Manitoba History: The Oldest Profession in Winnipeg: The Culture of Prostitution in the Point Douglas Segregated District, 1909-1912
by Rhonda L. Hinther
In the spring of 1909, the Winnipeg Board of Police Commissioners was tired of hearing complaints from social purity reformers and citizens about prostitution in the city. Since Thomas Street (now Minto Street), the city’s segregated zone of prostitution for over twenty-five years, had been raided and closed in 1904, madams and prostitutes had scattered across the city to ply their trade. The time had come for action. Since it was widely held in law enforcement circles that the problem could not be solved, the board decided the prostitutes should be hidden away somewhere in the city where no person of political importance would have to deal with them. So began one of the most notorious eras in Winnipeg history, that of the Point Douglas segregated area.
Thanks to the Canadian Pacific Railway and Winnipeg’s location as the “Gateway to the West”, the city experienced a period of intense economic and industrial development, immigration, and urban growth.  Simultaneously, across Canada, the era saw the advent of several movements—social gospel, social purity, urban reform—consisting of, as Marianna Valverde has shown, “Anglo-Saxon middle-class Protestants” preoccupied with newly manifest social problems and concerned to “preserve their newly won economic superiority and cultural hegemony.”  It was within this context that a portion of the population—poor women working in the city’s sex trade unable to benefit from this newfound prosperity because of their gender, ethnicity, age, and class—came to be viewed as a problem which, depending on whether one was a civic booster or social purist, was to be managed or eradicated.
Between 1909 and 1912, in Point Douglas existed a community created by madams and prostitutes and influenced by male clients and police. Multi-ethnic, young, and predominantly female, Winnipeg’s segregated district was characterized by a highly-regulated commerce of female-owned and operated small businesses and a transient female labour force. It was defined by violence, alcohol, danger, disorderly conduct, exploitation, and a lowly, stigmatized status. Around the business of prostitution grew a complex community of women who controlled and shaped their own lives, livelihoods, and neighbourhood by seizing opportunity and working with and exploiting fellow women. While ultimately limited by law enforcement trends and the whims of civic officials, these women learned to work within and manipulate and oppose the system in order to achieve their own ends. In doing so, they created a colourful network and neighbourhood and enjoyed various degrees of power therein. By focussing on the segregated area during this period, then, we get a microcosmic view of a particular segment of the popular class, a comprehensive understanding of some of the strategies poor and displaced women employed to cope and survive, and a sense of how the experience with poverty and change in a market economy was gendered.
Life in red light districts formed a crucial part of popular class culture that has remained unexplored in the Winnipeg context.  Traditionally, studies of prostitution and the 1909-1912 segregated era have been interpreted from the perspective of civic politicians, police, and reformers and have typically been framed as a moral or law enforcement issue. Alan Artibise and James Gray have shown how the existence of the segregated area came to dominate civic politics from the time the area was created in 1909 to the re-election of pro-segregation Mayor William Sandford Evans in 1910.  Mariana Valverde has examined “the policing of prostitution to show the ways in which gender, sexuality, class, and race were regulated through prostitution policy,” by comparing Winnipeg during this period with Toronto.  While she does acknowledge the existence of a particular culture in Winnipeg’s segregated district, her focus on reformers and law enforcement officials precludes discussion of the role sex workers played in influencing the tone and method of regulation and their part in the creation and maintenance of red light district culture. Thus, while much is known about police and reformers, little is known about the women who worked in Winnipeg’s segregated zone.
In the Canadian context, recent works have interpreted prostitution and women’s criminality as social and legal constructions and economic strategies representative of economic opportunities for women during a particular era.  This article, too, is an attempt to move away from traditional legal, political, and social reformist analyses of prostitution. Concentrating on the Winnipeg experience in 1909-1912, it instead examines prostitution from the perspective of the women who lived and worked in the segregated area in order to understand the strategies they employed to shape and control their lives. By using evidence from local newspapers, police records, and testimony from a royal commission struck in 1910 to investigate the city’s treatment of vice, it also attempts to describe the culture and community that emerged as a result of the actions of women involved with the sex trade. At the same time, it frames prostitution in Winnipeg as a cultural phenomenon contingent on a gendered labour market and economy that offered few opportunities for women. 
Winnipeg’s second segregated district existed for approximately four years between 1909 and 1912. It was the brainchild of Police Chief John C. McRae and the Board of Police Commissioners, a civic grouping of aldermen, the mayor, and other law enforcement officials, whose ideas were borne out through the collective efforts of madams and prostitutes. Across the prairies, most police officials believed the sex trade was inevitable and, because of a lack of manpower, that it could not be stopped. In many western cities, civic officials and police unofficially tolerated organized areas of ‘vice’ and prostitution in the hopes that these problems could be managed and somewhat controlled.  Winnipeg had followed this pattern for approximately twenty-five years prior to 1904 when numerous brothels functioned openly on Thomas Street, an area which was shut down only after pressure from the local citizenry and social reformers came to be too much for police officials to bear. The Winnipeg Board of Police Commissioners and Chief McRae, then, were following a familiar pattern of civic planning similar to that of other prairie cities when they set to work creating another ‘red light’ district in 1909.
McRae was instructed by the board to organize the segregated zone. He proceeded by contacting long-time local madam Minnie Woods, and the two deemed suitable two streets in an area of the city known as Point Douglas. The neighbourhood was populated by working-class families whose primary income came from one of the nearby factories. Though out of the way, the two parallel streets chosen, Rachel (now Annabella) and McFarlane, were located a short walk from the CPR station and several hotels, and for those who had to travel farther, a streetcar line conveniently ran down a nearby thoroughfare. As such, Rachel and McFarlane Streets were the perfect location for the houses of ill-repute. Their proximity to the downtown core and the streetcar route would permit customers easy access to the services of the brothels, while the semi-secluded nature of neighbourhood would, it was hoped, prevent the activities of the houses from being detected by the press and local reform groups, thus avoiding problems for both the women and the police.
