Locating Harrisburg’s Prostitutes


Locating Harrisburg’s Prostitutes

A photograph of the arrest records held in the Pennsylvania State Archives

Prostitution has existed in America since its inception. Brothels (which catered to wealthier clientele) and bawdy houses (which catered to the lower, working classes) had dotted street corners and alleyways for generations by the turn of the 20th century. J. Howard Wert in his article for the Harrisburg Patriot newspaper, decried the trade, saying that “There is no class of humanity to whom life presents a more rayless and hopeless outlook than that of the members of which, through the baseness and cupidity of man or their own folly have been entrapped” (Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward, Barton, Dorman, 121). It had been previously and popularly believed by historians that the eighth ward housed a majority of bawdy houses. At the turn of the 20th century, the eighth ward was reviled for its life of vice. However, during my research into the personal lives of women working as prostitutes in Harrisburg in 1902 and 1903, I found that this was not as common as was believed. While some of the women in this sample did live in the eighth ward, they were rarely the women arrested for owning the bawdy houses. Using the information I gathered in the arrest records from the Pennsylvania State Archives, I was able to locate these women using the 1900 Harrisburg census. 

On this arrest record, you can see that there is no address recorded for where her arrest took place, only the time (six spaces over from her name) and name of arresting officer (five spaces over from her name)

Throughout my research, I have been able to find 28 of the women on the arrest records using the 1900 census. For this post, I have used a sample of nine women that were arrested between April 1902 and April 1903. The book, Fire from Heaven by David Underdown states, “historians are prisoners of their sources. We find only what is in our documents” (Underdown, 130). This has been proven time and again with this research. As I mentioned in an earlier post, these women did not leave behind personal testimonies about their lives in general or as prostitutes. We are left to analyze what documents were left behind, which in this case were the arrest records and 1900 census data. Both of these documents leave behind incomplete testimony on these women. On the census, a majority of the women left sections blank or listed as unknown. One of the most common areas I found that was left incomplete was the section on the occupation. I have included the occupations of the few women in this sample who included it in their census information. In the arrest records, the police officers did not record where the women were arrested, just the time and date. Because of this, we can only assume that the addresses I have included below were where the women ran their businesses. However, even that assumption is incomplete. For example, with one 37-year-old woman, in a 1910 Harrisburg Daily Independent article, 42 South Court St. (in the third ward) is given as the address of her infamous bawdy house. However, on the 1900 census, her home address is listed as 109 Filbert St. in the eighth ward. Even the arrest records must be looked at critically. The arrest records provide only the date of arrest, not their sentence. There is a possibility that some of these women had their cases dropped, were found innocent, or were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Historical sources are written by humans and therefore are vulnerable to human error. What these sources do prove is that an arrest did take place.

In this picture, you can see the address for the first of the three women who were located on the same street.

Four of the nine women I analyzed lived in the third ward. All of the women in the third ward were arrested for owning and operating bawdy houses. The third ward was located near the Harrisburg train station. The book, City Contented, City Discontented states that railroad companies began using Harrisburg as a stopping point as early as 1837 and in the early 1900s, 400 trains came through Harrisburg daily (Beers, p. 107). By 1910 there were “13 million railroad passengers going through Harrisburg…[and] 177,952 railroad cars behind steam locomotives rumbling through town” (Beer, p. 104). Train stations and ports were common places to find bawdy houses because they could always count on clients weary from travel or work who would ultimately find their way into the arms of one of the women. Three of the women living in the third ward lived on the same street. One, 39-year-old mother of four, lived at 308 Mulberry St. which was the first neighborhood after the railroad tracks. Right down the street, a 41-year-old keeper of a boarding house (this was a common cover used by women who owned bawdy houses), lived at 130 Mulberry St. Yet another woman, a 20-year-old, also lived on Mulberry St. at number 318. The fourth woman, a 25-year-old Canadian immigrant (the only non-American in my sample), lived at 146 S. 3rd St. which was also near the train tracks, and even more surprisingly right next door to the Salem Reformed Congregational Church.

If you look to the left this house you will see the Salem Reformed Congregational Church.

As I mentioned above, a number of these women did live in the eighth ward, but of my sample, only one of the five was arrested for owning a bawdy house. The rest were arrested as inmates (a term commonly used for women who worked in bawdy houses). Most of the women who lived in the eighth ward were young and worked as domestic servants. One 20-year-old woman who lived at 428 Cranberry Aly in the eighth ward was listed as a maid in the 1900 census. Another woman, an 18-year-old, lived at 127 Cranberry Ave and also listed her occupation as a domestic servant. A third young woman, a 19-year-old who lived in the eighth ward at 11 N. Cameron St, listed herself as an unemployed maid. The woman I mentioned above who was arrested for owning a bawdy house was a 42-year-old mother of 4 (she had 17 children total) who lived at 427 South Dr.

This is the address of the only woman from my sample in the eighth ward who ran a bawdy house. While she is in the eighth ward, her address is still near the train tracks.

With the resounding silence from these women, we are left to create a narrative for them with incomplete and in some cases biased sources.  My hope is that through the use of the arrest records and census data, I can weave at least some understanding of these women and their home lives. From that, I can begin to map the potential hotspots for brothels and bawdy houses throughout the city. 

2 thoughts on “Locating Harrisburg’s Prostitutes

  1. Emma Stager is a great great aunt of mine. I didn’t look at your info yet to see names but she ran a brothel (what we refer to it as) in Harrisburg, PA. Most info I gleaned from news articles and census I noticed she held a few wedding ceremonies (some relatives) at her address and was know to let her brother in law (and son) stay there when they were in the area. My great great grandfathers wife died early in ther marriage (I think) and he rode the rails a lot. No one else would take him in from stories I’ve heard except Emma. I don’t check my email often so if you message me I might not see it for a while.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.