Escape from a Bordello

Escape from a Bordello

Mrs. Fay Buck, a woman well known in the Tenderloin, was arrested in Sacramento yesterday on a warrant sworn out by Mrs. Rose Decker of 236 Mason street, charging her with grand larceny. Mrs. Buck formerly lived with Mrs. Decker, and it is alleged that she got into her landlady’s wardrobe one day, got all her finery and then went to Sacramento.

San Francisco Chronicle, November 26, 1904

Fay Buck was in big trouble, arrested for stealing clothing and furs valued at $540 (more than $15,000 in 2018). Despite the dire circumstances she found herself in Fay obviously took the time to style her hair. The updo she sported in her mugshot is nothing short of magnificent.

If you’re wondering why Rose Decker, Fay’s “landlady,” had such valuable clothes, the answer is because she was a madam who ran a “sporting house” in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Dressing well would have been a necessity of the job.

Fay testified that she’d arrived in San Francisco without money or friends and had been enticed into a “house of ill-repute.” She said she’d stolen the clothes in order to turn them into cash and escape from a “life of shame.”

Stealing nice clothes was a practice Fay might have learned from Rose. A few months before Fay absconded with Rose’s clothes, Rose herself stole a trunk full of the belongings of Nellie Bennett, one of the working girls in her house. Nellie was late on her rent to the tune of $110 (over $3000 in 2018) so Rose figured she’d help herself to the trunk, which contained clothing and photographs of Nellie’s admirers. Nellie agreed to drop the charges and give the clothes up as long as the photos were returned to her.

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William P. Lawlor, California Supreme Court Historical Society

Fay wasn’t so lucky. Rose pursued the charges and Fay was convicted of grand larceny. When she appeared before Judge William P. Lawlor for sentencing, in February 1905, she begged for probation. In support of her plea she presented a letter that her husband, J. Douglass Bucke, had written to the court from his home in Butte, Montana.

Douglass wrote that Fay had always been of good character. He took responsibility for her plight, writing that he should have met her at the dock when she landed in San Francisco. Evidently the plan had been for Fay to travel on her own from her home in Washington State via San Francisco to Montana. How she could do that without funds was an unanswered question. Douglass claimed he was “unable to appear in person to plead for one whom I love and who is alone in the world with the exception of myself.”

Judge Lawlor wanted to hear from Douglass in person so he postponed Fay’s sentencing for a month. The month went by and Douglass wrote again, saying he was now sick in the hospital and couldn’t travel.

Matilda Christ photo. Fay Buck. - Newspapers.com

Prison Matron Matilda Christ

A few more weeks went by and still no Douglass. Tired of waiting for him to show up, Judge Lawlor placed Fay on probation in the care of Matilda Christ, a matron at the San Francisco City Prison. Matilda agreed to be Fay’s guardian and to provide a “good home” in the house she shared with her sister’s family. The deal was that Fay would be paid $10 a month to take care of Matilda’s young niece.

Six weeks later Fay absconded to Seattle. Matilda accused Fay of stealing two of her rings and some of her clothes and underwear. Judge Lawlor put out a bench warrant for Fay. She was arrested in July 1905 and hauled back into court.

Instead of the nanny job she’d been promised, Fay told the judge that Matilda had forced her to work as a waitress in a restaurant. According to Fay, Matilda also made her turn over much of her salary to pay for her room and to pay back a loan she made to Fay for clothing purchases.

After a few weeks of long, tiring days at the restaurant Fay claimed that Matilda came up with an alternative. She suggested that she could rent a flat for Fay to “solicit men” for sex and they’d share in the profits!

Disgusted by the idea and unwilling to return to that life, Fay ran away from Matilda’s home.

Matilda was “white with rage” when she heard the story Fay told the judge and strongly denied it. However she admitted that Fay hadn’t stolen anything from her — she’d found the items in her house and “forgot” to tell the court about it.

Judge Lawlor found no hard evidence of the bordello scheme — it was the word of one woman against the other. However he gave Matilda a “severe censure” for not telling the court she’d been mistaken about Fay stealing from her. She was forced to resign from her job as prison matron.

Fay admitted during one of her many court hearings that she wasn’t actually married to Douglass Bucke.

Judge Lawlor said he “didn’t believe Fay was of the criminal class” and released her on probation into the custody of the Mother Superior of St. Catherine’s Home for wayward girls. She later married Douglass but filed for divorce from him on the grounds of desertion in July 1907.

