Bunker Hill and the Crib Wars

They called it the red light district, the tenderloin, Little Paree, Hell’s Half Acre, and my favorite, the crib district.

From the late 1800s until the turn of the century, prostitution in Los Angeles was more or less legal, and centered in a district that included Alameda, New High, Main, and a few other streets in the area east of Bunker Hill.  Most of the classier parlor houses that catered to wealthy and well-connected Angelenos were located on New High Street, including the one belonging to Los Angeles’s first storied madam, Pearl Morton.  The brothels on Main Street were more modest, mostly rooming houses.

cribsHowever, the most notorious eyesores were the single-story, ramshackle cribs on Alameda, long rows of narrow rooms that prostitutes could rent by the night, at exorbitant rates, designated here on the Sanborn maps as "female boarding."  The Alameda cribs were visible from the nearby Southern Pacific line, and rail passengers on their way to Los Angeles would gawk out the windows at prostitutes soliciting business from the sidewalks.

The prevailing line of thought among civil leaders and Los Angeles’s many, many police chiefs during this period was that prostitution was a social evil that could not be eradicated, but could be contained and regulated.  Better to have vice located within a few city blocks rather than scattered throughout the city where it would be impossible to police.

Los Angeles residents, however, felt differently about it.  In a June 1895 article, the Times reported that Police Chief John Glass had received numerous complaints from Bunker Hill residents complaining of the crib district’s proximity to their tony neighborhood.

And since the prostitutes were making fairly good money, and since crib living was both expensive and unpleasant, many prostitutes managed to pay the rent on their cribs and also rented lodging in nearby Bunker Hill hotels and rooming houses.

Due to its proximity, Bunker Hill would serve as a staging ground for the movement in the early 1900s to clear out the crib district.  The social purity crusaders included the Reverends Wiley J. Phillips and Sidney Kendall, as well as Friday Morning Club founder Caroline Severance.

In 1903, about 200 Angelenos met at the First Congregational Church at Hill and Third to discuss building a halfway house for prostitutes who wished to reform.  The facility, called the Door of Hope, opened on Daly Street in East Los Angeles later that year, around the same time that the movement was successful in getting the Alameda Street cribs shut down.

That mission accomplished, the social purity crusaders turned their attention to the parlor houses, a tougher nut to crack, partly because they kept a lower profile, and partly because they counted no small number of politicians, attorneys, and other civic leaders among their clientele.

The crusaders put these houses, including Morton’s at 327 1/2 New High Street, the Antlers Club, Stella Mitchell’s, and Viola’s Place, under surveillance, and pestered the Mayor and Police Commission until finally winning a small victory.  At the end of March 1904, the parlor houses would be shuttered.  Almost all of them went along with the ordinance, and the Times reported that "the keepers of dives did not wait for the police to call, but quietly folded their tents and departed."

All but one.  All but one that had been operating right on Bunker Hill, not a block away from the First Congregational Church.

parlorhouseOn March 31, 1904, police raided an establishment at 355 South Hill Street, operated by Ethel Wood.  She was arrested along with three women, Mabel Stone, Dolly Long, and Hattie Jones.  The  four appeared in court the next day, all wearing long black veils to frustrate the looky-loos.

Wood was fined $100 for selling beer without a license, and the three women were "vagged," or charged with vagrancy, the usual charge for prostitutes until the charge of "offering" came into use in the 1920s.

After the raid, the other parlor houses reopened quietly, and would remain open for another four years.  Pearl Morton, famed for her lavish parlor with two Steinway pianos, as well as her hourglass figure, flamboyant style, and hennaed hair, would be shut down in 1908, and move north to re-establish her operation in San Francisco.

The last quasi-legal parlor houses would close down in 1909, in tandem with the recall and subsequent resignation of Mayor Arthur Harper, a frequent brothel client.

And after that, prostitution did exactly what city leaders in favor of a containment strategy had predicted all along.  It scattered throughout the city and into residential neighborhoods, before falling under the jurisdiction of organized crime in the 1920s.