Over the course of its four year existence, the red light district grew vibrantly. Between May and July 1909, the area developed rapidly from no houses of ill-fame to having about thirty. Originally, only Rachel Street and the west side of McFarlane Street (whose backyards bordered on those of the chosen Rachel Street houses) were designated by police for the segregated area, but by July of 1909, with most of these houses filled, madams claimed the rest on the east side of McFarlane. November 1910 saw approximately fifty houses operating, with 150-250 women making the district their home. Before police launched efforts to close the area in the Spring of 1912, the number of houses peaked at fifty-eight. 
It was difficult for police to control the proliferation. For one, the police lost their permission to manage the area when, in the fall of 1909, the Board of Police Commissioners revoked an earlier resolution supporting segregation and replaced it with one that would better endear the board to reformers advocating stricter enforcement of the law. Mayor Evans argued that as a result of the resolution, “the considerations which enabled the curtailment or the keeping it down had been removed and were no longer enforced.”  For their part, the police complained that it was difficult to get convictions. The women would rarely make a guilty plea, so unless a man admitted his own part in the affair, the case would be dismissed or withdrawn. This enhanced the reputation of the segregated area as a safe haven for prostitutes, which led to another cause of the area’s growth. As Chief McRae explained, “There has been so much advertising about these immoral houses that immoral women are attracted here from all over the continent.”  As well, many inmates—the prostitutes who worked in a madam’s house—came to acquire the means themselves to become madams and purchase and run houses of their own. Rose Clark, an inmate at 160 McFarlane in 1910, was running her own house in 1912 at 165 McFarlane. Henrietta Sage, an inmate at 152 McFarlane in 1911, was running a house at 184 McFarlane by 1912.  The demand for houses from local and international women, coupled with police inability to limit the size of the area and prosecute inmates, led to its widespread growth during its four years of existence.
Each house in the district was owned by one woman, the madam. She managed the business and made her living off the labour of other women who worked in her home selling sex and companionship. Madams also made money by providing food and drink to male clients looking to spend an evening surrounded by female companionship. The madams were responsible for enforcing the unwritten rules of the neighbourhood, maintaining peace, and providing a setting which facilitated transactions of a sexual nature. It was largely through their efforts that the segregated area was created and maintained for as long as it was.
In the beginning, most of the madams were drawn from Winnipeg. It was through the local subculture of female prostitution that they learned about the creation of the zone. Some, like Minnie Woods and Mae Bonds, had been running houses in other parts of the city for many years. As the area grew in size, however, madams came to be drawn from across the continent. Goldie Jones from Kenora, Ontario ran a house in 1910 at 169 Rachel. Officer Knox told the Royal Commission that “there have been numerous other women who have come here from the United States and other places.” 
To purchase a house in the area, a woman had to pay top dollar. After Chief McRae spoke to madam Minnie Woods about the creation of the segregated area, he tipped off a real estate agent to the plan. The agent, John Beaman, quickly snapped up as many of the houses in the area as he could. Then, through Woods, to whom he sold one of the first houses, Beaman was introduced to several other interested female buyers. To them he sold the remainder of his newly-acquired houses, but not before marking the selling price up several times their actual value. Lila Anderson testified that for a double house, she and her sister paid $500 down and $12,000, paying $224 a month, in total for a house likely worth $1,500 located at 178 and 180 McFarlane. Alice Penchant testified she paid $2,000 down and $8,000 in total for her house at 174 McFarlane. 
Why would madams be willing to pay so much for what Henderson’s Directory in 1912 described as “shacks?” According to testimony at the Royal Commission, many of the women were under the impression that, if they relocated their businesses to the segregated area, they would be free from police molestation. Lila Anderson expressed that this was her understanding and that she and her sister “were willing to pay for the privilege of living there.”  That this was the case can be seen in the arrest books. Consistently, aside from occasional raids, women living in the segregated district were arrested and charged considerably less often than women working the streets or running brothels in other parts of Winnipeg.  For many women, the promise of being left alone to conduct their enterprises was worth the inflated cost of housing. This was also a matter of supply and demand—given the rate at which the area filled up and expanded, particularly in its first six months, women had to act fast to get a house.
On Rachel Street, many of the homes remained in the hands of the first women who purchased them. Minnie Woods bought her house at 157 Rachel when the area was created, and she continued to live there well after the segregated district was shut down by police. Doris Venette, Alma Stanton, and Florence Williams also owned homes on Rachel, remaining there long past 1912. On McFarlane Street, turnover among madams was somewhat higher. Most of the homes tended to be held for one or two years, probably because McFarlane Street had a rowdier reputation. According to one source, “the women in Rachel Street are of an entirely different class for they abide by the ‘unwritten laws’ and generally behave themselves for the owners of the property watch their inmates very closely.”  As such, McFarlane was more often the target of police raids and arrests than Rachel, and its madams and inmates were more frequently sent to jail or run out of town. 
