Monday, November 2, 2009

Peppermint Flat & Potiphar's Wife: Madam Hattie McGinnis in 1909

For a little over a decade, Hattie McGinnis, whom we met in 1900, was likely Salem's most famous madam. Almost exactly a century ago, in October 1909, she and four others, were tried for "conducting a bawdy house."

Though little is said about it today, for a quarter-century, Salem possessed an infamous red-light district on the edges of downtown Salem. The district, hardly more than a block or two, was called Peppermint Flat, an area on Ferry Street between High and Liberty. McGinnis' boarding house, the purported bawdy house, was on the alley on the south side of Ferry. In the old addressing, it was located at 142 Ferry street. You can see a note on 122 Ferry that the house elevated on posts - "on posts, open under."

In Historic Marion, Winter 1998, “The Saga of Daniel J. Fry, Part 3…My Youth on Gaiety Hill," Daniel J. Fry, jr. (see notes on now-demolished Fry warehouse here) said:
Ferry Street was a no-no street. It was really all built up on stilts. Water stood in that part of town nearly all summer long. The people who lived on Ferry Street were the gay ladies of that day. This was a legal profession at that time, and they often drove around in horse-drawn cabs, showing their fine clothes and seeing the city which was about the only way they had a chance of doing so. There was a very narrow, high walk along Ferry Street over this sunken part of the city, and I was riding my bicycle along there one day and gawking into the windows to see what I could see, when I ran off and broke my arm. I was very much chagrined because I shouldn't have been there in the first place because we children were never supposed to go that way.
And in Lewis E. Judson's book, Reflections on the Jason Lee Mission and the Opening of Civilization in the Oregon Country, cited in the Pringle, Glenn-Gibson, Claggett and Mill Creeks Watershed Assessment (chapter 3 here), Judson says:
there were places in Salem where people who respected their reputation did not go. The principal one of these was the block of Ferry Street between Liberty and High Streets which was left to public women. This was known as ‘Peppermint Flat’ where the houses and walks were built on stilts over a lagoon-like former channel of the Willamette River. A trace of that old channel still exists in the depression centering at the intersection of Ferry and High Streets and the alley through the block southwest of that intersection. That ancient channel ran from a broad front on Pringle Creek between Commercial and High Streets, north on Liberty to Ferry, then east to the center of the block on State Street south of the courthouse. From there on north to Mill Creek was low ground. During the high water of 1861, a steamboat followed this channel and tied up in State Street opposite the courthouse.

McGinnis had earlier been "haled before the municipal courts of Salem, but due to defective local laws, they were discharged." It's not clear exactly when this occured, but McGinnis was charged with vagrancy in the winter of 1906. In February 1906, the paper notes
the pleadings did not set out with sufficient force that defendant was a vagrant. She showed tax receipts on property. [neither] The code nor the ordinances define vagrancy and it could not be confused with disorderly conduct, and breaching of the peace....The city had a right and had the power to define vagrancy, [the city argued]. The court could not agree with him. The city had no right to say that an idle person was necessarily a vagrant. The ordinance was held invalid, and the complaint was insufficient. The case against Mrs. McGinnis was dismissed.
It is not clear whether the 1909 case refers to this or to an attempt in 1908 or 1909 to charge her. The gap between attempts may indeed be three years. As Fry noted, at the end of his life, prostitution was essentially "a legal profession," and seemed to be more tolerated than not. vice flourished in many forms. Opium use was an open secret.

But not everyone tolerated the vice, and prohibition forces were growing in the early 1900s. By late 1909, law enforcement shifted tactics to county court. On October 6th the Capital Journal reported
True bills were handed down late yesterday afternoon by the grand jury against Emma Thomas, Julia Downie, Rose Leland, Hattie McGinnis and Dollie Richie. These women are charged with conducting a bawdy house in the city of Salem. This morning all five of the defendents were arraigned before Judge Burnett in the circuit court, and after District Attorney McNary read the indictment, Attorney Wm. Kaiser, representing the defendents, asked until 10 o’clock tomorrow morning in which to plead, which was granted by the court.

Just what the outcome of these cases will be is difficult to foretell, but it is the opinion of many that some interesting points of law will be introduced by the attorneys before the cases are decided.
10 days later, on October 16th, the paper reported that
Hattie McGinnis and Emma Thomas, were tried and found guilty yesterday in the circuit court of conducting a bawdy house…
The trials for the other women followed in short order. The first jury took 7 hours to deliberate, but the following ones were quick. About the third trial the reporter noted
The jury was out but a few minutes, which shows it is much harder to fire the first dornick.
Jury selection, too, took time, and one can only wonder about the reasons a juror might have been "unsuitable":
The examination of the jurors consumed two hours time yesterday morning before 12 suitable men could be passed upon.
The defense in the first trial, which I believe was McGinnis', offered no witnesses, but the state had many. The paper describes the state's evidence:
U. G. Kellogg was the principal witness for the state. He testified that he had called at the resorts of ill fame on Ferry street conducted by Hattie McGinnis and Emma Thomas, where he witness acts contrary to the public morals and dignity, and that he had “purchased a malt liquor known as beer in these two houses.” Mr. Kellogg testified that the proprietoress had behaved like Potiphar’s wife, while he took the part of Joseph…[He said that he was a member] of the Law Enforcement League and had called at these two houses for the purpose of securing evidence….
The vigilantism of the Law Enforcement League is both alarming and humorous. The puritanical self-importance suggested by the biblical citation even funnier!

On the 22nd or 23rd of October, four of the women were sentenced to 30 days in jail, and McGinnis fined an additional $300.

The verdict was appealed. In a second note, we'll see what happened during the appeal. [updated with link]

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