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Money or Morality: A Tale of Debate and Diplomacy in Old Seattle
In the closing years of the nineteenth century, Seattle wavered between 'closed' and 'open' city policies in its quest to establish its own particular spot on the map. Some leaders pushed for reform, demanding that saloons, gambling halls and, in particular, brothels, be shuttered for good, while others maintained that the city's income and thus its future was tied to the revenue generated by such businesses. Lou Graham, a woman of business savvy and diplomatic skill, proposed a solution that lasted for close to twenty years- and in so doing, became an integral part of the debate and diplomacy that unfolded during these years.
Nymph, fille de joie, courtesan, dove… There were many names for what I was. My given name is Elisabeth Ann Stewart, but you could have heard of me as Lisette; that was the name I worked for under Lou, back then. This is my tale of life “down on the sawdust” in the new city of Seattle - and the tug of war between money and morality that I observed.
My nymphet friends also had their names- Carrie and Lettie. Our employer Lou Graham established the most famous and successful parlor house that Seattle had ever seen. In 1888, Lou, Carrie, Lettie, and I stepped off the steamer Pacific Pride into Seattle. I was 19, and eager to begin something new, away from San Francisco, where I came from. Lou was well known down there, and I was something of a protégé to her, along with my companions.
After we arrived, Lou set up an appointment with one Jacob Furth, an up and coming Seattle banker through whom she hoped to establish herself with the city leaders. After her meeting, she told us of her plans to buy a lot and build an establishment at the very edge of the sin district. This place would be frequented, hopefully, by the upper class men who ran our new city, and would provide a level of quality previously unequaled there.
Even with what little I knew of diplomacy at my age, it seemed a brilliant idea. Lou told us Seattle was having a crisis of conscience- to allow the vices our profession represented and keep collecting revenue, or enforce a high level of public morality. The city was new and in need of resources to thrive. What Lou offered was fair and standard prices, free services to lawmakers, and a cultured, beautiful setting in which to gather. This alone almost completely ensured that guests would visit and advertise our house. What made our parlor house also stand out was that we were skilled, not only in matters of pleasantry and affection, but in cultural pursuits and political conversation. Intelligent companions, we were. Lou made our house the most luxurious and the best in Seattle.
The business succeeded quickly. Lou raked in the profits, and we entertained the leaders of Seattle and their sons, alongside courtesans that Lou had hired from all across America. When we went out for our legendary weekly carriage rides, we could buy whatever items caught our eye in the best stores in town, making us quite comfortable and the local merchants more prosperous. But then, in 1889, the Great Seattle fire struck.
Most of downtown, including our place, burned. We were fortunate. Lou had accumulated enough funds to be able to spend $25,000 expanding our old place to a four story brick edifice even more palatial than the first, with increased services for overnight guests, such as breakfast and laundering. The first floor featured the parlor, which was decorated with plush Turkish rugs, gold brocade wallpaper, china cuspidors, and tasteful paintings and artwork. We even had a gold piano! The furniture was mostly large and sumptuous, although it was intended for the comfort of our clients rather than ours. And as I observed life outside Lou’s door, civic debate and diplomacy continued.
One story that begs to be told is one that involved Father Prefontaine, from the Our Lady of Good Help Catholic Church, our neighbor across the street. One night, one of the girls was seriously sick and many of us feared she wouldn’t last the night. So, knowing Amber was Catholic, Lou sent across the street for spiritual consolation. After a time, Amber was taken to the hospital. Then one of the other girls asked the good father to hear her confession and soon over a dozen girls did the same, although only two were actually Catholic. I remember Lou noted that as a consequence, Sunday attendance went up by several individuals. It was then that I began to really understand the workings of practical diplomacy.
As we hosted the city leaders, and often, the business and railroad tycoons they were trying to attract to Seattle, an arrangement to protect Lou was observed. I did not entirely trust this arrangement, though. Lou did, but the arrangement’s integrity was entirely based on her negotiation skills and her value to our clientele. I was doubtful, that if SHE ever came to be arrested, that our business would not fail. What the consequences would be, I was unsure.
I should explain a bit more how I came to have my misgivings. One night, a guest and I began a conversation about how the city had been handling affairs in Whitechapel, a name by which the sin district was generally referred. Another name used was ‘tenderloin’. Not the most proper of conversations- but it was a subject that he wished to discuss. As a result I learned that the police had begun conducting raids on the crib houses, brothels, and gambling houses in our area. Though I was no stranger to the details of life around me, I was jarred by this action, especially after Carrie was arrested, and taken to trial. Even though Lou’s place was a parlor house and of a higher class than the other businesses, it seemed possible that moral debate in the city regarding our profession could cause our livelihood to disappear. Would Lou’s diplomacy continue to succeed?
My unease was ironically addressed on Valentine’s Day, 1891, when indeed Lou was arrested by an inexperienced police officer. Of course, the newspapers made much of the events. One article maintained that Mayor Henry White said “the ordinances will be vigorously enforced”. I wondered what the outcome for Lou and in turn our house would be.