Once open for business, a madam recruited from one to six women to live and work as prostitutes in her house providing sexual services and company for male clientele.  These women entered the sex trade and the Point Douglas red light district, in particular, in various capacities and for a number of reasons. Most were drawn to the area by the potential for financial security. For those women who used the sex trade to make ends meet, a brothel provided a roof over their heads and a more stable working environment than the street. Others enjoyed the profit from the proceeds of prostitution. Reformers complained that it was extremely difficult to get women to leave the area for a more ‘respectable’ life because “they were surrounded with luxury and thought they were having a good time.”  For many, particularly unskilled women in search of material prosperity, a brothel certainly offered greater earning potential than work as waitresses, cooks, or domestics for eighteen to thirty dollars a month. Working in a brothel, they might earn that in a week. Andree Levesque has shown that some women working in the sex trade in Quebec during the interwar period were introduced to the line of work through family connections. This would seem to be the case for women in Winnipeg, too. Sisters Lucien and Louisa Dupont owned and ran houses at 156 and 160 McFarlane respectively. Lila Anderson testified that she and her sister chose their double house so that they could work near one another. For women in crisis, like Mollie Boeker, who was wanted in Illinois for murdering her husband to get life insurance money, the segregated area served as a hiding place as well as a workplace. Verna Miller, too, used the segregated area to work and hide from her former boyfriend.  Others would be sent for from other communities across Canada or the United States. Goldie Jones, madam of 169 Rachel Street, sent for Minnie Morris and paid her fare from Kenora so she could come and work in her home. Some women did not have the freedom to come and go as they wished because of debts owed to their madam or because the madam did not want to see them go. When Minnie Morris came to work in her home and tried to leave, Lulu Thornton refused to release her trunk and other belongings.  Despite such tragic experiences, the neighbourhood was not the bastion of white slavery, forcing women into prostitution against their will, as some members of the social purity movement believed it to be. Instead, while some women had less control over their lives than others and enjoyed a lower status in the community of prostitution, it is clear that women entered and remained in the trade for a variety of motives and circumstances. For some it was a rational choice, others may have participated out of desperation during a period of economic calamity, while still others made their home in the red light district as a means to an entirely different end than simply working as a prostitute.
The segregated district was multivalent in its composition. It was made up of women from a variety of ages, marital statuses, ethnicities and religions. The arrest records, though a listing only of those women who were arrested, demonstrate several patterns of experience and background. 
The segregated streets were multi-ethnic in their makeup. According to reports of undercover detectives hired by the Moral and Social Reform Council, during the course of their investigation in 1910, they found that “Forty per cent [of the women] are colored, twenty percent are French and a great number of others are English-speaking.”  Throughout the 1909-1912 period, Rachel Street tended to be made up of Caucasian women from the United States, Canada, Britain, and northern Europe as well as by women of mixed European and Aboriginal descent. McFarlane Street was, by far, more cosmopolitan. In addition to women of similar descent to those on Rachel, McFarlane was also host to women of African, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Creole, Japanese, and mixed blood European-American and African descent. 
A number of the houses were strictly segregated by ethnicity, probably because of language commonalties. In July 1909, two houses, 143 and 151 McFarlane, were run and staffed by Japanese women who knew little English. The aforementioned Dupont sisters, Lucien and Louisa, each ran houses for several years composed of women of French or French Canadian descent, as did Alice Penchant. Three Norwegian women, Marie Johnson, Hildegard Nass, and Ameria Johannesson, worked out of 167 Rachel during 1910. Other women, not facing a language barrier, may have congregated together because of a shared nationality or because they were similarly racialized. Three American women saw clients at 152 McFarlane in 1911. Several women, both Canadian and American, of African descent worked out of 150 McFarlane during 1912, a home run by Gussie Davis. For many, having the opportunity to move in to a house with women of a similar background probably aided in their adjustment and transition to a new city and helped socialize them into the culture of the segregated area.
Other addresses housed women of various ethnic backgrounds. In May 1912, Georgie Daly’s home at 120 McFarlane housed women of English Canadian, American, and French Canadian descent. So did Stella Andrews’ house at 177 McFarlane in 1912. Andrews, herself, was of American mixed blood origin, while those who worked in her home were Polish, American, and Canadian. 
Arrest records show that, like their ethnicity, the religious backgrounds of the women of the segregated district varied widely. Of the 319 women whose faith was listed, Roman Catholics made up the vast majority of those arrested, approximately fifty-nine percent. Ten percent were Lutherans. Methodists comprised eight percent of those arrested, while Presbyterian and Anglicans comprised seven percent each. Five percent were Baptists, and four percent were women belonging to other faiths, such as Judaism or Buddhism. Finally, one percent of those women listed in the arrest records were Congregationalists.
Like religious affiliation, marital status varied among the women arrested from the area. Of the approximately 319 individual women arrested between July 1909 and May 1912 whose marital status was listed, twenty-six percent were married, sixty-nine percent were listed as single, and five percent were widows. Of those women arrested for being inmates whose marital status was listed, twenty percent were married, seventy-four percent single, and five percent widowed. Among madams, sixty-five percent were married, thirty-one percent were single, and four percent were widowed. Though many madams were married, aside from the few men who show up in the arrest books listing their addresses in the segregated houses, most did not seem to be living with their husbands, nor were the brothels listed in Henderson’s Directory as belonging to men. Perhaps some women were abandoned or chose to leave their partners. Others may have been married and living away from the men in their lives. It is also possible that, since police rarely arrested men found in the houses, some of the women who were married had their husbands living with them, and they somehow managed to avoid detection by the police during raids.
Women working in the homes ranged in age as well, though the majority, seventy-two percent, were in their twenties. Four percent were aged eighteen and nineteen, twenty-one percent were in their thirties, two percent in their forties, and just under one percent aged fifty to fifty-five. The average age of the women arrested in the segregated area between July 1909 and May 1912 was twenty-six. Of the women charged with being inmates in bawdy houses whose ages were listed, the average fell between twenty-five and twenty-six years of age, while those charged as keepers averaged twenty-seven to twenty-eight years of age.
Other individuals also had a place in the segregated culture whose regular presence in the neighbourhood contributed to its character and influenced its overall tone. While pimps were a problem for law enforcement officials prior to the existence of the segregated area, during the heyday of Rachel and McFarlane Streets, there were relatively few found in the neighbourhood.  Occasionally, a man who lived in one of the brothels in the area, whose occupation was listed as pimp in the arrest records, was picked up by the police. Benjamin Pyzer of 145 McFarlane was charged along with his wife Hannah for keeping a brothel, while Lucien Lemarier, who lived at 155 McFarlane at Georgette Leperson’s, and James Allan Mudge, who was living at Mabel Holden’s at 127 Rachel were charged for frequenting a house of ill-repute. Aside from these few examples, pimps enjoyed a limited presence in the zone.
