Lena’s Scarlet Letter

Lena’s Scarlet Letter

A young woman going by the name of Lena Duarte was sent to prison on Halloween day in 1901. Her crime? Sending an “obscene letter” via the US mail to her friend Mabel Smith when she was in Fresno. This was a felony and Lena’s conviction earned her a sentence of six months in San Quentin.

According to The Los Angeles Times, Mabel and some friends went to visit Lena one evening, but Lena was not in the mood for visitors. When Lena wouldn’t let them in, Mabel kicked down the door and a fight ensued between the women.

Lena, described by the newspaper as a “Mexican señorita of no reputation at all,” reported the incident to the police. Mabel retaliated by handing over Lena’s letter, which allegedly was full of “the vilest parlance of the tenderloin.”

Naturally the press didn’t publish the contents of the letter, other than to state that it opened “My Dear, loving Mabel.” However The Times implied the argument was a lover’s spat, stating that the letter was “all affection, but the language was something awful. It was written a month ago, and the green monster, jealousy, must have cut their love in two since them.”

Evidently sex workers weren’t allowed to express love for others, particularly for each other.

Lena lived and worked at a brothel located at 219½ Ferguson Alley in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. Two months before the argument with Mabel, she and two friends, Belle Landers and Nestor Levy, had been charged with disorderly conduct after being arrested while engaging in “conduct declared to be indecent, and in language that was boisterous and disturbing.” For this each woman was fined $14 by the court (approximately $435 in today’s dollars). The choice was pay up or sit in jail. Lena paid up.

Alameda_and_Ferguson_Alley_Chinatown

Alameda and Ferguson Alley in Los Angeles Chinatown, circa 1920. Los Angeles Public Library

When the federal census was taken in June 1900, Lena did not live at 219½ Ferguson Alley. But two young women engaged in the sex trade did: Josie Cove, who was born in Japan, and Alice Gros, a native of France. Lena’s friend, Mrs. Nestor Levy, who was also a sex worker, lived around the corner on North Alameda. It’s likely that all of these women’s names, including Lena’s, were aliases.

Mabel joined her pal Lena at the prison a week later, after she too was convicted of sending obscene letters through the mail. Mabel’s mug shot and prison record have not survived. Nor has Ferguson Alley. It was demolished in the 1930s to make way for Highway 101.

If you have an interest in knowing more about the lives of sex workers during the early 20th century, I highly recommend Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute.

Featured photo: San Quentin State Prison, Inmate Photographs and Mug Books. California State Archives.

Portrait of a Drug Dealer

Portrait of a Drug Dealer

The first hint of trouble came when Elmer Tuttle deserted from the army. He’d enlisted in his home state of New York for a three-year stretch on September 14, 1901. He made it through just over a year and a half, deserting on April 2, 1902. Captured six months later, he was dishonorably discharged.

Four years later, while working as a bartender at the Lehigh Valley Hotel, he stole $65 from his employer, William Edwards. William had grown to trust “Bob” as Elmer was then known, and left him in charge for a few days while he went to the races in Ithaca. When he returned, both “Bob” and the cash from the previous three days’ sales had disappeared.

At his trial it came out that “Bob” had worked with a female accomplice who had posed as Edwards’ wife and she was the person who’d actually made off with the money. This made it problematic to prove the charge of grand larceny against him. Along with the fact that Elmer had a wife and baby at home, the court decided to let him to plead guilty to petty larceny. He served just a few months in jail.

jamesville pen

By April 1910 he’d been convicted of burglary and was housed in the Onondaga County Penitentiary in Jamesville, courtesy of the taxpayers of the State of New York. Now 30 years old, Elmer was listed on the federal census as being on his second marriage. Perhaps as a joke he told the census taker that his father, William, was born in France. In reality William Tuttle was a native New Yorker who was born in the tiny village of Walton and traced his ancestry back to the American Revolution.

Soon Elmer was on the loose again. He left his calling card (literally) in a ball of discarded clothing after robbing some much nicer clothes than those he’d been wearing from the lakeside cottage of H.C. Raymond in Penn Yan, New York. He was never arrested for this crime.

A few years later Elmer moved to Binghampton with his wife, Gertrude Bertha Rowley. What happened to his previous wife and his child is anyone’s guess. Gertrude’s father, Daniel, was a Civil War veteran who’d served honorably as a private in the 86th NY Infantry — the storied “Steuben Rangers.” Dan had seen action at many of the prominent battles of the war. What he thought of his daughter marrying an ex-con who’d been dishonorably discharged is not hard to fathom.

Elmer was arrested for selling morphine and heroin and was given a one-year stint, again in the prison at Onondaga, in 1914. While he was in prison (and possibly earlier) Gertrude was turning tricks for a living. She was arrested on November 6, 1914 for robbing a customer of a large roll of cash. The police believed the man might have been drugged before he was robbed. Gertrude was allowed to plead guilty to public intoxication and sentenced to 59 days in jail.