Another article in the Seattle Press-Times asked: “Why Cannot Fallen Women be Convicted Here?” I wished to know more about the people who were quoted in the articles that the girls and I skimmed, looking for details on Lou’s trial to be held at seven in the evening. Her jury of 18 businessmen- three bakers, three jewelers, three blacksmiths, three boatbuilders, and three others, I feared, would not be entirely impartial to Lou’s case. The Seattle Press-Times’ quote of ‘Queer Viewed’ Mr. F. F. Kerkow, druggist, though, made me smile. “A city is not worth a snap of the fingers once the prostitutes leave” indeed!
I went to her trial. People lined the streets to see Lou travel to Judge River’s court. Lou wore a sealskin sacque, and enough diamonds to sink a boat. Within three minutes, Miss Louise Graham was acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence, and declared not guilty of running a house of prostitution. With some relief, I attributed that as recognition of her as a valuable Seattle institution.
After the trial, Carrie and I followed more newspaper accounts of the debate and diplomacy exercised to either eliminate or tolerate the type of business we were engaged in. For example, there was the time when Mr. Ronald, who was also Lou’s lawyer, ran for mayor. When the issues of Whitechapel and its businesses were posed to him as an issue of debate in his campaign, he was clever, to be sure. When pressed as to how he would deal with them, he merely promised that all fines were to be paid into city funds. As for what I read in the newspapers, a great many businessmen and other city folk agreed that prostitution and gambling should be licensed, or at least allowed. I particularly liked Mr. A. E. Barton, Bookkeeper ‘s response. “Let them alone,” says he, “There will be no money here in this city if you drive them away.” Hail to the journalist who wrote “as an investment, Whitechapel property is first class. No other district in the city can make such a showing financially.”
At the same time, there were articles in the newspaper noting others for their unyielding stance against our business and their desire to see it disappear. One quoted three reverends, all of whom were absolutists opposed to our presence. “As for the existence of Whitechapel there is no use whatsoever,” Rev. George J. Burchett said. Rev. Clark Davis stated that “If evil is allowed to run riot as it has, it will split the community wide open one day”. Rev. Elliot W. Brown emphatically advocated to “eradicate from this city prostitution and gambling.” I myself doubted the logic of their seeming willfulness not to see the bigger picture connected to us. I saw that the city’s financial stability almost completely rested on us and our $10 a girl ‘sin taxes’.
To complicate things further, in 1893, yet another crisis occurred. There was a financial panic. Lou, and those of us who worked for her were doing just fine. However, many of the families of our customers were not so lucky. Lou, as astute as ever at business as well as diplomacy, loaned out some of her money to these foremost families, saving them from bankruptcy. She also made an enormous deposit at Jacob Furth’s bank, saving him from bankruptcy as well. The scene was something to behold. Lou drove up with her phaeton loaded with sacks of $20 gold coins, all amounting to around $250,000 dollars. You don’t see that every day. We continued to operate- in fact, there was an advertisement in the Post-Intelligencer as to the entertainments to be found in our neighborhood. It seemed as if once again Lou would be on top of things, and all would be well.
In truth, though, the moral debate arguing against our existence seemed to be gaining support. In 1900, Seattle Mayor Humes fired his existing chief of police and hired another who had plans for our part of the city. The issues I thought settled by Lou’s acquittal for prostitution were blown wide open all over again- new Police Chief Sullivan announced plans to evacuate all houses of ill repute to a different area of the city. I hoped past practice to honor existing arrangements with Lou would be observed, and protect our establishment. Would we have to move, too? After all, the Seattle Press-Times had stated quite clearly that parlor houses did not cause the city any trouble. It was by no means sure whether or how the debate would be settled.
Our grand days in Seattle came to an abrupt end when, in 1903, on March 11, the woman who had been a key player in so much early Seattle debate and diplomacy died while on a trip to San Francisco. Her estate, which was valued at nearly a quarter of a million dollars and was determined absent of any heirs or a will, helped to start the King County School System. Jacob Furth, with whom she had done so much business in the past, made sure that the men who kept their valuables and money in her safe got them back, as I believe Lou intended. She was buried in Seattle, which I find fitting due to her history with the city. What would Seattle have been without her presence in those years? In any case, my days working for Lou were over.
Looking back on those years, many things come to mind. What I remember most is how my own fortune was tied to the consequences of debate and diplomacy in Seattle city politics. I consider it an advantage to have been associated with Lou Graham, who showed me by example how it was possible to either succeed or fail as far as one’s own attention to such matters was essential. She sold herself as what she was, and mastered local politics and economics in an age of restrictive rules and manners for women. Lou was unique. She achieved what she intended through her own efforts, which was not common for her time, and I admired her for it. As for Seattle, the vision of growing into a major city did advance in those years, with no small help from Lou. The city made it economically through its early years so that it could later prosper. I also maintain that the debate between money and morality shaped what would become Seattle’s future character.
As for me, I returned to San Francisco after Lou died to investigate business opportunities to invest in as I had accumulated a nest egg of my own. With Lou as an example, who knew what might be possible?