Instead of having pimps, most of the madams employed the services of private detectives from local Winnipeg agencies. These detectives were charged with removing disorderly or drunken clients from homes and with keeping the streets orderly. Louisa Dupont hired a big man “in case there is trouble on the road; in the street ... to protect us from annoyance on the street and trouble,” and added that her bouncer was also charged with “keeping the street in order.”  Dupont paid fifteen dollars each month for his services. Edna Hamilton, whose detective/bouncer charged thirteen dollars a month, said he was employed to protect her home and property, and she understood that this was common practice among many of the women.  According to Reverend Shearer, if a woman needed the assistance of her bouncer, she would blow a whistle or call him from the pay phone located in her house.  Employing private detectives was a strategy used by women to remain financially independent from pimps and to control negative activity in the area that might draw the attention of the press, reformers, and police.
Many of the houses employed cooks, often African-American women or Chinese men. Some of the homes also had domestic servants who were generally people of colour. Minnie Graham, Madge Bess, and Blanche Morre worked as cooks in brothels on McFarlane Street when the area first opened. Minnie Churchill worked as a domestic in the home of Amy Norris in exchange for five dollars a week plus board. Lila Anderson also had a housekeeper working in her home on McFarlane Street. In September 1909, Wai Ham, a man of Chinese descent, was cooking in the home of Mary Nile, while two other men, Wong Ming, who lived at 146 McFarlane in 1910, and Mah Choo, resident of 167 Rachel in 1911, cooked for Marie MacDonald and Alma Stanton. 
Taxis, tourists, and traffic were also among the segregated area associates, and were a constant feature of Rachel and McFarlane Streets. John Tait, a citizen in the area, described the volume of traffic as extremely heavy: “I suppose if [the taxis] were strung together they would cover several miles.”  Another local, A. E. Loader, told the Royal Commission in reference to area tourism, “there was an awful lot of need to walk up and down there Sundays, especially in the summertime.”  While the taxis tended to serve the needs of male clients or women journeying to and from the area, tourist traffic was drawn from the city’s more ‘respectable’ classes. While on rounds in the area, Morality Officer Leach said that thanks to all the publicity the area had received, there were greater crowds made up of “more sightseers than anything else.” 
And see sights they did. The women often put on a show for passersby. Area residents complained of women smoking on their stoops, shouting at one another across the street, and leaning seductively from windows and doors trying to entice pedestrians. John Mitchell complained that women often made vulgar signs with their hands and nose when he passed by.  Among the women of the segregated area, a certain dress code was evidenced on the street. The women seemed to have a unique style of attire particular to their occupation. The kimono seemed to be the garment of choice. The women wore the robes both inside and outside the house. After Gissele Roberts was found dead, “painted women in gaudy colored kimonos flitted from house to house trying to get some news of the crime,” while when Alice Panchot’s house was burning early one morning, the blaze “was extinguished by the ‘bucket brigade’ formed by women in gaudy colored kimonos.”  At other times, according to newspaper accounts, the madams and prostitutes could be seen “dressed in all sorts of cheap finery.”  The clothing worn by the women, which acted as a form of advertising, differentiated them from ‘respectable’ women in the city. It also likely lent an element of fantasy to their profession. In this way, prostitutes could market themselves without overtly breaking any of the unwritten regulations of the segregated area.
When prostitutes and madams were not sporting their kimonos or gaudy finery, witnesses at the Royal Commission testified that the women often wore nothing at all. Mrs. Morefield, who lived in a home on Syndicate Street which shared a backyard with one of the brothels, told the commissioners that she had seen women “not properly clothed” across the back from her kitchen.  John Mitchell testified that in the area, he had “seen a woman walking up the street naked,” and J. W. Battershill reported seeing similar sights: “I saw a couple of girls nearly nude riding horseback one morning about six o’clock, half past five or six o’clock, around the street ... nearly nude. Well nude from the knee up to the waist, or practically so.”  It is obvious that those looking for entertainment on a Sunday afternoon would find it by taking a stroll down Rachel and McFarlane.
Of course, no segregated area would be complete without the presence of male clients. Although few were ever arrested and charged with any prostitution-related offence and thus do not appear as part of the public record in the way prostitutes and madams do, much is revealed about their behaviour in contemporary sources. Information from prostitutes and reformers hints at how many clients a house welcomed in an evening. Madam Minnie Woods, of 157 Rachel Street, would not reveal the exact number of men who visited her home in a day. She would only say that she had a great many in the evenings and early mornings, many of whom arrived by taxicab. Lila Anderson admitted “there might be somewhere about” five to ten men a day knocking on her door.  Other sources suggest that Anderson’s figures were conservative. Adjutant McElheney of the Salvation Army told a large audience at an anti-segregation meeting that, according information from Moral and Social Reform Council detectives, “Men to the number of two hundred and ninety-two visited 14 houses in 2½ hours in the dullest night during the period of the investigation. Ninety-six men visited ten houses in one hour.”  It would seem, from these numbers, that during the detectives’ ‘dullest’ evening, each of the observed fourteen houses had an average of twenty visitors during the two and a half hours when the houses were observed, while eight to ten men visited ten houses during the one hour period McElheney mentioned. The first major raid in the area saw the entire east side of McFarlane Street cleared out. On that occasion, “between thirty and forty men were found in the houses, and their names were taken, but they were not arrested.”  Since eight houses were raided that evening,  it would seem that each house, then, averaged four to five men at the time the women were arrested. Thus, it appears that the brothels in the segregated area likely saw anywhere between four to twenty visitors in a given evening.
