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Criminalize or Re-legitimize: Lessons from Our Red-Light History

The Mollie Byrnes House at 212 State Street in Helena

The Mollie Byrnes House at 212 State Street in Helena survived 1970s urban renewal, making it the last link to the 19th century red-light empire that women built at the south end of Last Chance Gulch. Also known as Belle Crafton, Mollie Byrnes built this residence in 1887. Her elegant bordello, The Castle, was located two blocks west under what is now Cruse Avenue.


Human rights advocates largely agree that legal reform is needed to prevent violence and promote safety in the sex industry. The way to go about it, however, is a point of debate. TFC's own Jackie Brennan takes a look at the history of red-light districts in towns like Helena as well as the sex industry in modern boomtowns for lessons about the effectiveness of reform approaches based in criminalization.

Before we closed out the month of February, The Friendship Center had a chance to partner with the Windbag Saloon for a community night. Between 20% of evening sales donated by the Windbag, cash donations, and proceeds from raffle prize drawings, everyone who came out on a snowy Monday night to show their love for a downtown business and a good cause helped raise about $1,000 for our vital services.

The Windbag, of course, has the distinction of being downstairs from the former site of Dorothy’s Rooms, the last of Helena’s brothels named for the last of its madams, Dorothy Baker (aka Big Dorothy). Before I launch into why the Windbag’s place in history is of immense interest to me, I must be clear that I am not an interpretive historian. I am, however, deeply invested in learning the enduring relevance of our past, and I have more than a passing interest in labor movements, changing gender roles, and the nuances of the sex industry. From that standpoint, it is my totally amateur position that there is a lot to learn from Helena’s red-light history as well as the wave of reform that ultimately criminalized prostitution in most of the U.S by the early 20th century.

The cycle of growth, waning tolerance, and legal crackdown has played out for decades in the American sex industry. Because it’s a familiar trajectory, past reform movements have striking similarities to debates that rage today around the legitimacy of commercial sex and other sexualized services. Some modern reformers call for empowering workers through the full decriminalization of consensual sex for sale. Others call for an approach that punishes customers, but often treats workers like victims.

Starting with the Windbag and working our way back in history is a useful way to trace the roots of criminalization-based reform movements. It can also help us understand why the sex industry is such a popular target for today’s fervor—often driven by groups with religious ties—around human trafficking. Looking at where we’ve been and where we are now can help us see how criminalization has not only come up short of its intended goals, but also wrought a great deal of harm in the process.

Helena’s Red-Light History: The Broad Strokes

The modern-day Windbag certainly pays homage to the building’s place in our local history. As prominent as any of the large historic images lining its walls is a mugshot of Dorothy Baker from 1957–when she was tried in Helena District Court on charges of prostitution and selling liquor without a license. Despite determined efforts by the County Attorney’s office to close the gulch’s last brothel, its proprietor managed to pay fines and dodge convictions long enough to keep Dorothy’s Rooms running until an April 1973 police raid. Dorothy herself died in her hometown of Great Falls a month later.

Besides being remembered as likable, generous, and savvy, Dorothy is such a charismatic figure partly because, as the last of Helena’s red-light proprietors, she reminds us that the time of openly operating bordellos is far from ancient history. Most of us don’t have to look too far from the communities we’ve called home for examples of this. For instance, I grew up near Livingston, where houses of prostitution continued operating south of town into the 1970s even after the true red-light district closed in 1948. Across the Continental Divide from Helena, Butte’s Dumas Brothel remained open until 1982. Over in my mother’s home state of Idaho, some brothels in the silver mining town of Wallace persisted until 1991.

Ellen Baumler in Big Dorothy's ornate bathroom.

Remodeled in the 1970s, Big Dorothy's opulent bathroom above the present-day Windbag has been left as it appeared at the time of the 1973 raid that closed Dorothy's Rooms. Beloved author and historian Ellen Baumler (1949-2023) leads a tour of Dorothy Putnam's bathroom in this 2020 photo by Eliza Wiley for the Independent Record.

