Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power: Salt Lake City, 1847 – 1918
by Jeffrey Nichols
Nov 18, 2008 | 3493 views | 2 2 comments | 47 47 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Title: Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power: Salt Lake City, 1847 – 1918

Author: Jeffrey Nichols

Publisher: University of Illinois Press

Genre: Prostitution, Utah, Salt Lake City, History, Polygamy Year Published: 2002 Number of pages: 247 (inc. Index)

Binding: Softback

ISBN-10: 0-252-02768-X

ISBN-13: 978-0-252-07592-6

Price: $25.00

Reviewed by Roy Schmidt



When I first heard of this book, I thought it would be either salacious or ponderous. It is neither. Instead, author Jeffrey Nichols, an associate professor of history at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, has written a straightforward history of a subject seldom mentioned in polite company, and certainly not in an LDS Gospel Doctrine class.

While prostitution was/is a fact of life in many major cities, Salt Lake City was the only one supporting polygamy, and that made for an interesting dynamic. The opening of the transcontinental railroad brought an influx of Gentiles into the territory, including large numbers of women who sold sex for a living. For a time, the Gentiles argued in favor of prostitution as a necessity while condemning plural marriage as immoral. Some contended those practicing plural marriage were involved in a sort of reverse prostitution, with the male being the “hooker,” and the wives being the “Janes.” You can easily imagine how the Saints responded to that idea.

Passage of the “Edmunds Act” opened the door to large scale arrests of those involved in plural marriage. After Apostle Lorenzo Snow was arrested on November 20, 1885, some Mormons decided to go on the offense. In a twisted bit of logic, Brigham Young Hampton, longtime police office and city license collector, spearheaded the effort. The author writes: “Hampton claimed that citizen complaints led him to create a ‘citizen’s committee’ to detect and punish those guilty of lewd and lascivious conduct ‘Especially the Government Office Holders that are prosecuting and persecuting the Servants of God for keeping his laws of Marriage." Hampton hired two women, Fanny Davenport and S. J. Fields, and set them up in houses on West Temple Street, from which they attempted to attract the targeted customers. The houses were fitted with apertures in the doors and walls so that hidden policemen could witness ‘the bestial conduct’. Francis Armstrong, a Mormon merchant and city selectman, testified that he provided $500 of his own money to bankroll Hampton. Hampton denied renting or furnishing the houses, but admitted that he paid the women some $300 to $400 for ‘detective purposes’. He admitted offering Fields a ‘bounty’ but claimed the deal was for ‘Mormon, Jew, or Gentile.’

“Altogether, Hampton claimed to have caught about a hundred men, including several government officials and one Protestant minister, but the larger fish avoided the bait. Only 5 percent of those ‘detected’

were married Mormons ‘that were considered on the verge of aposticy for years past.’ Mormons congratulated Hampton for ‘balancing the scales’ and proving to the world that the Edmunds act applied to ‘actual sinning of a sexual nature, as well as the assumed offences of the Mormons.’ Everything unraveled when the courts ruled Hampton’s warrants 'invalid.'” (33)

During the 1870’s, houses of prostitution were located in Block 70 and Block 57, located between Main and State Streets on the east and west, and between 100 and 300 South on the north and south, practically in sight of the LDS temple. Police held regular raids on the houses, and levied fines on both the madams, and the “inmates.” The prostitutes considered these raids and fines as a cost of doing business, and the city was rewarded with a steady source of income.

After LDS President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto abolishing the practice of polygamy in 1890, the arguments from the Gentiles as to the morality of the practice became somewhat moot. The discussion turned more forcefully to whether prostitutes should be regulated or abolished.

Nichols reports: “Regulation reflected a widespread nineteenth-century belief that prostitution could not and should not be eradicated. The most influential advocate of regulation, French physician Alexandre-Jean Baptiste Parent-Duchatelet, proposed three principles to prevent the contamination of society:

"Prostitutes must be confined to an enclosed milieu invisible to respectable society.

"The municipal authorities must constantly supervise the milieu.

"The milieu must be hierachized and compartmentalized to prevent the mixing of age groups and classes." (88)

These ideals appealed to many American cities, including Salt Lake City.

(I recall my Grandfather making these same arguments to me in Baltimore in the 1960’s.) The thinking was if prostitution was carried on in a regulated area, the hookers will receive regular health examinations, patrons would have an outlet for their lusts, neighborhoods would be free of prostitutes, respectable women would not be accosted, and the municipality would collect fees either in the form of licenses or fines.

Salt Lake City officials, Mormons and abolitionists challenged the concept of regulation, and pushed for reform. Various laws regarding prostitution were passed, but not all were successful.

“An incident that began in Salt Lake City in 1890 demonstrates the real targets of prostitution laws and helps explain the attraction of regulation to many officials and businessmen, Mormon and gentile.

Brigham Young Hampton, now a private businessman, erected a building on Commercial Street on land leased from the Brigham Young Estate. Hampton leased the building to Louis Bamberger, one of four German Jewish brothers prominent in real estate and mining, who subleased it to Elsie St. Omar, who opened a brothel.

“In September 1891, Judge Charles Zane of the Third District court instructed the grand jury to indict keepers of houses of prostitution.

Hampton claimed that the officers of the Brigham Young Trust Company (now managing parts of the estate) decided to sacrifice him to the authorities. All of the sublessees agreed to cancel the objectionable leases St. Omar, even though she had spent ‘several hundred dollars’

outfitting the building as a brothel. Hampton declared that the madam ‘was a hundred times more Considerate than my Should be friends and I think in the day of Judgment Despite the She will out Shine Many of the B.Y.T.Co.’ Despite the cancellation, Hampton was indicted for keeping a house of prostitution; the same grand jury also returned an indictment against Emma Whiting for leasing no. 234 south Main to Minnie Barton.

Hampton faced prosecution by the same district attorney, Charles S.

Varian, before the same judge who had sentenced him to a year in prison in 1885.

“Varian dismissed both cases, however.” (89-90)

This review is already too long, but I would call attention to a major attempt at regulation, the Stockade, which eventually occupied part of block 64, bounded by 100-200 south, and 530 to 560 west. A ten-foot wall surrounded the property, and entry was limited to gates on the north and south. There were parlor houses accommodating six women each, as well as about 150 cribs. The entire enterprise was run by the leading madam of Ogden, Dora B. Topham also known as Belle London. Construction began in 1908, and ran until Topham was convicted of pandering, and a new political administration was elected in 1912. After the Stockade shut down, control of prostitution became much more difficult.

Reformers and abolitionists won the battle, but probably lost the war.

Prostitution still thrives in Salt Lake City, and raids along State Street occur on somewhat regular intervals. In recent years, “escort services” have popped up in the area. One, the Doll House, had its manager convicted of five felonies: four exploiting a prostitute, and one count of a pattern of unlawful activity.

Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power is well done, and thought provoking.

Jeffrey Nichols has done his homework, and has written a well researched book that is engaging and engrossing. His extensive notes and list of references provide a gold mine for future researchers oftthis topic. I highly recommend it.

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November 11, 2009
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July 02, 2009