The typical behaviour of many of the male clients is also apparent from testimony at the Royal Commission. From descriptions provided by neighbourhood women not involved in the sex trade, many of the women living in the brothels must have had daily work experiences ranging from the annoying to those bordering on sexual assault. Several area residents described disturbing encounters with male clients who approached women and girls on the street. D. A. Hossack’s wife was often “insulted” by men as she got off streetcars in the neighbourhood, and his sister, too, was on many occasions accosted by multiple men. John Murray’s young daughter was offered money “for improper conduct” while playing outside the family home.  Mrs. Morefield had several encounters with men approaching her as they might a neighbourhood prostitute: “I myself have run into the arms of men—fools I might call them, they were drunken men—and it has not been nice at all.”  Male clients would also approach women in their houses. Some men would be polite in their approach, coming to the door to inquire about services. As Thornton Simmons explained, “we have had them there very often, been bothered with them wanting to know if we were full up and so on, and asking often if this was a hoor [sic] house.”  Mrs. Bradley told the Royal Commission of an occasion when “some men came to the back door and asked me where the girls were, and one asked for Lulu, and several have been there since to ask me where the girls were, and asked if they could stay for the night.” 
That this was a typical way men might approach a brothel for services is corroborated by circumstances surrounding the murder of prostitute Gissele “Mignon” Roberts who lived and worked at 176 McFarlane in the home of madam Mirelle Dulac. On the night of Roberts’ death, two men, Fred and Harry, with whom Dulac was not acquainted, visited the house at three in the morning. As Dulac explained, after the men arrived and she let them in, “We sat around and talked for a while and then we went to bed;” Dulac alone, Fred with Roberts, and Harry with another women who worked in the home.  The men stayed overnight, telling the women they had to get up to go to work in the morning, which they apparently did, but not before Fred stole $160 from Roberts and murdered her. Despite the tragedy of Roberts’ death, the incident illustrates a typical example of the relationship between prostitutes and their clients.
Other experiences with male clients could be similarly as violent as the outcome of the Roberts case. John Tait and J. W. Battershill described several instances of men, asking for rooms to rent and girls, who tried to force their way into their families’ homes.  Mrs. Bradley had several encounters with men exposing themselves to her and attempting to enter her home at all hours of the day and night which indicate indirectly what daily life was like for women in the brothels. She testified to a frightening experience she had one afternoon when several men, whom she mistook for delivering the evening paper, came to her house and nearly raped her:
Fortunately, Mrs. Bradley managed to escape. For how many prostitutes, however, was this a normal everyday occurrence? It is impossible to know since few men in the city were ever apprehended for sexual assault, and, even if more were, it is unlikely that a prostitute, a woman whose life was not ‘respectable,’ would have any credibility with the police or courts when it came to claiming rape.
As the Roberts murder and Mrs. Bradley’s experiences show, violent incidents were frequent in the segregated area. In fact, it was the occurrence of several violent crimes, coupled with the continued presence of rowdy, obnoxious behaviour by male clients likely brought on by the presence of alcohol that finally led to the downfall of the area. In addition to the Roberts murder, other women were shot by jilted lovers. A former boyfriend shot Verna Miller in front of the house where she worked on McFarlane after she refused to live with him. Germane Ledoux, an inmate of 178 McFarlane Street, was shot after she rejected a male client’s proposal of marriage. Other women might take their own lives. Mrs. Morefield recalled a woman living near her home who poisoned herself.  Countless other women were likely the victims of unreported violent attacks and robberies. For many, since they could not get help from the police, this was simply one of the costs of doing business in the segregated area.
In addition to the potential for sexual assault, other danger was commonplace in the lives of those living in the segregated area. Women faced the possibility of alcohol and drug addiction, unwanted pregnancy, venereal disease, and violence. Virtually no sources exist exploring contraceptive methods used by women to protect against pregnancy, though, as Andree Levesque as argued, in the Quebec experience, those women who worked in brothels, because of the presence of a female network and older, more experienced women, likely knew of some forms of birth control.  This was probably the case for women living on Rachel and McFarlane. It is clear, too, that disease was a problem for women in the area. Both the Royal Commission and the arrest records show numerous examples of women spending some time in the hospital as a result of their work in the segregated zone. 
The women in the area were expected to follow certain rules to avoid police harassment. These rules were designed to keep the area quiet so that its activities might escape the notice of the clergy and local citizens. While ultimately the regulations did not work, many of the women did follow the rules, in the hopes that they would avoid a visit from the morality squad. Though these regulations have been discussed briefly elsewhere,  their significance has not been explored in the context of the culture of prostitution that arose during the tenure of the Point Douglas red light district.
The most well-know rules for the area were publicized by Doctor Shearer. In describing the regulations imposed, Shearer informed the Toronto press that the women “must not play the piano too loudly. They must not have white female cooks. They must not solicit from windows and doors,” there were to be no fights, and the women were not to solicit business on the streets.  Moreover, Madam Lila Anderson explained, “we had not to have any lights or anything suggesting of soliciting. Our house was supposed to be the same as any private house, and we were not to have any bright lights, or to make any noise, or have any music or anything of that kind.”  Furthermore, none of the houses were permitted to place signs or lights in the windows or on the doors advertising their wares, and red lights were especially forbidden. Oversized house numbers were not allowed either. The women were expected to run their businesses in a quiet, upright fashion. Chief McRae told the Royal Commission that he enacted the area’s regulations, in keeping with policing methods of other cities with segregated areas, so that the two streets would remain somewhat respectable in appearance.  In addition to the rules pertaining to the aesthetics of the brothels, madams were further expected to keep the police abreast of the activities of the inhabitants of their house. For example, the police expected to be telephoned whenever a woman went uptown. The police would also come often to inquire as to the number of women in a house and their names. Madam Alice Penchant testified that she always told them. Chief McRae told the Royal Commission madams were also known to report when an inmate joined or left a house. 
