Stephen F. Austin State University

How do you solve a problem like... prostitution? (April 2014)

How do you solve the problem like... prostitution?
By Marvin Mayer

The focus of my last two articles was on behavior, and the local government's attempts to legislate morality. First, we looked at ordinances attempting to prohibit men from making visual "advances" toward women. Remember reading about "Goo-goo Eyes?"

That article was followed in March with a discussion about ordinances attempting to control the manner of dress individuals could wear in public. Stiff (for the time) fines were levied on women wearing men's style pants, even if they were in an otherwise approved uniform.

The third "leg" on the "stool" of early 20th Century morality, at least in Tyler, Smith County, Texas focused on control, if not elimination of "the world's oldest profession," prostitution. The same 1888 ordinance establishing prohibitions against the two types of "crimes" listed above was even more specific when dealing with prostitution.

"It shall not be lawful for any person to keep or cause to be kept within the limits of the City of Tyler a bawdy house or a house of ill fame, or any house which persons may frequent for the purpose of prostitution. A bawdy house is a house kept for the purpose of prostitution and visited by persons for said purpose. In all prosecutions for keeping a bawdy house, house of ill fame, or house kept for purposes of prostitution, contrary to ordinance, within the City, proof of the general reputation of the house in question in the community or in the neighborhood in which the same is located, shall be admissibility to establish its character. Any person violating any of the provisions of article 54 shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction shall be fined in any sum not more than one hundred dollars, and may in addition there to be imprisoned for any time not exceeding fifteen days, and each day such violation may continue shall be deemed a separate and distinct offense. Any person in the city who shall be found in company with a female vagrant, and paying attention to her as such, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction shall be fined not exceeding fifty dollars. A "female vagrant" as used in the preceding article, is defined to be a common prostitute, or a woman who practices illicit intercourse with men for hire."

Tyler's city "fathers" apparently felt if they removed the temptation, men would stay at home with their spouses and any brothels, inside or outside of the city limits, would eventually close on their own accord. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, they went even further. Two years later, they attempted to pass another ordinance; one prohibiting two or more women from assembling on public streets. This ordinance never got the necessary votes to become law.

These men didn't give up easily. Applying the "more than one way to skin a cat" philosophy, they came up with this ordinance. This less stringent ordinance prohibited "the going upon or along the public streets of the city after 10 o'clock at night by females…" To add some "muscle" to that ordinance, the nobility of Tyler passed a companion ordinance that prohibited females from loitering around or about saloons or beer houses.

The passage of these ordinances beg the question, did Tyler have a prostitution problem in the early 1900s? The images shown below may provide a peep into that era, if not completely answering the question.

1900 Census, Smith County, Texas

Photo of the "Rooming" House occupied by the above boarders. Apparently, there were other such houses in the city. An article in the March 8, 1911 Tyler Daily Courier-Times spoke of Governor Colquitt's 4th veto of a senate bill which disapproved the Tyler charter bill, because "among other things, it authorized the City Council to license and locate houses of prostitution." The article explains this was the only objectionable part of the Senate's bill, but because it came to the Senate as part of an attempt by the city [of Tyler] to raise its bond limit, the bill was sent to the Senate as received, without having first been read.

Editorial comment: "We have to pass the bill so we can know what's in it!" U. S. Senator Nancy Pelosi speaking of a government bailout bill in or around 2008. Interesting, isn't it? The more things change, the more they remain the same! With that, I end this series of articles dealing with attempts to legislate morality in the early 1900s.

Again, as with my last two articles, I want to thank and acknowledge Vicki Betts for allowing me to reproduce the images throughout this article, and utilize parts of her script from a talk she presented to the Smith County Historical Society in late 2013. Ms. Betts invested a great deal of time and effort researching the ordinances referenced herein and assembling her research to form the basis of her presentation, and I am most grateful to her for allowing me to use it to write this article.