Some Early Stages of the Chicago Fight Against Prostitution: A Symposium

Social Hygiene

When the collection of "Pioneer Experiences" published in the October, 1919, issue of SOCIAL HYGIENE was being assembled, a few highly interesting "experiences" were received whose locale was Chicago. It seemed to the editors that if this group could be rounded out by statements from other men and women who played major rôles in the great anti-vice drama which stirred the mid-western metropolis a few years ago, and whose influence was felt in public and private policy on social hygiene problems throughout the nation, a feature of unusual value to those who are following the trail blazed by these public-spirited citizens could be put together.

Here then. we present such a group of narratives. The contributors include representatives of the great liberal professions, two public health officials, two leaders of the bar and bench of Chicago, a churchman, an educator, and the head resident of a pioneer American social settlement. No special attempt has been made to divide the story into specialized reports, and perhaps for this reason, the ensemble effect is all the more striking in displaying the unanimity of experience and opinion of these leaders and in throwing illuminating sidelights upon the interrelations of the campaign. The statements speak for themselves.

Formerly Commissioner of Health of Chicago
Chief, Bureau of Medical Inspection, Chicago Department of Health

There is general recognition of the effect of the Chicago Vice Commission report on the vice and venereal disease situation in this country. That report carried unusual weight and was unusually influential

( 274) because, in addition to marshaling of facts and clear analysis, it was an official document. Some of the incidents collateral to the report are of interest because some of them were groundwork for the report and some were steps by which the report came to be effective in Chicago.

Chicago had always had one or more segregated districts since it first became a town of size. Although the state legislature and the city council had variously legislated against them, the districts persisted because the local administrative officials thought a vice district the only way to handle a difficult problem. There had been periodic agitations, but these were never effective except when some great property interests were involved and the net result in each instance was that the district vacated a territory desired by some interest, to move into a new zone.

At the time the successful agitation was begun there were two great red-light districts, one of which happened to be in the parish of Dean Walter T. Sumner, now Bishop Sumner of Oregon. The activities of Dean Sumner were perhaps the greatest single force in getting the agitation under way, though the earnest work of the Rev. E. A. Bell and Arthur B. Farwell were also a factor. On January 31, 1910, Dean Sumner read a paper on the subject before the Church Federation. A committee from the Federation called on Mayor Busse and he agreed to appoint an investigating commission. This commission was appointed March 5, 1910. On June 27, 1918, this commission was legally approved by the City Council, and July 5 an appropriation was made for it. It reported on April 5, 1911. These dates are of importance in connection with other statements made in this story.

In 1908 the health commissioner of Chicago asked the City Council to pass an ordinance requiring hospitals and dispensaries to report venereal diseases. The provision was kept in the dispensary ordinance but was eliminated from the hospital ordinance before its passage. The dispensary ordinance required a weekly reporting of consumption, typhoid fever, syphilis, and gonorrhea. The hospital ordinance provided for reporting tuberculosis, meningitis, pneumonia, "and such other diseases as may be designated by the commissioner of health." Under a compromise arrangement hospitals reported cases of venereal disease by number rather than by name. Experience taught that it was almost as easy to get venereal diseases reported as it was consumption.

In 1909 Chief of Police Stewart issued an order forbidding the sale of liquor in houses of prostitution. This order was quite well enforced. In 1910 the health commissioner endeavored unsuccessfully to have

( 275) manufacturers place preventive packets on sale in Chicago, making. use of vending machines. He succeeded in having them used by the First Illinois Cavalry.

The earliest attempt by the Department of Health to isolate a person having a venereal disease was in October, 1909. One Blanche Jones, "doing business" at 1911 Armour Avenue, was reported to the Department, by a school-teacher, as infecting school boys. The late Dr. Fred Harris, then a medical inspector in the Department of Health, was sent to make a diagnosis. He found the girl was syphilitic. Upon this report, Mr. Lewellen, a quarantine officer, was sent to post a warning card.

The card which was posted on the door at 1911 Armour Avenue had printed thereon the words "Venereal Disease Here. No One is Allowed to Enter this House." A policeman was stationed at the door to enforce this order. The Rev. E. A. Bell and the Midnight Mission held services at the door of the quarantined house. This was the first of several cases of venereal diseases examined and placed under restraint while Dr. Evans was commissioner of health. Later this woman was paroled to a doctor. With the consent of the commissioner she was allowed to go to her home outside the city, where she placed herself under the treatment of a doctor. She reported progress of treatment to the commissioner of health of Chicago while she was at home.

