Idaho History

Prostitution was dividing Boise in 1889, and politicians and the Statesman got involved

John Lemp was the only Boise city councilman voting against an ordinance in 1889 “To Suppress Bawdy Houses and Houses of Ill-Fame in the Vicinity of Public Schools in Boise City.”
John Lemp was the only Boise city councilman voting against an ordinance in 1889 “To Suppress Bawdy Houses and Houses of Ill-Fame in the Vicinity of Public Schools in Boise City.” Idaho State Historical Society

Boise City’s prostitutes and houses of prostitution drew frequent mention in the Idaho Statesman in the 19th century, but in August 1889, the paper started a campaign against them.

“Boise’s Disgrace” was the headline of an item that continued: “Two citizens are mainly responsible for the state of things, one of whom is reputed to be the richest man in Boise.” Most readers probably knew at once that the reference was to German brewer and City Councilman John Lemp, owner of the largest business block on Main Street. When a city ordinance “To Suppress Bawdy Houses and Houses of Ill-Fame in the Vicinity of Public Schools in Boise City” was passed by the council on Sept. 5, 1889, Lemp was the only member who voted against it.

A letter to the editor, headed “Boise’s Blight,” asked, “Is it not a pity that a large part of our children are compelled in going to and from our public school to pass under the shade of half a score of brothels?” It was signed “Parent.”

The Statesman editorialized on Aug. 30, 1889: “The greater portion of three blocks on Idaho Street stand in frightful need of a cleansing process, both physically and morally. Both the moral and physical nose require to be held firmly while passing certain quarters. The removal of both these classes of nuisances from the quarters affected would enhance the market value of real property in the neighborhood fifty per cent. The growth of Boise will soon demand the whole of Idaho Street for legitimate business houses and for respectable homes. Get the moral and physical soap, water and sand ready and let the scrubbing commence.”

On Aug. 31 the paper called it “A Public Duty,” and again urged “a cleanup of these awful dens on Idaho Street. Half has not been told of the flaunting vice daily displayed before the eyes of the children of Boise.”

“Our Shame” was the heading of a letter to the editor printed in August 1889. “Let us know whether vice or morality is dominant in the Capital City of the would-be State of Idaho. Certain males will doubtless raise the beastly cry of ‘necessary evil.’ God pity them, and pity too the daughters of men who resort to such arguments.”

The next day: “Recent movements looking to the moral well-being of the city, brings into view a field in which the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters will find their appropriate and much-needed work. The overt and active work must, of course, be left mainly to men; but men move, very often, only as they are moved, and very much of the effective motive power in this case, as in many others, will be found in the hearts and in the well-directed home influences of women.”

The dilemma faced by owners of houses on Idaho Street used as brothels was that if they evicted the present occupants, no decent businesses would move into a house with such neighbors. One owner said that if he evicted the prostitutes from his property and then couldn’t rent it, he’d sue the city. The obvious solution was for the city to strictly enforce existing ordinances against prostitution and shut down all of Boise’s brothels – easier said than done.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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