The end of Helena’s brothel era falls squarely within this three-decade period where many of the last-standing houses of prostitution in the Rockies were closing for good. Those sunset years were far from the most prosperous for Helena’s red-light businesswomen. Thanks to years of dedicated research by historians like Paula Petrik and Ellen Baumler—both of whom we sadly lost in 2023—we know that female control in Helena’s sexual marketplace peaked during its fleeting gold boom years and tapered off following the 1883 arrival of the railroad.

In No Step Backward, a richly detailed history of late 19th century women in Helena, Petrik devotes an entire chapter to the rise and fall of the empire women had built on the south end of Last Chance Gulch (formerly Wood Street). Its arc is best summarized in this decade-by-decade comparison:

  • 1870: About 60% of women identified as prostitutes by census records reported personal wealth or property or both. The majority had sound finances and those who weren’t madams were working for other women. Prostitution in the gulch at the time was “women’s business grounded in women’s property and capital.”

  • 1880: Petrik writes, “Fancy ladies plying their trade along Wood Street commanded an average monthly income of $233.” That average rose to $500 in the summer when Helena’s mines and building trades were in full swing. For comparison, bricklayers, stone masons, and carpenters at that time averaged $90-100; bank clerks earned $125; and the highest paid saleswoman could expect to earn $65 a month.

  • 1890: The reign of proprietor prostitutes came to an end following several 1870s fires that leveled much of Helena’s commercial district and left entrepreneurial control of the demimonde heavily concentrated in one person, Josephine Airey Hensley (aka Chicago Joe). Nonetheless, eight Helena prostitutes still held property worth about $3.5 million in today’s money. Only the railroads and a few of the most successful entrepreneurs contributed more to city coffers in taxes than the red-light workers.

  • 1900: Not one Helena prostitute owned property or maintained a bank account. Violence and disease had always been occupational hazards in the tenderloin, but suicide, violent death, sickness, and addiction had become commonplace in Helena’s brothels and cribs.

“By the turn of the century,” Petrik observes, “Helena’s red-light district had much of the sadness, desperation, and death commonly associated with the descriptions of prostitution in reform tracts.” This point is an astute one: It suggests that, far from widespread depravity, squalor, and exploitation, Helena’s red-light women exercised considerable power and influence–predominantly on women’s terms–for the better part of three decades before their trade was less tolerated and eventually criminalized.

As a significant qualifier, while prostitutes across the West came from varied ethnic backgrounds and circumstances, Chinese women working in prostitution experienced none of the pre-1900 prosperity. The Page Act (1875) and Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) gradually restricted all but China’s wealthy male merchant class from legally immigrating to the U.S., or even entering for business. Based on the time these laws went into effect, the recorded 23 Chinese women working as prostitutes in Helena in 1880 and four remaining by 1900 probably did not enter the trade or even the country willingly. Petrik writes in her book that there is no record of “any Chinese woman owning property or appearing in any criminal court action on her own behalf”–indicating that men likely controlled prostitution in Helena’s Chinatown. The correlation between laws that limit citizenship and civil liberties, and instances of trafficking is important to keep in mind when we examine the effects of Progressive Era politics, which found a scapegoat for many social anxieties and tensions in prostitution.

Progressive Era Criminalization of Prostitution

Up until the end of the 19th century, prostitution in the U.S. was not a criminal offense. So, how did an era of activism and political reform that’s generally understood as a reaction to industrialization, urbanization, and unfettered capitalism come to also mark the end of legal prostitution? The confluence of three factors helps explain this. First, many people at this time were doubling down on Victorian morals as the influence of structures that once ensured behavioral compliance (i.e., close-knit families, communities, and churches) weakened. Second, the growth of cities around industrial centers meant more young people were living relatively anonymous, independent lives away from family or neighbors. Third, young women were employed in increasing numbers in urban factories–unbinding them from the realm of home and family and making them more visible in the public eye. Prostitution became an easy target for mounting anxieties around all these developments.