During 1910 a complaint was made that a woman in a certain house of prostitution had infected certain persons. The woman was apprehended and tried under the charge of disorderly conduct. By agreement she was sentenced to the House of Correction for treatment. The agreement provided that she should not be pardoned except upon petition of the health commissioner, and he agreed to petition for her pardon when she became non-infectious. This agreement was carried out.

At the October, 1910, meeting of the American Public Health Association, the control of venereal diseases, and of prostitution incidentally, was discussed in general session, the army, navy, and Public Health Service participating.

Mayor Busse, who had promised to abide by the conclusions of the Vice Commission, went out of office April 15, 1911. A committee was appointed to wait on Mayor Harrison and urge him to abide by the report. lie replied that both he and his father had been of the opinion that segregation was the best method of handling vice and that he had not changed his opinion. On July 2, 1912, the Law and Order League succeeded in getting an injunction against a house of prostitution,

( 276) enjoining not only the keepers but the owner of the property. This story is told by R. A. McMurdy, the attorney in the case. Soon after the injunction was issued, Chief Justice Harry Olson called the attention of the state's attorney to it, informing him that, it having been demonstrated that a private citizen could close a house of prostitution, the state's attorney would be subject to impeachment if he failed to act. He acted, raiding the red-light districts October 5, 1912. This story is told by Chief Justice Olson, also in this number. Soon after, Mayor Harrison announced that he had changed his mind as the result of reading Flexner's report on prostitution in Europe.

Later steps in the fight were the broadening of the scope and extent of the activities of the Committee of Fifteen, the passage of the injunction and abatement law, and the organization of the Illinois Society for Social Hygiene. In the winter and early spring of 1911, the Health Department established a venereal disease dispensary at the Iroquois Memorial Hospital. Both this activity and the reporting of venereal diseases were suspended by Health Commissioner Young. However, Dr. Young tried to get the city council to pass a new ordinance requiring the reporting of venereal diseases, but this was denied upon the reception of an informal opinion from an assistant corporation counsel to the effect that venereal diseases were not contagious. Early in the administration of Health Commissioner Robertson the reporting of venereal disease was made obligatory, the Iroquois and other venereal disease dispensaries were opened, and the Lawndale venereal disease hospital was put in operation. Laboratory testing for venereal disease was begun in 1910.

Former President, Chicago Law Institute and Illinois State Bar Association

In June, 1911, the Supreme Court of Illinois decided that a nuisance which causes a special and particular injury, distinct from that suffered by one in common with the public at large, may be abated at the suit of a private person. This was in a saloon case and established a principle new in the law of Illinois.

A year later the Chicago Law and Order League, which had been interested in the earlier decision, requested its counsel to apply the principle of that case to the suppression of a house of ill repute in the red-light district, and Philo A. Otis, the owner of property occupied by the Midnight Mission, consented that a suit might be brought in his name against the property next door occupied as such a resort and

( 277) patronized exclusively by Chinamen, the inmates of the place being seven young American girls. Attempts to close this house and the other resorts of the district had been made before through the police department, the state's attorney's office, the police courts, and otherwise.

The state of the law in that regard was fairly well established elsewhere but these were no precedents in Illinois, other than that of the saloon case. Injunctional relief had been granted in other states to private owners against such places, and it was prudent therefore, and probably necessary, to make the suit on this basis, already recognized in law.

A great deal of time was expended in laying the foundations for the proceeding so that it would be invulnerable. Accordingly the bill of indictment was supported by evidence as to sights and sounds, and, in addition the bill was supported by evidence that the place was prohibited not only by statute but by the city ordinances. Yet the chief of police had issued orders countenancing and permitting the red-light district and laying down rules under which it could be operated. Thus the futility of applying to the police department was brought to the attention of the court. Further, through the public spirit of Dr. William A. Evans, the bill was supported by evidence as to the danger from contagious communicable disease. This was the first time in this country that this phase of the question had been made use of in legal proceedings and it naturally attracted a great deal of attention, as the case itself did—to such an extent that copies of the bill were printed in order to supply the demand from all over the United States.

