The Boise city ordinance banning prostitution was not vigorously enforced unless enough public outcry demanded it. As early as July 1872, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman demanded that the City Council and the city police do something about what had become a public disgrace.
In October that year, the paper reported, “Mr. Joseph Brugan was brought before Justice Glidden, charged with the larceny of $82 from Miss Louisa Fisher. The latter is a member of the frail sisterhood — though not frail in a physical sense.” It may have been the same woman mentioned in this item: “Young man promenading Main Street — three hundred pounds of female accosts him — young man indignant — female furious — obscene language — female pleads guilty and pays a fine — young man happy. This item is not very definite but will be understood by some.”
In January 1877, “Many ladies were present at a session of the City Council seeking passage of a law in the legislature and a city ordinance to suppress Chinese houses of ill fame in close proximity to dwellings occupied by families.” Mayor Thomas E. Logan agreed “to do all that can be done.” In March, “District court proceedings included: The people vs. Ada Chapman, Flora Buchannan, Ah Foy and Ah Ho, for keeping bawdy houses.” Buchannan was tried by jury, found guilty and fined $110 and costs. Ah Foy was acquitted and released, Ah Ho was found guilty and fined $100 and costs. Chapman’s fate was not mentioned.
From dozens of similar items in the Statesman throughout the years it seems likely that much of the cost of city government and the police force was paid for with fines collected from prostitutes and the “madames” who ran the bawdy houses where they worked.
That the term “madame” was in common usage we learn from items like this in the Statesman in June 1882: “The shade trees in front of Madame Burns’ establishment were cut down by someone last night. It was a mean way to show spite.”
“The Demimonde of Idaho Street,” as the Statesman usually called Boise’s red light district, was located on the north side of the block now occupied by City Hall, and was later centered in the alley between Idaho and Main streets in the same block.
In 1885, “A miner named Peter Hanson of Owyhee County, reaped the fruits of evil doing Sunday night by being robbed of about $40 by a soiled dove known as Spanish Belle. He was on a spree and she got away with his coin but he refused to prosecute her.”
In 1886 the Idaho Statesman lamented once more that, “No effort is made at all to enforce the ordinance against prostitution.”
In the 1890s the ordinance, as amended many times, read, “No bawdy house, house of ill-fame or disorderly house shall be kept or maintained within this City; and every person who shall set up, open, or keep such house, or be an inmate of, or in any way connected with such house, and every person who shall permit any tenement, building or premises in his or her possession, or under his or her control, to be used as any such house, shall be deemed guilty of maintaining a nuisance, and upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not less than five dollars nor more than two hundred dollars, or by imprisonment not less than five days nor more than sixty days, or by both such fine and imprisonment for each offense, and it shall be the duty of the Chief of Police and his deputies, and all police officers and night watchmen of the City, either upon their knowledge, information or belief, or upon the sworn complaint of any citizen, to arrest and take before a Magistrate for trial, any person who shall violate any of the provisions of this section.”
The city attorney covered the subject well, but enforcement was out of his hands.
On Aug. 29, 1889, under the headline “Boise’s Disgrace” the Statesman wrote, “Two citizens are mainly responsible for this state of things, one of whom is reputed to be the richest man in Boise.” Readers of the paper certainly knew who these men were, and we are reasonably sure that we do, too, but in deference to their living descendants we’ll not give their names.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.