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Harmon’s Histories: 1917 brought an end to Missoula’s houses of prostitution

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

February 1, 1917 – the night the lights went out in … Missoula.

“The ‘line’ ceased to exist at 12:01 o’clock this morning,” reported the local paper.

“The demise was quiet. The police were on hand … but they weren’t needed. Most of the women had packed their belongings and decamped” the day before.

Samuel Clarence Ford had been elected Montana attorney general the previous fall, campaigning that he would strongly enforce the – until then – largely ignored laws outlawing prostitution.

Upon taking office, he sent letters to county and city officials advising them “to take (action) against the managers and proprietors of residence property, hotels, rooming houses and the like which may be occupied in violation of the law.”

Missoula Mayor H. T. Wilkinson and Missoula County Attorney Fred Angevine quickly issued a joint statement declaring that all prostitution laws would be strictly enforced and that the red light district would be closed.

Samuel Ford

Specifically, the law said, “Every person who keeps any disorderly house, or any house for the purpose of assignation or prostitution, or any house of public resort, by which the peace, comfort or decency of the immediate neighborhood is habitually disturbed, or who keeps any inn in a disorderly manner, and every person who lets any apartment or tenement, knowing it is to be used for the purpose of assignation or prostitution, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

For decades, the infamous houses along West Front Street, with names like the “Last Chance” and the “Star” lodging house, had not only been tolerated but produced thousands of dollars in taxes and fees for the city coffers. The estimate for one year was $15,000.

Known variously as the Midway Plaisance, the Bad Lands or the Restricted District, the area was the site of drunken brawls, drug dens and mysterious deaths by poison and other means. One judge was quoted as saying, “This city has acquired a reputation in this respect as bad, or worse than any other town in the state.”

The local paper recounted, “In the old days of honkatonks and open gambling it was a wild, vigorous institution. Murder and robbery were frequent, for booze flowed free all along the ‘line,’ and nothing was barred.”

The “line” was a reference to all of West Front Street and most all of West Main, where the streets were “lined” with houses of ill repute.

By the afternoon of January 31, 1917 – in the hours before the crackdown, expecting law enforcement raids – women from the district began packing their bags.

Rumors on the streets were that many of the women would just move to other rooming houses or private residences, but city officials were “inclined to believe that the danger of promiscuity has been exaggerated.”

No one really believed that the crackdown would totally do away with the evil, but most agreed the law ought be be enforced.

For about a month, things were quiet. But in early March, 1917 “a former inmate of the resorts,” Hazel Hall, was arrested and fined $50. The fine was set aside on Hazel’s promise that she would leave town within 24 hours.

At the time, the police chief was quoted as saying, “To my knowledge there are only four or five former residents of the restricted district in the city at the present time. Two of those are running rooming houses and carrying on a legitimate business in a manner occasioning no complaint. The others are conducting themselves in a proper manner so far as we have been able to learn.”

But a few months later, three women were arrested along with with a couple of soldiers at the European hotel on Railroad Street,  exposing the “shocking condition of immorality in militia guard camps near Missoula.”

Two of the women, who had an “affection for khaki,” were allowed to leave town rather than being fined. The third was handed over to a probation officer.

Gleim Building

In at least one case, though, a young woman from Butte’s restricted district, turned the tables on those who would have her locked up. She hired a lawyer and brought suit for “damages for the loss of her soul.”

She claimed, “I have lost my soul and I want to sue for its value (explaining) that several years ago she was allowed to go to cafes and dances where liquor was sold, although only 16 years old. She blames this fact for her downfall and says the city and county government are responsible.”

It’s unlikely her claim was successful, but we don’t know. Sad to say, no follow-up story could be found on the outcome of her case.

As for the bigger picture, the statewide crackdown on prostitution proved extremely effective. The long tolerated “restricted districts” disappeared from Montana cities and towns, in many cases – like Missoula – literally overnight.

But the stories from that period remain a colorful part of the state’s history. A handful of the most famous buildings used as brothels back in the day, still remain: Big Dorothy’s in Helena, the Dumas in Butte and Madam Mary Gleim’s west Front street building in Missoula, dating to 1893.

Nearly 100 years later, in 1990, the Gleim building at 265 west Front street, was added to the National register of Historic Places.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.