Plans were carefully laid so that there should be no technical defect or slip, and so carefully that the defendants put in no appearance when an application was made for a preliminary injunction, which was issued by Judge Jesse A. Baldwin of the Circuit Court of Cook County, on July 2, 1912, enjoining the keeper of the place from conducting it as a house of prostitution, and the owner from permitting it to be so conducted.

The effect was immediate and electrical. The vice lords saw at once that there was a power different from the mayor and police department and the state's attorney's office, and one that they could not control; that the courts had recognized their own power to close such places, and would do so.

As a matter of fact the panic created was out of proportion to the cause, for it would have been both difficult and expensive to procure

( 278) these injunctions in any large number. Moreover, in only comparatively few cases would the law of that day apply, since practically the adjoining property only could be brought under the rule of a nuisance on account of sights and sounds, and that property was usually lawless itself.

While the bill was in preparation, it was known to those interested that the state's attorney had evidence against 200 of these illegal resorts in the red-light district, but it was not known for what purpose this evidence had been gathered. Judge Harry Olson, the chief justice of the Municipal Court of Chicago, then called the state's attorney before him and first pleaded with him to use the evidence for the benefit of the public that he might go out of office with some kind of a monument to himself; then he suggested that if he did not act in that regard, the Law and Order League would apply to the Supreme Court to take away his license as a lawyer because of his failure to do his duty as a member of the bar under the obligations of his office.

Under these conditions the state's attorney set a police officer in front of each' of the lawless places, to discourage the patrons. The sale of intoxicating liquor had already been prohibited in these places, which of itself rendered their operation unprofitable, and this added burden drove them out of business.

At the same time the mayor appointed the Vice Commission, whose members were, on the whole, not unfavorable to a segregated district, for the purpose of investigating vice conditions. The commission sat with closed doors at first. Public-spirited citizens and organizations of the city came forward with a mass of unimpeachable testimony, medical and otherwise. By this time the citizens were thoroughly informed, and public sentiment demanded the continued abandonment of the red-light district, and it has ever since remained closed.

Thereafter the injunction and abatement act was passed, under which any citizen in Illinois may bring a bill- for injunction against any house of ill repute without proving the nuisance by sights and sounds, and may prove the character of the place by its reputation and that of the inmates; this has been a powerful agent in preventing the reestablishment of the red-light district, as well as an efficacious measure in preventing sporadic nuisances of this character.

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Chief Justice, Municipal Court of Chicago

Prior to my appointment as a member of the Chicago Vice Commission, I had been an assistant state's attorney and trial lawyer in the Criminal Court of Cook County, Illinois, for a period of ten years. I had formed the opinion that nearly fifty per cent of the public prostitutes were feeble-minded, and I believed that nearly all of them spread infectious diseases. I was therefore of the opinion that the idea of their being segregated and protected in a so-called "red-light district," as a part of the established policy of any American city, was unthinkable. I looked over the list of appointees of Mayor Busse and made up my mind from the character of the persons he named upon the Vice Commission that, whatever their views might have been before they looked into the subject, after they had done so they would come to the inevitable conclusion that the red-light district must be abolished, and would so report to the mayor. For this reason I accepted appointment on the Commission and became a member of the executive committee.

The investigation of the Commission only confirmed the opinion I had formed as an assistant state's attorney. The Vice Commission made a significant report, prepared by the chairman, Dean Sumner. I read the proof in order to guard the Commission from libelous matter. At that time I suggested that sufficient stress was not laid in the opening paragraph of the report on the danger from diseases incident to the traffic. The clauses in the first paragraph of the report were inserted. Afterward in the press of the country the disease features attracted wide public comment.

There was a serious omission in the report of the Vice Commission in that there was no reference to the mental status 6f prostitutes, due to the fact that there were no alienists on the Commission, and there was therefore no extensive investigation into the mental status of prostitutes. Since the report of the Vice Commission was published, the Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago has been created. It has now made a report on 4460 cases. This report indicates that the percentage of defectives among public prostitutes is very great, fully eighty per cent.

The Morals Branch of the Municipal Court was created at the suggestion of the Vice Commission. This court has been in operation ever since. The Commission appointed by the mayor as a result of the recommendation of the Vice Commission has never done any constructive work that has attracted much attention. The Morals Court acts as a

( 280) clearing house, since all cases in violation of public morals are brought to this one court in a city of 2,500,000 people. In this way those interested in the suppression of vice are able to know what the authorities are doing, how they are doing it, what they are not doing, and can observe results in general.