St. Catherine's home

St. Catherine’s Home in 1925, Online Archive of California

Judge Lawlor was promoted to associate justice of the California Supreme Court in 1915. He held the position until his death in 1926.

Rose Decker continued to have run-ins with the San Francisco Police throughout the first decade of the 20th century. The Hotel Nikko San Francisco now stands where her bordello was located in 1904.

Featured photo: Fay Buck, December 10, 1904, Bureau of Identification, San Francisco Police Department. Collection of the author.

The White Slavers

The White Slavers

HELD AS A WHITE SLAVER

Jacob Ginsberg, aged 22 years, living at 699 Park Avenue, this borough, was held to-day in $3,000 bail by magistrate O’Connor, in the Essex Market Court, Manhattan, for the alleged abduction of Esther Perlmutter, aged 16 years, of 308 East Third street, Manhattan.

— The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 30, 1909

Herman Perlmutter lived with his wife, Celia, and their seven children in an overcrowded tenement in Manhattan’s East Village. Herman and Celia were Jewish immgrants to the United States from Hungary. Herman spoke both Yiddish and English and worked as a buttonhole maker. He was one of thousands of immigrants in turn of the century New York City who worked for low pay in the garment industry.

The problem was Esther, the Perlmutters 16-year-old daughter. A middle child of the seven, she refused to get a job in a factory as the older children in the family had done. With nine mouths to feed, the Perlmutters desperately needed the income. But for Esther, life was too short to spend 11-12 hours a day slaving away behind a sewing machine.

Instead the diminutive girl took up with a ne’re-do-well from Brooklyn named Jacob Ginsberg. Twenty-two-year-old Jacob spent his days in his brother’s poolroom at 25 Avenue B, in the red light district on the eastern edge of the lower Manhattan. Esther informed her father that she lied about her age so she and Jacob could get married without his permission. She moved out of her family’s tenement and into a room on East Fourth Street with Jacob.

The Perlmutters were devastated that their daughter had married a man without a job who hung out in an Alphabet City poolroom. Complete disaster hit when Herman discovered that there was no marriage — Esther and Jacob were living together in sin. Even worse, he found that Esther supported herself and her no-good partner by selling her body — Esther worked as a prostitute.

White Slaver

Illustration from Fighting the traffic in young girls; or, War on the white slave trade by Ernest Albert Bell, 1910.

In a desperate attempt to save his child, Herman reported to the magistrate at the Essex Market Court that Jacob had abducted his daughter. The magistrate held Esther under $500 bail as “an incorrigible child.” Jacob was held under $3000 bail as a “white slaver.”

Slavery of black people by whites is a shameful part of the history of the United States, but what the heck was a “white slaver?”

By the end of the nineteenth century Americans had grown less tolerant of prostitution than in earlier times. Vice commissions in big cities were appointed to investigate whether women were engaged in prostitution of their own free will or whether unscrupulous men (foreigners and African-Americans were high on the suspect list) tricked or forced them into the work. Public concern was, of course, limited to white women and girls. Politicians and social reformers referred to this phenomenon as “white slavery” and the men who participated in it as “white slavers.” Men convicted of being white slavers often got hefty prison sentences.

Esther turned 17 in December 1909. This made her an adult in the eyes of the law. She and Jacob scraped together enough money to pay their bond and were released from jail. The pair got married on January 3, 1910, and rented a flat uptown on West 66th Street. The marriage got the law off the couple’s backs and the move put distance between Esther and her family. If it was Esther’s choice to work as a prostitute, Jacob couldn’t be convicted of white slavery. That’s not to say prostitution was legal, but it was a petty crime that generally resulted in only a fine in the magistrate’s court.

The Ginsbergs took a business partner — a 19-year-old named Louis Seidman. Seidman’s cover story was that he worked as a newsboy, but instead of selling newspapers, he and Jacob hung out on the streets of lower Manhattan in search of teenage girls. When they found a good “prospect” they took her to the uptown flat, where Esther tried to convince her to work for them as a prostitute.

Louis brought Rose Kripitzer, aged 15, and 14-year-old Augusta Schaller to the flat on Sunday, May 22, 1910. “You’ll earn between $5 and $10 a night instead of the $3 a week you earn working at a factory,” Esther told the girls. What she said was true. Though workers had started to unionize and demand better wages and hours, pay was still quite low and working conditions in the factories were deplorable, particularly for women and children.

Rose and Augusta’s parents didn’t know where they were so they reported them as missing. Augusta returned home on Wednesday night. She told her parents about how Louis lured her and Rose to the flat with promises of a better job. After they got to the flat Esther promised they would make good money “receiving visitors” there.