For those who took issue with the growing social mobility of immigrants, the poor, and women, prostitution was easy to frame as the preeminent source of evil in terms that seemed anti-capitalist at face value. They made the case that prostitution signified the intrusion of “market values” into sex–an arena of life that Victorian moralists believed should be the most private and inhibited, especially for women. If sex could be had for a price, so the reform logic went, capitalism would lay waste to everything. To late 19th century reformers, criminalization was the way to halt the vice sprawling forth from the advance of market forces. In practice, far from reining in the vagaries of corporate greed and extraction, it amounted to controlling women–particularly those who couldn’t support themselves or their children with the paltry wages they could earn at the few above-board jobs open to them.

Reform tracts played up a sensationalized image of prostitution–rooted in assumptions that it was necessarily involuntary, that violence was rampant, and notably, that many of the women engaged in the sale of sex were young immigrants lured directly from U.S. ports of entry to the brothels by an international syndicate of foreign or foreign-born men. As one researcher put it in an article on the Progressive Era criminalization of prostitution:

“ emphasizing importation of foreign women and trafficking by foreign men, American...policy pinpointed outsiders as the source of the prostitution problem. This effectively obscured the role of Americans, and of American social and economic factors, in promoting prostitution.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because this tactic of positioning a perceived scourge on society as imported rather than a direct, homegrown result of American class, racial, and gender inequities is still used today. It got a lot of traction with reformers back in the late 19th century as well. In one of the earliest pushes to crack down on vice in Montana (where, remember, prostitution kept a toehold into the 1970s in some towns), lawmakers passed a law in 1885 closing loud dance halls (then called hurdy-gurdies) that were seen as a public nuisance. In an ironic parallel development that might give a clearer impression of how little Progressive Era reformers cared about public welfare, one of the measures considered but not passed in Montana in 1885 was an act to prevent wife beating.

Anti-prostitution campaign posters and artwork (left to right): (1) Poster characteristic of WWI Era "social hygiene" campaigns that played up the spread of venereal disease as a reason to outlaw prostitution. (2) Illustration from Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls, a 1910 book written and edited by Chicago reformers as part of the campaign to criminalize prostitution. (3) Cartoon from San Francisco Examiner, 1917. (Image: SFPD scrapbook, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

After picking up steam for nearly two decades, anti-prostitution tracts ultimately prevailed by the end of World War I, when the focus of legislation shifted away from the old talking points (predatory outsiders, women outside the home, etc.) to cracking down on venereal disease. This was partially born out of concern for a healthy fighting force, but mostly out of fear that middle-class men with their supposedly uncontrollable sex drives would inevitably patronize brothels, then contract and spread disease to their undeserving, virtuous wives. Nearly all states had passed laws banning brothels or regulating profits of prostitution by 1915. In Montana, prostitution was criminalized–at least, officially–in 1917.

Selling Sex in the Modern American Boomtown

I started this piece off with the disclaimer that I am no interpretive historian. To that disclaimer, I must also add that I’ve never worked in the sex industry. I say that because it is my second totally amateur position that any nuanced discussion of the impact of sex industry policy reform should center the experiences of people who work in it. For that reason, I’m delighted to cite and recommend a piece of storytelling that brilliantly captures: 1.) The way the sex industry booms alongside other industries, 2.) The broad spectrum of jobs the industry encompasses, and 3.) The danger of attributing complex issues like human trafficking driven by deep, systemic inequities to simple causes.

As part of the Texas Monthly podcast series Boomtown, journalist Susan Elizabeth Shepard traveled to her home state of Texas in 2019 to guest-host two episodes on the sex industry at the height of the Permian Basin’s latest oil boom. Though principally a journalist, Shepard also worked as a stripper for the better part of two decades–starting in 1994 before she enrolled at the University of Texas and continuing between freelance and staff reporting jobs for newsrooms across the country. Shepard was still working the club circuit months before she wrote a 2013 story for BuzzFeed about stripping in the oil boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. That’s to say, she has bona fides and access many of us do not when it comes to working in, and reporting on the sex industry.

The first episode hosted by Shepard starts with an important delineation about the different states she’s worked in. Tourism is generally the reason strip clubs see steady business in large cities and rural areas: What the NCAA Final Four in Atlanta and iconic trout streams of western Montana have in common is that they attract lots of people (most of them men) who are traveling for fun with money to spend. By contrast, Williston at the height of the Bakken boom was where people went to work–not unlike Helena in its mining heyday, or West Texas towns like Odessa and Midland today.

