The Silenced Voices of Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward

The Silenced Voices of Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward

Before coming to Messiah I knew nothing about Harrisburg or the City Beautiful Movement. When I took Pennsylvania History during my junior year, I began to learn about the fascinating and devastating history of Harrisburg and specifically the Old Eighth Ward. I learned how the City Beautiful Movement promised a new, pristine city worthy of being the capital of Pennsylvania. I also learned how that promise included the removal of hundreds of people from their homes in areas of the city that were deemed unseemly. These neighborhoods were often made up of immigrants, African Americans, and poor populations. As is so often the case with improvement; loss and injustice often coexist with the desired result of success. 

Engraving by English artist William Hogarth. This image is part of a series of engravings title A Harlot’s Progress which follows the life of M. Hackabaout as she enters a life of prostitution.

On March 12, our class was given the opportunity to go to the Pennsylvania State Archives to research the chosen topics for our final projects. After much debate, I chose to research prostitution in Harrisburg at the turn of the 20th century. The women who lived and worked in the world of prostitution are often silent. The “dens of prostitution” were known throughout cities by word of mouth and the women rarely left any written evidence of their work, let alone their existence. The book, Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward by Michael Barton and Jessica Dorman is a compilation of the works titled Passing of the Old Eighth written by J. Howard Wert for the Harrisburg Patriot newspaper from 1912-1913. In his articles, Wert decries the vice and vileness awash in Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward. He despairs that “there was not even a feeble attempt at the concealment of vice. It was flaunted openly, defiantly at all who passed along” (Barton, Dorman, 142) and that “In the days when East State St. and some of its intersecting thoroughfares were lined with dens of prostitution which were conducted as openly as saloons or grocery stores” (Barton, Dorman, 106). The information within this book is vital to my research as a way to understand an aspect of what these “houses of commercialized vice” (Barton, Dorman, 119) were like, but Wert never gives the name of the establishments or the women who worked within their walls. Since women within prostitution rarely recorded their own stories, their history has been passed to the keeping of men. I wanted to find these women, find their names, their homes, maybe even some of their history. I wanted to reclaim the voices lost to time as much as I could.

When going to the archive I knew that newspaper articles would be vague and diaries of these women perhaps non-existent. So, I decided to look through arrest records. The amount of information I found was staggering, so much in fact that I was only able to get through one full year (March 1902-March 1903) with the time we were provided. There were scores of women recorded within the pages. There were also countless different names for the offenses these women were arrested for. For example, some women were arrested as Street Walkers (the lowest, most desperate, and dangerous form of prostitution), others were arrested for owning or working in a Bawdy Houses or Disorderly House (another name for a house of prostitution). Most of the women were between the ages of 18 and 38. Perhaps one of the most shocking discoveries for me was that most of the women who owned and operated the homes were married (although their husbands were never listed in the arrest records beside their wives). With the names of these women, I will be able to find them on the census and perhaps find the addresses of some of these notorious Bawdy Houses.

Click to enlarge. This photograph features a page from the Harrisburg arrest dockets from the year 1902. The third person on the list, Martha Young was arrested for running a Bawdy House. The fifth person, Minnie Stambough was arrested for owning a Disorderly House.
Click to enlarge. This is a photograph of the arrest records from the Mayor’s office dating from 1902. The seventh person from the top is Annie Oplinger who was arrest for “keeping a Bawdy House”. The other women who were arrested with Oplinger were “witness inmates” which meant that they lived and worked in the Bawdy House.

While at the Pennsylvania State Archives I looked at a book of arrest records from the Harrisburg Mayor’s office dating from 1902 to 1905, as well as an arrest docket dated from 1902 to 1905. While these items are housed in the Pennsylvania State Archives, they belong to the Harrisburg City Archives. The items within the Harrisburg City Archives have largely been off-limits to the public and only recently incorporated into the State Archives. Therefore, I may be the first to examine these records in their new home.

One of the greatest positives to come out of the digital age is the ability to digitally save and share primary sources that for years have remained within archive walls. While they have always been available to the public, the new ability to digitize the records means that a person in, say, California can access them without needing to travel to the physical archive. While at the physical archive, I was intentional about obtaining photographs of important pages and names within the sources. Some of the photos were for my own research, others were taken with the intention of public dissemination. Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig state in their book, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, that photographs of primary sources have three major advantages to the wider accessibility of primary sources. They can be created quickly and easily, a good image can closely model the original, and “page images give a ‘feel’ for the original” (Cohen, Rosenzweig, Digital History). The trip to the archive was an amazing experience, and there was a great deal of excitement as these women’s names showed up in great numbers. I hope that the photographs that I took while at the archives will provide the key to unlocking more information on these lost women of Harrisburg. 

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