Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chinatown's "Bell Tower" - Brothel or just False Alarm?

In his piece on Chinatown, Ben Maxwell referenced a brothel called the "Bell Tower."1
The east side of Liberty Street between Court and State was a Chinese settlement of evil repute. Bell Tower, a bawdy house with very sinister reputation was located there as was another place or two with similar reputation but catering to Oriental patronage. A Chinese prostitute was stabbed to death in 1895. Other Chinese occupied rookeries on Ferry Street and tumble down structures at Commercial and Trade owned by Ed Hirsch.

Just what was going on in Salem's Chinatown in 1895? Records are few, extant histories are incomplete and sometimes deliberately vague in the name of propriety, and everything else is shrouded in old-timey nostalgia.

In addition to Maxwell, two other writers have taken a run at one part of the "bell tower" story. While we don't think Capital Taps can do any better with an elegant or satisfying narrative, we can at least do a better job of sharing some of the evidence. Our conclusions cannot be firm, but we think there's more to be wrung from the newspaper accounts!

What appears to be the primary evidence for the Bell Tower brothel is a horrible murder, a shocking episode of domestic violence. We'll see, though, that the scene of the crime was near the fire bell tower in the alley, and that there's no reference to a brothel by this name. At the same time, it appears to be common knowledge that the victim was a prostitute, working out of a boarding house. We'll also look at the ways different writers selected different points of emphasis.

The Salem Pioneer Cemetery lists the victim as Toyo Watanabe. Murdered on the 4th, she was buried on the 8th of October, 1895.

The news reports on the 5th and 6th are full of lurid detail. But sometimes they quiet down and the details seem reliable. On the 5th the Statesman mentioned that Toyo was studying English and apparently learning to write it. She spelled her name differently (even the spelling of English names in the paper wasn't entirely stable, however).
[Her] reception room had but little furniture in it, one or two chairs, a plain heating stove of cheap make, a large and expensive Saratoga trunk, locked, and a small parlour table, on which were some ordinary nick-nacks such as a woman of her class might keep about her, together with some large-sized, calendared writing paper on which was scrawled, in characters that spoke of a beginner in the art of writing, and no doubt made by the woman herself, who was known to be illiterate but anxious to learn this particular accomplishment. Such cramped and irregular writing as it was, it was difficult to decipher it...[we] read "Philli Coup H." "Hair Oil" "Meigle Toyo" "Miss Meigle Toyo," "$50," "3120," "210," "Heppbin," "Mrs. Willie Heppbin," and other matter, and besides this there were several telegrams, more or less back dated, addressed to William Heppbin, from Portland, Albany and elsewhere. (It will be remembered that this woman was involved in a police court scandal some months since with young Wm. Heppburn of this city, who has since gone east.)
This forcibly abandoned scene of domestic self-improvement and striving remains touching across the years.

The "police court scandal" had unfolded earlier in the year. Though the reports do not mention a name of any brothel, they are clear on Toyo's profession. In March, the Capital Journal reported
Young Heppburn, who is so infatuated with a Japanese woman in this city, with whom he ran away, is now involved in a peck of trouble. Last evening in a dispute with a Chinaman, in a Chinese restaurant, on Court street, Hepburn cut the former on the head with a teapot, cutting a serious gash...Young Hepburn appeared before Judge Edes this morning...
Two months later, he was in court again. From the Statesman:
Judge Edes yesterday announced his decision in the case against William Hepburn on preliminary hearing for larceny, accused by his quondam Japanese "lover." The judge decided to hold Hepburn to the grand jury...
The Capital Journal added that the charge was "larceny of a diamond ring and other jewelry from a Japanese courtesan."

Perhaps readers will offer better interpretations. But as I read it, the most likely interpretation is that Toyo was working as a prostitute in a Chinese boarding house. Prostitution might have supplemented her income or it could have been her primary job. One of her clients become possessive. Whether the man he attacked with the teapot was another client, was a pimp or other "protector," or perhaps was Toyo's actual lover, Hepburn saw him as a rival.

Whether Toyo saw Hepburn as more than a client is not clear. If they had indeed "run away" together, if she had herself written out her name as his wife, then perhaps there was more of a relationship. But it's also not difficult to imagine her writing her name at his request, part of services rendered, but perhaps fearful of his violence and jealousy.

(I suppose it's possible the writing was his, left after he murdered her - but this requires that all the news reports and the participants at the inquest conspiring to cover-up a murder. Possible, but not likely. In any case, speculating on the identity of the murderer is beyond the scope of this post!)