A Red Light Raid: 317 S. Flower St

May 22, 1919
317 S. Flower Street, Saratoga Hotel
saratogahotelA building permit for a 3-story brick lodging house that would become the Saratoga Hotel was issued to W.W. Paden and Louis Nordlinger in the summer of 1914. A year later, the hotel was offered for sale, exchange, or lease, offering "long lease, good furniture, and cheap rent."

By 1919, the hotel had already acquired something of a reputation, and was home to many show business types. On May 22, A.W. Gifford, head of the City’s Purity Squad led a raid on the hotel and arrested 32 people on charges of living in a house of prostitution. Members of the Purity Squad had taken rooms at the Saratoga during the week prior to the raid, and gathered evidence during that time.

Police tore apart the Saratoga’s 200 rooms, confiscated hundreds of bottles of liquor and beer, and questioned all occupants. Anyone who could not prove steady employment, and any man and woman found together in the same room without a marriage license were taken to City Jail.

Many of those arrested said they worked in the movies as extras, but police determined that "extra work is not considered real work."

The next day, however, 22 of those arrested were released without charges. The owner of the hotel, Charles H. Price of Monrovia, assumed responsibility, and promised to install a new building manager in an agreement forged with City Prosecutor Widney. Widney explained away the releases, claiming that the raids were staged merely "to break up certain conditions believed to exist."

So, it wasn’t a whorehouse… but it might have turned into one if left unchecked. Thanks Purity Squad!

An angry letter to the editor followed on the heels of the raid, signed only "Justice." It read:

"How is a stranger, a girl alone in a strange city, for instance, to know positively that she is in a respectable neighborhood or house? She may have places recommended by the YMCA, the YWCA, the Bible Institute, and yet find herself in an undesirable location. Nobody can be certain.

What do you think of five men in civilian clothes with no badges or authority — or, at least none visible — bursting into the room of a girl at an unseemly hour, insulting her, accusing her of crime, when she knows absolutely nothing of the reason for such an assault… Do you think five ruffians like that, cowards, would do so if a man were in the room with a gun? Hardly."

Dome Denizen Smith

July 14, 1949

Grace E. Smith made the Dome her home. From there she made the trek to work down to the Belmont Grill. It‘s 1949. She‘s a B-girl.


Vice has been coming down on prosties of late and joints like the Belmont that run B-girl operations are a thorn in the side of decent society. The racket is simple: the gals chat up the fellas, and as a gal mingles with the patrons she induces them to buy more drinks. Her bourbons are colored water or ice tea; she gets a commission of those sales. And if she takes off with her new friend, we‘ll call him, oh, John, the tavern owner gets a cut of her earnings. Repeat.

After a while Vice gets tired of dealing with pimp beat downs, or customers given the mick finn, so it‘s time to round up the ladies. Grace E. Smith, 28, won‘t get to go home to her little room at the Dome tonight, popped as she was at the Belmont for violating the municipal B-girl ordinance. Tomorrow morning she‘ll be out on $100 bail.


Grace’s boss Nathan Bass, owner of the Belmont, has been supbeanoed to testify before the county grand jury in its current vice inquiry into the Brenda Allen police pay-off probe. (Bass had been in the news last month when he, as a pal of LAPD Lieutenant Wellpott, had wiretaps of his phone calls played at the PD/Allen vice hearings.) Bass went on to testify that famously dirty Sgts. Stoker and Jackson would meet in the Belmont.

The next mention of Grace E. Smith–one wonders if it’s she and the same–is in 1953: a Lena S. Reed, 72, was to leave her $8,000 estate ($61,857 USD 2007) to her family but just before her demise opted to bequeath it to Mrs. Edna W. “Mail Fraud” Ballard (aka St. Germain, aka Joan of Arc, aka Lotus Ray King), cofounder of the I AM religious movement. A judge blocked probate when the family filed contest, accusing Mrs. Ballard of “exerting undue influence on Mrs. Reed while she was in ill health and mentally disturbed.” The same accusations were made against the secretary of the organization‘s St. Germain Foundation, and executor of the will, one Grace E. Smith.

No mention as to whether this Grace E. Smith lived in the Dome.