This policy of prevention will safeguard the coming generation. It will require a decade generally to establish and finance this new order of things. In the meantime, before we can get results from such a policy of prevention, what shall be done to meet the awful situation? I recommend the following measures:

1. The mentally, morally, and physically diseased prostitutes, both male and female, must be segregated, not for purposes of commercialization, but for purposes of sanitation. To preserve the integrity of the race, our generation must at once resort to the most drastic measures. Legislation should provide for the care and custody of these human derelicts. They should be isolated in farm colonies, the sexes in separate institutions. When committed by the court the sentences should be indeterminate.

2. The renting of property fur immoral purposes, with knowledge, should be made a felony. Owners or agents who thus use their property are enemies of the race.

3. The operating of such houses should also be made a felony. Individuals so engaged jeopardize the future of the race.

4. The laws directed against the social evil should be enforced by the public officials who have taken an oath of office to do so.

5. There should be municipal control, with close supervision of all places of public amusement, and the number of these should be multiplied..

6. There should be publicity of facts concerning the social evil, and dissemination of knowledge pertaining to social diseases, sanitation, and standards of living.

7. Courses of study in biology should be introduced in colleges and training schools for teachers. These courses should include methods of presenting to children facts pertaining to the origin of life.

The time has come when society must employ scientific means to learn the causes behind the conditions it is seeking to improve, and the intelligence of modern business methods in financing the remedies indicated.

The coming of women into a larger participation in public life is a distinct aid ín the campaign. They will demand higher ideals of the candidates for public office, higher standards of conduct in office, and more efficient service.

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Bishop of Oregon, Protestant Episcopal Church
Chairman of the Chicago Vice Commission

Chicago, unquestionably, should have the credit for pioneer work in studying and attempting to solve the question of commercialized vice. While other communities have approached the problem through volunteer agencies, Chicago was the first municipality to approach it officially and finance the work with city funds.

Fred A. Busse, mayor of Chicago,who maintained a sympathetic attitude toward social welfare, early in the year of 1910 agreed to appoint a commission when authorized to do so by ordinance of the City Council. As he said:

I am sure that we have men and women among us who can help us to find a slow and partial solution for these questions, pending perfection in the men and women who make imp society. We will welcome such help. I am sure that all over the world governments will welcome the results of these deliberations. I therefore respectfully appoint the following as a commission on the problems of vice, requesting them to deliberate on the question and to present the results of their deliberations for the consideration of this community and the guidance of those charged with administration of the municipal government.

The Commission, consisting of twenty-eight men and two women, was appointed by the mayor, and the appointment ratified by the City Council. Ten thousand dollars was appropriated by the City Council and nearly $10,000 more was contributed from private sources. This represented the expenditure of the Commission. Its report is too well known to require any extended notice here. Not only did this report and the education wrought by the Commission bring about a revolution in commercialized vice in Chicago, but something like fifty other vice commissions have since sprung into existence and by their sound constructive work, patterned after that of the Chicago Vice Commission, have extended that revolution to all parts of the country.

One of the most interesting things in connection with the whole plan of municipal commissions was the manner in which the idea came about. Living in the heart of the old West Side levee district for many years, I was forced to note the degeneracy, violence, exploitation, and debauchery that went on to an appalling extent. The one thing that stood out most prominently was the hopelessness of continuing under such condition. There were many experts in Chicago who could speak with authority the final words in handling the various problems looking to the suppression of certain phases of commercialized vice. There was

( 282) no one, however, who was familiar with the problem in its entirety. The idea suggested itself that if these various experts could be brought together to merge their highly specialized knowledge, some sort of a solution might be found. No one believed, or believes now, that there is any one solution to the problem of commercialized vice. We can only approximate its solution at best. That much, however, is a tremendous gain in itself.

I advanced the idea of a commission before the head residents of the social settlements in Chicago at a dinner at Hull House given by Jane Addams, and the matter was sympathetically and thoroughly discussed by those present. The consensus of opinion seemed to be, however, that the social settlement group was not the one to request the mayor to appoint such a commission. There the matter rested for some time until the Church Federation, consisting of the clergy representing some 600 congregations, requested me to read a paper on the subject of commercialized vice. At the conclusion of the paper, I presented the resolution asking the mayor to appoint such a committee. The resolution was unanimously adopted, a committee from the Federation called upon the Mayor, and he appointed the commission.