On October 5th, 1895 Statesman reported:


Mouye Toyo Yields Her Life to the Passionate Rage of a Chinese Lover

Not for six long years, or since William Hawkins shot Harvey Ogle to death in June, 1889, has this community thrilled to the shock of murder, until 7:30 o'clock last night, when the wild screams of a woman and shrill, prolonged notes of a police whistle gave out their startling alarm and summoned officers and citizens to the scene of an atrocious butchery that has no parallel in the criminal records of Salem and but few elsewhere.

Chief of Police Dilley and Officer Bert Savage, who were in the immediate neighborhood at once rushed to the house of Mouye Toyo, a Japanese courtesan on the east side of Liberty street about midway between State and Court streets...
The paper was not at all ambiguous or euphemistic about Toyo's occupation. Though the press also sensationalized the murder and played up the element of race, it's hard to think the talk of prostitution was a smear and wholly fabricated. We have documented a clear pattern of prostitution in downtown Salem from 1893 to 1912, and the rhetoric of the newspaper writers suggests they expected readers to accept it as a matter of course. It was normal, though regretted and ostensibly not part of polite society; but it was not exceptional.

Here is the east side of Liberty, the block bounded by Liberty, State, High, and Court streets in the 1895 Sanborn map (click on it for a larger view). Several houses are labeled "Chinese" and you can see the fire bell structure in the center of the block on the alley. Note also the stables downtown (great photo here) where the Grand Theater would be built in 1900. Just off-map is a large chicken coop!

Here's a detail of the fire bell ("drive under" it says!) and of the houses immediately to the west, fronting Liberty. This is essentially where the Metropolitan and Engleberg Antiques are located, and the bell on the alley directly behind.

I believe the house furthest west is the same house shown in the newspaper, though the footprints are different, with the paper's diagram being more schematic than to scale. (North is also to the right rather than up.)

Below the "back yard" portion of the diagram are the words "bell tower." I believe Maxwell construed this as a caption, identifying the name of the brothel, rather than as a something merely locating the tower in the alley behind the back yard. (He also called Toyo a "Chinese prostitute" and all the evidence clearly shows she is Japanese - this points to what I assume is Maxwell's habit of writing from memory rather than notes, and stressing the narrative hook over strict historical detail.2)

It's possible, of course, that the house was called the "bell tower" brothel, named in popular talk for its proximity to the fire bell, but that name is nowhere used in the body of the news articles. Not in the news pieces about the murder, not in the inquest articles, and not in the burial notice. With the lurid details the articles do include (and even embellish in some instances!) you'd think they'd include this detail if it was significant.

Over the years writers have been skittish about the extent of prostitution downtown. Certainly, the history of Peppermint Flat has been neglected. Writing in the Statesman in January 2004, Capi Lynn appears to deemphasize the possibility that the murder victim was a prostitute.
Years ago, when helping renovate Pioneer Cemetery, [a researcher] asked a long-time caretaker if he knew any details of Watanabe's life.

"Maybe she was a `business' woman," the man said.

Some reports referred to Watanabe as a courtesan. Others suggested that she might have been married.
The newspapers were full of claims that she was a prostitute!

A decade earlier, writing in the Japanese Discovery of Salem, Oregon, volumes 7 and 8 (summer 1992 and summer 1993), Barry Duell devoted much research and several pages to the case and never once mentions prostitution. Since he is writing about sister-city type exchanges and relations, it is not surprising that he might want to play down anything touching on vice. But the length of his omission is remarkable nonetheless, as he even quotes and footnotes the same news articles cited here.

Perhaps in another post we can discuss the possible identity of the killer (who was never found) and the ways the Salem media represented Chinatown and its "Celestials." Duell does discuss this in some depth, and CT may not have anything to add, however. We'll just add that the episode shows Chinatown as a lively border zone where Anglo, Japanese, and Chinese mixed and traded - and killed.

1Though this is quoted from the Salem Online History article, "Salem's Chinese Americans," the passage is from Ben Maxwell's article, "The Chinese in Salem", published in Historic Marion County, volume 7, 1961, pp. 9-15. While the online article credits Maxwell at the end as a reference, the article is in fact mostly just long stretches of quotation. It and other similar instances of pastiche should be revised to identify the long quotes, reformatted as republication, or rewritten as new work.

2We are aware that CT has the opposite problem! Drilling into perhaps an overabundance of detail at the expense of a good story. Such is life...

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