Esther Ginsberg_back

Reverse side of Esther’s card.

The Schallers told the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children about Augusta’s experiences with the Ginsbergs and Louis. An agent from the society investigated the goings-on at the flat and arrested Esther and Jacob. Louis was arrested when he showed up in court as a witness for the couple at their arraignment. All three were convicted of “impairing the morals” of Rose and Augusta. Jacob and Louis were sentenced to a year each in the penitentiary.

Esther “was remanded for further investigation” by the court but there’s no evidence she was ever sent to prison. Her mugshots and measurements were taken by the police, who noted that she wore a wig. Possibly she wore it as a disguise, but it’s more likely that Esther, as a married woman from an Orthodox Jewish family, followed the tradition of wearing a Sheitel.

Esther suffered from a serious heart defect called patent ductus arteriosus — a blood vessel in her heart that should have closed shortly after she was born had instead remained open. There was no treatment for it at the time. She would have had symptoms all her life, including shortness of breath and fatigue, because her heart had to work much harder than normal. She died at age 20 of complications arising from her condition. She must have known from a young age that she wouldn’t live to be an old woman.

Jacob and Louis were impossible to trace with certainty, due to their common names, after they were sentenced to the penitentiary in 1910.

If they were alive today Esther and Jacob wouldn’t recognize their old East Village neighborhood. The gritty slums where they sought out poor, young girls to work as prostitutes have increasingly given way to high-priced apartments, trendy shops, expensive restaurants and nightclubs. Jacob’s hangout, the poolroom at 25 Avenue B, is now a “speakeasy” called the Mockingbird. Located beneath a restaurant, the club doesn’t advertise on the outside other than to suggest you “look for the silhouette on the door in the underbelly of New York’s indelible East Village.”

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Esther Ginsberg, June 1, 1910, New York Municipal Archives.

The Disorderly House

The Disorderly House

BALDWINSVILLE, April 1. —Chief of Police Cornelius, Deputy Sheriff John H. Russell and Special Officers Delbert Simpson and Clinton Farmer raided a house on Marble street to-night and arrested eight persons, as follows: Edward Craver and Rosanna Zimmers, who are charged with keeping a disorderly house; George Willet, Henrietta Willet, Christine Dickey, William Dennison, Christine Simmons and Charlie Zimmers, who are charged with being inmates.

 

They will be arraigned at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning before Police Justice Wright.

 

Five children ranging in age from 1 year to 11 were found in the place and were taken in charge by an agent of the S.P.C.C. of Syracuse.

The Post-Standard, Syracuse, New York, April 2, 1907

The legal definition of a disorderly house is “a place where acts prohibited by statute are habitually indulged in or permitted.” In layman’s terms, “disorderly house” is an outdated euphemism for a brothel.

An inmate of a disorderly house in early 20th century in America was someone who was poor and filled with desperation. Growing up in such a place would be a really tough row to hoe.

Christine Simmons, her shoulders slumped in resignation, her cheek bearing a small scar and her lip, a healing scab, was photographed after her 1907 arrest at a disorderly house on Marble Street in Baldwinsville, a village on the Seneca River northwest of Syracuse, New York. The raid on the house was carried out by four officers, including the police chief, so there must have been complaints about the house from people with power.

Prison bookThe legal system wasted no time in dispatching Christine to her fate — four months in prison. She and her housemate, Christine Dickey, were sent to the Onondaga County Penitentiary in Jamesville, New York, the day after their arrests, as was Edward Craver, the man who ran the house. Christine was given the option of paying a $25 fine (about $650 in 2017 dollars) to avoid going to the penitentiary, however a fine of that size was beyond her means.

Oldpen01

Onondaga County Penitentiary, circa 1937.

Christine’s mugshot photos are on a large glass negative held in a tattered sleeve bearing only her name. Recognizing that her photos had similarities to photos on other prison cards from New York state around 1900, I checked newspapers and discovered the story about Christine’s arrest at the disorderly house. I found the record of her prison sentence in the Governor’s Registers of Commitments to Prisons, 1842–1908 at Ancestry.com.

I wasn’t able locate Christine in records or newspapers after she was sent to prison in 1907. I don’t know when she was born or where or anything about her life later on. Her bleak face, captured more than a century ago in the emulsion on fragile glass is all that remains. It speaks volumes.

Note: Christine’s name is written on the back of the plate and the writing is bleeding through slightly to the front.

Featured photo: Christine Simmons, corrected digital file from a glass plate negative. Collection of the author.