After the presentation of the Chicago Vice Commission Report, the then mayor and City Council, not satisfied with its findings and recommendations, appointed two other committees, one of which went abroad to study conditions there. The reports of these two committees virtually substantiated the findings and recommendations of the Vice Commission. The result has been that the Chicago red-light districts have been wiped out and the flagrant conditions of former years are no more.

For many years I have maintained that whenever the American public is enlightened on a moral issue, it will act positively and constructively on that issue. The vice commissions of the country have done a stupendous amount of education. Wherever communities have become enlightened, their citizens have without exception discouraged the old and immoral theory of "recognition and regulation" and have adopted the now well-known slogan of the first Vice Commission, that of Chicago—"Continued and persistent repression of prostitution the immediate method; absolute annihilation the ultimate ideal."

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Head Resident, Hull House, Chicago

My original interest in the problem arose through my experience at Hull House, where I saw the untoward things which happened to young girls and boys. I believe the first article I ever wrote was one for the Ladies' Home Journal, entitled "Why Young Girls Go Wrong." From that time on I collected material for my book, A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil.

Since that time much of the Hull House activity along that line has been taken over by the Chicago Juvenile Protective Association.

Former President, Northwestern University

Until I was invited to become a member of the Chicago Vice Commission I had given almost no attention to the problems it was created to study. The commission was appointed by the mayor, approved by the City Council, and thus its members were officers of the city government. My invitation to become a member was brought me by Dr. Evans, head of the department of health. I asked him whether the Commission would be so made up that it would courageously accept the conclusions that grew out of its investigations, without concessions to preconceived opinions, whatever those opinions might be. It was my feeling that I ought not to undertake investigation with a group of men who either had already decided where the investigation ought to lead, or who might be afraid to announce their conclusions when reached. I was not at all sure that study might not bring us to conclusions that the "best people would not approve. I was assured of the purpose to make and to report a searching and courageous study. The outcome justified this reply.

The Commission, made up of twenty-eight men and two women, included the chief justice of the Municipal Court, the United States district attorney, the judge of the Juvenile Court, the commissioner of health, Protestant ministers, Roman Catholic priests, a Jewish rabbi, college professors, business men, physicians, lawyers, and a representative of the Federation of Women's Clubs, and the head of a woman's hospital.

After my appointment I talked the general problem over with men whose judgment I respected—men of the highest standing in community and church. They were in substantial agreement with the opinion that

( 284) the only thing to be done in the matter of public prostitution was to segregate it, to keep it shut off and out of sight, and perhaps to control its evils—physical and moral—at least in some degree by a measure of regulation. They agreed that regulation, if put into operation, would shock public sentiment. So far as I know, the thirty members of the commission were very generally in accord with these opinions. As study and investigation progressed, we became more and more convinced that segregation was not a solution. We came to the end of our study unanimously against segregation; and reported that "constant and persistent repression of prostitution" was the immediate method of solution, and "absolute annihilation the ultimate ideal." Doubtless we did not expect that absolute annihilation of commercial prostitution would be attained, but did profoundly believe that nothing less ought to be accepted as an aim. Nothing more significant happened in all our work than this change; having started the investigation with a conviction amounting almost to a certainty as to the proper method of handling the problem, we came to a conclusion quite different. The old solution was simply that of the physician who, seeing no cure for his patient, isolates him so as to prevent the carriage of the disease. Segregation is no remedy but tends to interfere with progress toward a cure; does indeed magnify the evil and increase difficulties.

Having completed its work, the Vice Commission reported its conclusions.[1] These did not meet with general favor. One writer, in an article on unsound thinking, took the recommendation of the Vice Commission as a text and illustration. Yet after a few years the attitude of the commission is very generally approved.

This change of opinion and the resulting program constitute the important contribution the Chicago Vice Commission made. The acceptance of the conclusion by the public, introducing as it did a constructive policy of hope, is a result unique in public policy.


  1. Copies of this report—a bound volume of 400 pages—are still available for the use of serious students of social hygiene, although it is not desired to have them in general circulation. The American Social Hygiene Association is willing to present a copy to any qualified reader who will apply on his professional letterhead and send 25c to cover the cost of mailing.

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