A further rule, which speaks directly to one of the risks of being a sex worker, was brought to light at the Royal Commission by madam Edna Hamilton. She informed the commissioners that she made sure the women who worked in her house were examined by a doctor every week. The doctor would provide a certificate to those women who were deemed free of disease. Hamilton said that she was never ordered to have the women examined, but that she understood, based on communication with other women living in the area, that it was expected. 
Those women who testified at the Royal Commission admitted they followed the rules in an effort to keep out of trouble with the police. They were quite right to be concerned; Morality Officer Leach testified that those women who broke the rules were summoned before the magistrate on prostitution-related offences. Sometimes the women would be visited with a warning from the officers. Madam Edna Hamilton told the Royal Commission that, during the summer of 1910, she was scolded on one occasion by police and told to refrain from having noise or music emitting from her home. When she failed to control the disturbance, she was summoned before the magistrate. 
Even when the rules were no longer ‘officially’ enforced after the October 1, 1909 resolution of the Board of Police Commissioner that instructed Chief McRae to follow the letter of the law, many of the women continued to uphold the regulations.  Although the area had a reputation for being wild, noisy, and obscene, this was in spite of the efforts of many of the madams. Minnie Woods insisted, “I always try to conduct my house as near right as possible.”  Marjory Morrison admitted she followed the regulations in order to protect herself: “As long as I kept quiet, I would not get into trouble.”  It was also in the best interests of the police that the regulations be followed. If the area was kept in such a fashion so as not to draw negative publicity or the attention of reformers and area residents, not only would the madams and prostitutes be able to carry out their businesses, but so too would the police be able to focus on other matters.
The segregated area was characterized by its transiency. In addition to the movement of male clients and traffic in and out of the zone, prostitutes were also highly mobile workers, while madams were quickly able to adapt and shift their management practices and business location with prevailing trends in law enforcement. Transiency was both a strategy women employed and a consequence of the actions of law enforcement officials, and both madams and prostitutes experienced transiency, but often for different reasons.
Prostitutes would come and go frequently. Some disappeared from the area as a result of illness.  Some left because they wanted to get out of the sex trade entirely. Adjutant McElheney, in his testimony at the Royal Commission told of one young girl he helped out of the district when she wanted to return to her family in England and leave life as a prostitute. Another prostitute, Nettie Andrews, left Edna Hamilton’s house because “she wanted to go home.”  Still others, like young Minnie Morris, left and returned to the area, in the meantime living at a brothel elsewhere in Canada. It is also likely that women abandoned brothels that were not to their liking or if they had a disagreement with the madam, moving from house to house or out of the area completely. Many women changed houses for this very reason. Mary Trender, for example, who started out at 123 Rachel in 1909, moved to 120 McFarlane by 1910 and then to 167 McFarlane by 1911, probably did so to better her circumstances.  For prostitutes, especially, who occupied the lowest rung on the segregated district hierarchy, transiency was one of few available forms of resistance and protest against madams and the police at their disposal. At the same time, this ‘voting with their feet’ was a clear strategy they could use to improve their material and labour circumstances.
Madams and prostitutes both left town to avoid arrest or jail. When the Board of Police Commissioners passed the Fall 1909 resolution, many of the women, rightfully fearing a raid, moved out of the area or left town. Others might choose to leave town rather than testify against other women in the neighbourhood. The inmates in Lila Anderson’s house disappeared shortly before the Royal Commission was to begin, as did several women not wanting to testify against others who were being tried October 1909. Finally, many women, particularly when the segregated area was raided and shut down during 1912, chose to leave town rather than serve out three to six month jail sentences when the option was presented by the magistrate. Still other women, most likely not by choice, added to the transient character of the area when, after being found guilty of being brothel inmates, were forced out by immigration officials and returned whence they came. 
In addition to transiency, madams and prostitutes had other methods of resistance at their disposal which they also used to assert their power and maintain or improve their material circumstances, however limited, in particular situations. Bouncers, as have already been noted, were one form of control the women attempted to assert over neighbourhood life. As well, when they were arrested, many women would get male friends to post false sureties on their behalf, which allowed them to get out of custody and disappear. When dealing with court situations, madams and prostitutes routinely had legal advice and lawyers to represent their cause, particularly when they chose to fight charges rather than cooperate with the police and plead guilty.  Ignorance, as was evidenced during the trial of Amy Norris in 1909, was also a tactic used by prostitutes and madams when they were called to court to testify:
Moreover, as Andree Levesque has shown as the case for interwar prostitutes in Quebec, many of the women used several names to evade the law or to avoid stiffer sentences for repeat offences. Jennie Smith also went by the name of Maggie O’Rourke. Marian Labelle was also Lillie Markham, and Flo Smith was Ruby Thorne. Finally, when all else failed, women would make threats. When the segregated district was being shut down, many women threatened to tell all they knew about several prominent men in Winnipeg who held the mortgages on their brothels. 
These examples of transiency and resistance illustrate not only tactics women employed to better their lives, but also serve as illustrations of how the women sometimes worked against one another, while at other times working in solidarity. As such, differences in priorities, interests, and situations are highlighted by examining these strategies.
In addition to the regular traffic of taxis, inmates, madams, male clients, and tourists on the streets, wholesale liquor wagons also dotted the landscape of the red light district, delivering beer and scotch whiskey to the brothels. Although many of the problems in the neighbourhood—noise, obnoxious behaviour, nudity, and swearing—were likely caused by alcohol abuse, every brothel had to sell alcohol in order to turn a profit. Adjutant McElheney told the Royal Commission, “They could not run the place without it, so they say. The keeper told me it was utterly impossible with the taxes they have to pay from one source or another to run the place without the whiskey.”  Running a brothel was costly, and the sale of sex alone could not keep a business afloat. In addition to paying domestic servants, cooks, and detectives, the madams had to pay their mortgage of $150 to $250 dollars a month, regular fines amounting to approximately $432 a year for selling liquor and anywhere from twenty to $100 one to three times a year for keeping a bawdy house. These expenses could run a madam over $350 a month. While it created many problems for madams hoping to maintain order on the street, because of the manner by which they were exploited by real estate agents, police, and the provincial liquor authorities, alcohol was a necessary evil that fuelled their homes and funded their profits.