Another important point Shepard explores is the breadth of services in the consensual sex industry. Beyond prostitution, it includes jobs based in performance like dancing in strip clubs and adult modeling, as well as sexualized takes on dining services like “breastaurants” (Hooters, for example) and bikini barista stands. In general, the women working in the bars, clubs, and bikini coffee stands of the Permian tell Shepard that the wages are good, the work is steady, and they like their bosses and coworkers. Those who have kids also appreciate that they make better money and get more time at home than they would working a traditional 9-to-5.

For the second part of her reporting trip, Shepard explores how misperceptions and stereotypes about sex work have led to policies that may harm women in the industry. Interviews with local law enforcement plus two advocates with very different visions for legal reform underline the complex realities of the sex industry, and the dangers of targeting an often misunderstood and maligned profession in order to fight trafficking. One advocate who was in the process of opening a shelter for female victims of sex trafficking in Midland favors an “end-demand” approach that treats women engaged in selling sex as victims while aggressively punishing customers. Another activist and researcher based in Alaska who’s worked in the sex industry across the country calls for the full decriminalization of consensual sex work—a “rights-based” approach that’s endorsed by organizations that work with trafficking survivors, like The Freedom Network and Polaris.

Lessons from the Past

If the historic record is any indication, measures criminalizing the sale of consensual sex have generally failed in improving the health and safety of sex workers. By historian Paula Petrik’s accounting of 1870-1900 in Helena, the gradual stigmatization and eventual criminalization of prostitution apparently led to more instances of violence, addiction, and illness among red-light women. Does that mean we should chalk up the Progressive Era laws outlawing prostitution to a failed, century-old experiment? I don’t know the answer. However, I do believe both Petrik’s snapshot of Helena over a century ago and Shepard’s reporting from modern American boomtowns show us that policies that have zeroed in on the sex industry as the source of broader cultural anxieties haven’t measurably reduced harm or snuffed out trafficking.

As my third and final totally amateur position, I would suggest that decriminalizing consensual sex work and addressing trafficking are compatible. There’s a precedent for the former–selling sex was not a crime before the late 19th century. Doing the latter, however, would require focusing on systemic inequities that the U.S. hasn’t historically shown much interest or political will to resolve. It may also require challenging our understanding of crime.

At The Friendship Center, we’re used to thinking about the many reasons our clients who’ve experienced a crime might not want to report it. Depending on their immigration status, they may fear being detained or deported. There might be a warrant for their arrest for unpaid traffic tickets. They may fear losing their source of income if they report an employer, or their housing if the perpetrator is someone they live with. They could also lose custody of their children. Any sincere effort to address a crime like trafficking must consider people’s vulnerabilities so they don’t have to live in fear of being punished for a crime when they’re reporting one that’s serious and violent.

When I first mentioned to two of my coworkers that our Windbag event made me want to learn more and maybe write about Helena’s red-light past, one of them pointed me to an opinion piece from last August. In it, former editor of The New York Times Book Review Pamela Paul essentially argues against continuing to use the term “sex work” when talking about the sale and trade of sex. I’m not personally sold on Paul’s position, and I frankly struggled reading what felt like somebody outside the sex industry using a large platform to moralize about it. However, I do think Paul got at a fundamental truth to keep in mind when we’re talking about any kind of labor—exploitative or not:

Those who enter the sex trade often do so because their choices are sorely circumscribed. Prostitutes are mostly poor and are overwhelmingly women; many of them are members of racial minorities and immigrants; many are gay, lesbian or transgender. Many, if not most, enter the trade unwillingly or when they are underage.

To the three totally amateur positions I’ve offered, I’ll add a final one that I feel pretty qualified to state: As a child of generational poverty and a firm believer that most of us are making difficult, “sorely circumscribed” decisions to navigate widening inequality, I guarantee it’s not getting easier to make a legitimate living that keeps up with the cost of living. Whatever the industry, any policy aimed at promoting safety, treating everyone with dignity, and eliminating violence needs to consider—not further criminalize—what we’re doing to survive.


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