Dark History: Old Sandpoint pushes back against prostitution

Part Four

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of the “Dark History” series, highlighting the rough-and-ready days of Old Sandpoint. These articles are meant as a companion piece to “The Dark Side of Sandpoint” exhibit at the Bonner County History Museum. 

Around 1906, local townspeople began to push back against the scourge of prostitution in Sandpoint. Downtown began taking shape on the west side of Sand Creek, making it a necessity to clean up the notorious “cribs” where the town’s soiled doves plied their trade.

While town leaders were once content with simply “arresting” the prostitutes and assessing a $10 fine about once a month in lieu of taxing (therefore legitimizing) the trade, town leaders began seriously began cracking down on the illicit activities.

An elevated view looking east across Sand Creek at the early downtown days of Sandpoint, circa 1904. The houses across the creek in the top left of the frame are located on the current site of Trinity at City Beach and the Best Western Edgewater. Photo courtesy of Bonner County Historical Society.

An elevated view looking east across Sand Creek at the early downtown days of Sandpoint, circa 1904. The houses across the creek in the top left of the frame are located on the current site of Trinity at City Beach and the Best Western Edgewater. Photo courtesy of Bonner County Historical Society.

The headline for the Oct. 4, 1906 Pend d’Oreille Review read: “Chinese Opium Joint is Raided.”

Three prostitutes were given 30-day sentences after Sam Hing’s “Chinese dump on the lake flats” was raided. The establishment advertised “chop suey” and “noodles” on the sign, but, according to the article, “it has been known for some time that chop suey and noodles were not the only things that the wily Sam sold.”

Marshall Wilcox raided the place, arresting three ladies of the night, and “the heathen Chinese were bagged,” as well.

In May, 1907, Marshall Moran asked the Sandpoint city council to pass an ordinance taxing “clairvoyants, female masseurs, palmists” and other “seedy” occupations. Moran believed that women following these vocations were actually competitors for the “women who are paying fines to the city,” (i.e. prostitutes).

In an article dated two months later, Sheriff Doust was contacted by a brothel madame from Newport asking for assistance in keeping her girls in line.

“She complained to the sheriff that the inmates of her place went to the saloons of the old town and got drunk, and that she could do nothing with them, although she whipped a few of them,” read the article. “She wanted the sheriff to make a trip to Newport and call upon her painted ladies … to not be so boisterous in their conduct.”

It seems the appeal to Sheriff Doust was successful. An article dated a month later told of Doust’s visit to Newport.

“Sheriff Doust paid a visit to Newport Thursday, being called there to make some of the gaudy girls in the old town behave themselves,” the article read.

By 1908, most of the cribs were relocated across to the “restricted district” along the east side of Sand Creek where they wouldn’t be so obvious to the townspeople. But it was not “out of sight, out of mind” across the creek; scandals and crimes still took place somewhat regularly.

In the May 22, 1908 Pend d’Oreille Review, a news article tells the story of how Josie Ellison, of the “restricted district” took her own life with carbolic acid.

“The woman was discovered on the floor of her crib by other women and was gotten to the Page hospital before the carbolic acid had resulted in immediate death,” read the article. “It appears the woman had been drinking heavily and had been in a state of intoxication for some time.”

The woman had been in Sandpoint for several years and “was well known in the local tenderloin,” the article read. Ellison died the next day.

A month later, Sandpoint businessman W.F. Whitaker caused a ruckus during a Sandpoint City Council meeting on June 16, 1908.

Whitaker complained to Mayor Page that he had “positive knowledge there was a house of prostitution being conducted right at or near the foot of the stairway leading from the city dock.”

Whitaker complained to the mayor that he had spoken with “every police officer in the city,” but nothing had been done except that the house, which was afloat, had been moved from one side of the city dock to the other.

“About this time Mayor Page told Mr. Whitaker that his petty grievances were becoming a nuisance and annoyance to the members of the council,” read the article. When Whitaker insisted on talking, Page told him that if he did not “shut up, he would have him ejected from the council chambers.”

In August, 1908, Chief of Police Stewart informed lodging house keepers in the city that “questionable conduct will not be tolerated and that women of bad repute must not be allowed in them.”

It was clear that by the end of the first decade of the 1900s,  prostitution’s reign in Sandpoint was coming to an end. But some townsfolk wouldn’t let the issue drop.

In a Pend d’Oreille Review article from December 1914, two Sandpoint women went undercover to find out if a certain nightspot was selling sex.

“Two clever women,” read the article, “visited one of the questionable resorts of the city and satisfied themselves beyond all doubt that the place was being conducted for immoral purposes.”

The article continued: “The women dolled up in gaudy attire and adorned themselves with an abundance of borrowed jewelry so that when they made their entrance at the resort, they bore every appearance of being women of the under world.”

Following their visit, the women made a complaint to city officials, who later visited the establishment.

“They made a thorough inspection entering every room and even looking under the beds without finding the slightest suggestion of anything irregular,” read the article.

“By 1915, the ‘Historic Red Light District’ had lost its wild and raucous atmosphere and character,” wrote Dale Selle in the research project “Sandpoint Historic Red Light District Project.”

“The rowdy pioneer town became a quiet little city, catering to families and polite society,” wrote Selle. “The bawdy night life, while it still existed, was dispersed and driven underground.”

Visit the Bonner County History Museum’s “The Dark Side of Sandpoint” exhibit for more lurid tales of yesteryear.

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