Male clients, prostitutes, and madams were all known to consume alcohol. Detectives hired by the Moral and Social Reform Committee purchased beer and scotch while in one of the brothels, not just for themselves, but for the inmates and other men that happened to be there at the time.  Some madams, in turn, used alcohol to control and exploit their inmates. Many inmates ran up debts with the madams by buying themselves liquor. Liquor was also used to keep inmates from leaving a house, particularly when reformers came around attempting to help women escape the segregated area. According to McElheney, “when they wanted to come away some of them in charge would jolly them and get them drunk.” 
Area residents often complained about intoxication in the segregated zone, particularly when drunks and noise affected their enjoyment of their homes and threatened their safety. Thornton Simmons told the Royal Commission that he had seen a lot of drunkenness.  While the police, both civic and provincial, tried their best to control and monitor the situation, they just did not possess the manpower to solve the problem. Instead, a different tactic was taken. The women were generally permitted to sell the liquor and were issued summonses to appear in court every few months to pay fines. Despite some of the women being three time offenders, they never paid more than $108 each time they were summoned to appear before Provincial Magistrate McMicken. While this was certainly good for the women that they did not get sent to jail despite the number of times many were summoned, their experience with liquor selling highlights a further way by which they were exploited and in turn, exploited other women. Moreover, the madams were caught in a difficult situation. If they did not sell liquor they could not turn a profit, but if they did sell liquor, it was difficult to maintain order in the area.
Despite the overall character of the neighbourhood and complaints of area residents, the women of the segregated district enjoyed relatively few run-ins with police in comparison with workers in brothels and streetwalkers outside the area. Most madams and prostitutes were arrested about once or twice a year, if at all. Streetwalkers and casual prostitutes from outside the area tended to have more contact with the police, perhaps because of their more visible status, and they were most often charged with vagrancy or alcohol-related offences. In general, the only time women of the segregated area experienced police attention other than at times of periodic arrests was when the public, particularly the clergy and those tied to the social gospel movement or Point Douglas neighbourhood organizations complained vocally about the situation in the area. Press coverage tended to lead to raids where the inhabitants of numerous houses were arrested for engaging in prostitution.  Because of the attitudes of the police towards the inevitability of the sex trade, a lack of manpower with which to enforce the legal code as it related to prostitution, and the brothels’ positions out of sight from the majority of Winnipeggers, prostitutes enjoyed a relatively comfortable position in the red light district.
Eventually, the violence, alcoholism, and boisterous character of the neighbourhood did get to be too much. The murder of Gissele Roberts was the final straw in a series of violent acts, including the shootings of prostitutes Eva Miller and Germain Gereaux and police officer W. J. Traynor. While the madams had tried to control the area with bouncers, their need to sell alcohol to makes ends meet and the problems it caused, in light of the incidents of serious violence, could no longer be ignored or denied by civic and law enforcement officials. In the spring of 1912, four years to the month the segregated district was created, its end was heralded by a series of raids, arrests, and sentences ordering those convicted of prostitution-related offences out of town or to jail. Women in the area assessed the situation and their options. Some relocated to neighbouring communities outside Winnipeg, such as Transcona, Norwood, or St. Boniface, or to other parts of Canada. There were even rumours that several women had been approached by developers to start a new red light district outside the city limits. Others left the trade entirely by marrying and settling down to lead so-called ‘respectable’ lives. Many lost the huge investments they put into their homes. Those who continued to live in the segregated district kept a low profile, and likely had their businesses shut down by rumours that police were planning to arrest and hold any men found in a brothel as material witnesses.  By the summer of 1912, the area’s heyday was over. In the end, inmates and keepers continued to do what poor women at the lowest rung of the economic hierarchy did—they reassessed their options and moved on, finding new ways to survive and eke out an existence for themselves in a market economy that offered them little.
Thus, Winnipeg’s segregated district was a complex community of disparate individuals who had a variety of experiences with the sex trade and poverty. They were active agents who negotiated and worked within the complicated and constantly shifting parameters of the legal system, their neighbourhood, and their homes. For many women, the segregated district afforded a chance at better opportunities, a comfortable lifestyle, and a certain amount of control over their own lives and labour. By choosing to sell sex, these women were able to experience amenities, such as domestic servants, cooks, and housekeepers and consumer goods, normally the sole preserve of middle and upper class women. For other women, the experience in the red light district was negative, tainted by alcoholism, debt, violence, and exploitation, both at the hands of men and women. hi this way, a study of Winnipeg’s segregated district and the culture that emerged highlights the complex, gendered nature of poverty, the market economy, and popular class life. In particular, an examination of this era of Winnipeg’s history emphasizes the precarious existence many female members of the popular class faced and reinforces how limited job and career opportunities were for the city’s poorest women. During this period, many women decided, whether it was for a few weeks or a few years, that prostitution was the most viable strategy they could employ by which to support themselves in this era of tremendous social and economic change.
In this way, in addition to composing a crucial aspect of popular class culture, brothels were also the site of a particular type of female culture. It is possible that for some women, brothels could serve the function of a church or community centre, helping new immigrants adjust to female working conditions in Winnipeg, aiding others in the transition from being married or abandoned, or providing a place to hide and work during a crisis situation. While the area provided a certain type of female camaraderie and companionship, it was also inextricably linked with female exploitation. This is why it is important to not romanticize or stereotype the experiences of women working and living in brothels. The work was undoubtedly degrading, demanding, tiring, and dangerous, with risks including unwanted pregnancy, disease, violence, or death. As such, their work and experiences should not be trivialized nor assumed.
