of other years. Under the police supervision there were enforced periodic physical examinations, with isolation when necessary. Today there is no such supervision on control, and it is consequently impossible to determine the extent to which the courtesans are responsible for the present increased prevalence of ills customarily associated with their profession.
          The present prosperity of the professionals, and the marked increase in the number of them who are practicing the profession, would doubtless be regarded with some surprise by those who believe that human appetites can be suppressed by legislation.
But this present prosperity becomes even more surprising when one considers the tremendously increased amateur competition with which the professionals are today confronted.
          It is, of course, practically impossible to obtain reliable estimates as to the amount of this increase. But is significant that nearly all authorities agree than there has been an increase and that it is a surprisingly large one.
          There are few official figures, among them those provided by the department of policewomen. This department hears and investigates all kinds of complaints involving amorous derelictions on the part of both adults and minors. The records of the department indicate that during the past decade adultery has increased by one hundred per cent, and the more general offense of “immoral conduct” by two hundred and fifty per cent. There is in addition the offense of “disorderly conduct” listed by this department largely in the case of minors, either where it is desired to employ a first-offense leniency or where there is insufficient evidence for a more specific charge – but where the offense is none the less an “immoral” nature. The number of cases involving this last-names charge has increased by six hundred per cent in the last ten years.
          At least one division of these figures is checked by the report of a prosecuting attorney who states that he spends a large part of his time in listening to the complaints of wives who are convinced that their husbands are engaged in affairs with their stenographers, or husbands who are sure that their wives, working as stenographers, have succumbed to the blandishments of their employers. It seems, further, that an overwhelming majority of these complaints are founded on fact. It is interesting to note that when the culprits are haled before the prosecutor for questioning, they display a cynical indifference toward their guilt which ill beseems the citizens of a highly moral community. This same indifference, it may be added, is observed by the policewomen in their dealings not only with adults but with minors.
          The testimony of the medical profession tends to confirm the foregoing statistics and opinions, and supplies what may be enlightening information as to the moral enfranchisement of the younger generation. Physicians whose experience covers long periods of practice with all classes of the citizenry, and who may not be regarded as alarmists, state that while fifteen years ago virginity was a very common characteristic of unmarried women and girls of all ages, today it is common only under eighteen years of age, is rather unusual at nineteen, and is rarely encountered thereafter. A leading druggist states that not only large numbers of high-school boys, but even more than a few girls of that age are wont to purchase contraceptive devices at his store.
          Social workers and officials who come into constant contact with these matters are of the opinion that a number of factors have conspired to bring about this state of affairs. All agree that the closing of the restricted district, with its universally known and easily accessible resorts, has forced large numbers of amorous males to seek diversion elsewhere. The moral hangover of the war has doubtless contributed its share. The automobile affords opportunity for indulgence resulting from a freedom of movement never before possible. And there can be no doubt that, due to Prohibition, alcohol – the sovereign solvent of chastity – has had a tremendous effect, particularly among the younger generation.
          There are some who hold that the present situation is even less desirable than that which existed before the closing of the Line, and that the city might be better off it returned to the old system of controlled traffic.
          Prominent among these are members of the medical profession, social workers, jurists, prosecutors, the gentlemen of the press, and others whose occupations bring them into close contact with both professional and amateur activities. Customarily, however, these authorities express such an opinion unofficially and privately, perhaps out of a kindly consideration for the convictions of the Righteous.
In opposition to any such decadent movement, the Righteous would be joined heart and soul by the daughters of pleasure themselves, none of who has the slightest inclination to exchange her present freedom, comfort and prosperity for the crowded promiscuity of the old days and the rigors of police supervision.
          It is possible that when the present conditions become sufficiently obvious there will be a new crusade for purity. There may even follow the enactment of new and more stringent legislation – though this time it will have to be considerably broadened in scope in order to quell the activities of amateurs as well as professionals.
          What seems more probably is that the Righteous will be disposed to rest content with an outward appearance of community virtue. Nor does the record of the last crusade seem to promise overwhelming success for another one.
          The possibility of such a campaign was suggested to a police official of long and rich experience. He was asked his opinion of the probable effectiveness of additional laws as a means of discouraging amorous dalliance. “Laws,” said he, “won’t stop it. You can pass all the laws you’ve a God damn mind to, but you’ll never make it unpopular with the common people.”