Elmer Tuttle_back

When he got out of prison, Elmer went back to selling drugs. According to the information on the back of his photo, by March 1915 he’d been convicted again and was serving time in Auburn Prison. His photo doesn’t look like a mugshot, so evidently the police confiscated a studio portrait he’d had taken, made some notes on the back and kept it for reference.

Around the time Elmer was incarcerated at Auburn, Gertrude was arrested for stealing a watch and chain from a “Mr. Moore” — likely a client — at a boarding house. The following year she got a six-month sentence at the Onondaga Penitentiary for vagrancy after she was arrested while working as a prostitute at a disorderly house in Binghamton. Later that same year she was jailed for six months for robbing one of her clients in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The fact that Gertrude often robbed her clients is an indication that she may have been addicted to drugs and needed more money than she could earn by sex work alone.

Given his life style and incarcerations, it will come as no surprise that Elmer didn’t live to be an old man. He died on September 11, 1919 of tuberculosis in Scranton. His death certificate lists his profession as “drug clerk,” which begs the question of whether or not he was selling drugs legally by then. (My guess is he was not). His family made sure he got a nice funeral and a decent burial.

Gertrude continued to work in prostitution for a number of years after her husband’s death. She was charged with running a disorderly house in Scranton in May 1927 and she was arrested for soliciting and sentenced to jail in September 1930. By 1940, when she was 58 years old, she had no profession and was living in the tiny town of Osceola, Pennsylvania, with her widowed mother. This is where she died, aged 85, on April 15, 1973.

Featured photo: A studio photographic portrait of Elmer Tuttle that was used by police as a mugshot. Collection of the author

 

The Badger Game

The Badger Game

Old-fashioned terms for crime can be confusing. When Lillie Bates was arrested in New York City on June 17, 1909, the officers listed her crime as simply “Badger.” Did that mean she was caught mistreating a short-legged, furry, mammal that hunts at night? Probably not. More than likely it meant she was involved in a criminal enterprise called “the badger game.”

The badger game involved a woman and her male accomplice, and it was actually the accomplice who was the “badger.” The game was often a venomous combintion of crimes, including prostitution, robbery, con game and extortion.

The female in the partnership posed as a reputable woman who was down on her luck and therefore willing to have a sexual encounter with an “old married man with the appearance of honor and wealth.” She got him into her bedroom, which had a secret panel cut in one of the walls. Here’s a description of what often happened next:

She fastens the door and will permit nothing until the lamp is extinguished. The very respectable gentleman lays his clothes carelessly upon a chair, together with his watch and well-filled purse, and the hour of pleasure begins. But the woman’s accomplice is outside the partition and at a signal from her he knows that the time for him to take action has arrived. Silently he opens the secret door. Light as a cat the “badger” passes through it, with his usual dexterity begins to examine carefully all the clothes of the victim as they lie on the chair, far from the bed. The darkness of the room facilitates his work. Very soon he has got possession of all that is of any value and he creeps back through the opening. The door shuts as noiselessly as it was opened. The object of the two is attained and now it only remains to set free the plucked bird without any disturbance. As soon as the “respectable gentleman” begins to dress someone knocks at the door. The “respectable gentleman” gets alarmed. His companion does the same; she urges him to dress as quickly as possible, and go out by the back door, for it is quite certain that her husband, or father, or brother, as the case may be, has returned and wants to come in.

— The Dark Side of New York Life and Its Criminal Classes, Gustav Lening, 1873

Hopefully the victim left the house so quickly that he didn’t check to see if all his valuables were where he kept them.

Variations on the badger game were plentiful. All of them required acting talent along with a boatload of nerve. Sometimes there was no secret panel and the male accomplice simply stormed into the room, claiming to be the woman’s outraged husband, fists cocked and ready for a fight unless he was financially compensated. Sometimes the couple threatened to reveal the victim’s transgression to his family unless he paid up.

NPG.James Alba Bostwick.undated

Sophie Lyons, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Pinkerton’s, Inc.

Sophie Lyons, the “queen” of nineteenth century crime, was an adept practitioner of the badger game. She was so good at it that she sometimes pulled it off without a “badger.” In 1878 she finally got caught after she lured a well-respected, elderly lawyer to her Boston hotel room with the promise of sex, got him to undress, then locked his clothes in her trunk.

She forced him to write her a check for $1000 ($24,215 in 2018), and told him he’d get his clothes back after she returned from the bank with the money. She locked the door on her way out so he couldn’t call the police.

Officials at the bank were suspicious of such a large check and called the police, who escorted Sophie back to the hotel. There they found her naked victim. She claimed she was his long-standing mistress. He refused to prosecute due to the shame it would have brought him. “She was so bewitching and fascinating that I could not help it,” he sheepishly remarked.

bert_23369_b

I found no record of a Lillie or Lillian Bates’ arrest or conviction. Was “Fred,” whose name was tattooed on her arm, the badger? Was her victim a well-known man who was too embarrassed to press charges? We’ll never know the details of how she played the badger game. Ten months after her arrest, when the 1910 census was taken in New York City, there was no one named Lillie Bates living in the city.

Featured photo: Bertillon card photos of Lillie Bates, June 17, 1909, New York Municipal Archives.