Andree Levesque argues that prostitutes in Quebec during the interwar period “occupied a place in the Quebec reality assigned to them by the authorities.”  What the Winnipeg experience shows is that prostitutes and madams during the segregated era of 1909-1912 employed numerous strategies to assert control over their own lives and the conditions under which their businesses were run. These women, particularly the madams, sought, found, and exercised a great deal of power in their own lives and the lives of others. While they were constrained by a legal and social system that viewed them at best as a nuisance and at worst a plague on morality, these women, nonetheless, rejected social mores about gender and set about recreating their own notion of what it meant to be a poor female thought to have few options.
In 1912, the segregated area drew its last breath and was all but depleted by the end of the year. The police closed down many of the brothels, but did not ultimately solve the problem of female prostitution. This is for two reasons. First, the businesses were not truly shut down, they were just forced to move—to other parts of the city or elsewhere in Canada. Therefore, with some interruption, many of these highly-adaptable women continued to function in the sex trade. Second, the police failed to arrest prostitution because neither their or the civic government’s efforts addressed the root of the problem, the gendered experience of poverty. As long as jobs advertised for women were difficult and poorly paid, social programs absent, and training programs suited only to teach women to work at poorly paid, difficult jobs like domestic service and waiting tables, prostitution would remain the only viable option for too many women.
Prostitution, then, and Winnipeg’s second segregated era in particular, in the context of an economy based on a gendered market of exploitative waged labour, afforded some women a chance at better opportunities and a certain amount of control over their own lives and labour. Of course, it was not without its price—disease, stigma, danger, violence, exploitation, unwanted pregnancy. However, for too many women, these were the realities of many so-called ‘respectable’ jobs at the time. Sadly, prostitution, it seemed for some women, offered better opportunities and a chance at a more prosperous life than other occupational choices. Thus, Winnipeg’s segregated area and the culture that emerged therein was not a problem unto itself. Rather, it was merely a symptom of the larger dilemma of female waged labour options in a gendered employment market.
This work is based on an earlier paper delivered to A. Ross McCormack’s graduate seminar at the University of Winnipeg in 1997. I would like to thank Professor McCormack, the late G. Ronald Hinther, Ken MacMillian, and Ruth Frager for commentary on earlier drafts, Evelyn Hinther for her tireless and conscientious research assistance, and Jack Templeman of the Winnipeg Police Museum for his keen advice and enthusiastic help in locating sources. I would also like to express my appreciation to Robert Coutts and an anonymous reader for their thoughtful commentary and suggestions.
1. For a comprehensive discussion of Winnipeg’s urban growth, see Alan Artibise, Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth, 1874-1914 (Montreal, 1975).
3. Andree Levesque has explored the structure of life in brothels in Quebec during the interwar period in “Commercial Sex: Prostitution” in Making and Breaking The Rules: Women in Quebec, 1919-1939 (Toronto, 1991).
4. Alan Artibise, “Red Lights in Winnipeg: Segregated Vice, Moral Reformers, and Civic Politics” in Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth, 1874-1914 (Montreal, 1975), 246-264; James Gray, “There Was No Street Like Annabella Street ...” in Red Lights on the Prairies (Toronto, 1971), 26-57.
6. See Levesque. Also see Tamara Myers, “Criminal Women and Bad Girls: Regulation and Punishment in Montreal, 1890-1930” (PhD dissertation, McGill University, 1996) and Mary Anne Poutanen, “‘To Indulge Their Carnal Appetites’: Prostitution in Early Nineteenth Century Montreal, 1810-1842” (PhD dissertation, University of Montreal, 1996).
7. Much evidence exists that presents vibrant images of life in the segregated area. Sources such as local newspapers, a Royal Commission, arrest records, and Henderson’s directory highlight experiences, relationships, and conditions in the lives of women, male clients, and citizens living in the area and their interaction with the criminal justice system. Although these women functioned, and their experiences are recorded, within the parameters of a white, Anglo-Celtic, male-dominated political, social, and legal system, their voices, thoughts, and actions still filter through in the sources, lending us a lucid image of the nature of their lives. While some perspectives are extreme in their descriptions, when balanced against other more moderate sources, a picture of life emerges. In this way, we are left with a clear sense of how these women made use of their homes, the streets, and their own bodies for leisure and work.
8. Gray, in Red Lights on the Prairies, examines manifestations of prostitution in western Canada and has demonstrated that in many centers, segregation was the method preferred by police for controlling and monitoring activities of prostitutes and madams.
9. Police Chief McRae, in Provincial Royal Commission on Vice in Winnipeg (Winnipeg, 1911), Minutes of Evidence, 70, 48; Manitoba Free Press, 12 November 1910; According to Reverend Shearer, there were fifty-three houses by the Fall of 1910. Chief McRae disputed the figure, arguing there were only forty-nine operating at the time of the Provincial Royal Commission (70); MFP, 24 April 1912.
23. Since some of the arrests, such as the massive Fall 1909 arrest, do not seem to be listed in the police arrest record book, some women went by multiple names, and for other women, some of the categories of classification are blank, these statistics cannot be considered an exact representation of the composition of all women in the area. However, since the number of women arrested correlates to the number of women said to be living the houses at the time, it is worthwhile to consider the patterns that emerge from the arrest books as being indicative of the general composition of the area.
27. About the problem of pimps prior to the advent of the segregated area, Magistrate Daly, testifying at the Royal Commission on Vice in Winnipeg said, “The city was crowded with [pimps]. They were all gamblers. There were all gamblers of the worst class of men and a menace to all classes of the community ... It seemed impossible to get at these men until these houses were moved down there to Rachel street.” (344)
67. MFP, 1 October 1909; Anderson, in Provincial Royal Commission ..., Minutes of Evidence, 92; WT, 9 October 1909; MFP, 23 April 1912; Knox, in Provincial Royal Commission ..., Minutes of Evidence, 261.
Page revised: 14 October 2012