Illustration by Anna Godeassi
A brief history of prostitution in the North Country
It wasn’t a very polite question to ask an older gentleman—one of the last of the Adirondack lumber-camp generation—who’d invited me into his home for an oral-history project. But it was a question that had been on my mind for years: “What about prostitutes?”
He took the question in stride. Sure, there was a house at the end of the road into camp where a fellow could go for a beer or other entertainments. And when the crew headed into St. Regis Falls with their pay each spring, they knew where to go to get whatever they wanted. Not that he had any firsthand knowledge, mind you.
Though it plays a prominent role in Wild West mythology, the oldest profession is mostly missing from our regional memory, a disregarded trade that flourished alongside industry and tourism. My first introduction to a North Country fille de joie was Florence Hilton, described by 19th-century Plattsburgh newspapers as being “much in evidence about the garrison.” It was a euphemism that stuck with me, a whisper of stories hiding in the shadow of the garrison, the lumber camp, the high-end resort.
How prevalent was prostitution in the Adirondacks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? It’s impossible to know for sure. First-person accounts aren’t available, though some tales have been passed through the generations. Hilary “Guy” LeBlanc, a caretaker of Long Lake lore, remembered some old-timers telling him about a house near the Tarbell Hill Road. On the night of its grand opening, the story goes, local wives hitched up their horses and dragged their errant menfolk back home, leaving the house in flames and the painted ladies heading for the hills. The real scene around town was probably a bit less dramatic. “Dad taxied the lumberjacks and they all had their favorite bars and hotels, so that’s where the women were,” LeBlanc said. “My guess is the hotel managers and bartenders handled the ladies.”
There was probably a similar system in lumber-rich Tupper Lake. Town historian Jon Kopp said he’d heard some rumors about a couple of establishments outside of town, but his bet was that the majority of the business happened at the booze-slinging boardinghouses that the lumbermen favored when they came out of the woods each spring, flush with pay.
Sarah Farrar, a retired library director from Warrensburg, had also heard of “a house with a capital H,” one that operated on Route 9 around the turn of the century—in fact, her great-grandparents lived right next door. When it became obvious that the Summit House, stationed midway between Lake George and Warrensburg, was offering more than room and board, the family packed up and moved.
That’s a bit of gossip that can be verified in the newspapers. The Glens Falls Post-Star called the Summit House “notorious” when it reported a July 1910 raid that snared two working girls. A handful of patrons made a mad dash for the back door, but officers waiting outside rounded them up and recorded their names as witnesses. John Williamson, proprietor, was later charged with keeping a disorderly house (the old-timey code for brothel) and spent 50 days in jail.
Dozens of these accounts can be found in historical newspapers, but not every arrest made it into print. Jail and court records get closer to the truth, though those only expose the number penalized, not the number of practitioners. And fluctuations in arrest rates may reflect shifting law enforcement priorities and public opinion. A Plattsburgh Press-Republican article in 1881, at the dawn of America’s social purity movement, lamented the “bold and shameless manner in which houses of prostitution have multiplied” and called for a crackdown on those “disease breeding dens.” They got it. The Clinton County jail welcomed about 100 prostitutes, purveyors and customers over the next decade, until tramps and vagrants took their turn in the cells during the deep depression of the 1890s.
Another wave of arrests peaked around 1910—including busts in North Creek, Warrensburg, Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and St. Regis Falls—in the midst of the national hysteria over “white slavery” that led to the introduction of the federal Mann Act, which banned the transport of women or girls across state lines for “the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” That year, the Elizabethtown Post ran a column exhorting “parents all over the country be on the watch against these procurers, both men and women, from the great cities, who come to country towns and abide often for some time, appearing the most respectable of people, but in reality being wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
During Prohibition, the push for community clean-ups brought repeated raids to some hot spots. The area known as Sears Hill in Tupper Lake, labeled a “dark district” in the Tupper Lake Herald, was the site of a 1921 sweep that netted six culprits. The women involved spent months in jail; the men paid $25 each and skipped town. In 1922 the Parish Place on Sears Hill was hit (on the same night as the Half Way House, hidden along the Wawbeek Road), resulting in two arrests. Jennie Parish, proprietor of the Parish Place, was slapped with a $200 fine or three months in jail; Percy Pimstein, who owned the Half Way House, got probation. A 1924 bust, again on Sears Hill, was the result of an undercover operation by plainclothes cops. Five were arrested that night at the Hill Top Inn, including two men who’d “put up a terrific fight.”
The area near Queensbury’s West Mountain attracted more than its fair share of attention from the authorities. Starting in 1928 and continuing through the 1930s, at least a dozen raids focused on a handful of houses of ill repute, including the White Barrel, on Corinth Road, and a Luzerne Road farmhouse sometimes known as the Green and White Farm (according to business cards seized in a 1934 bust). The volume of business transpiring in the shadow of West Mountain led the Warren County district attorney to announce a countywide crackdown in 1931—specifically calling out the White Barrel and its Luzerne Road counterpart. The owners and operators of the latter, along with another regularly targeted establishment near the White Barrel, were named in the papers as “colored,” as were many of the workers. Over the decade, more than 60 people from that neighborhood were arrested or fined. It’s the most sustained sweep I’ve found in the record.
Logging and mining operations, with their crowds of unattached men, surely attracted a business-minded woman or two, but verifying deals brokered in isolated communities is difficult. There’s not a trace of the trade recorded in Lyon Mountain, a mining outpost otherwise known for its lawlessness around the turn of the century. Historian Bill Donnelly did accuse Wild Jess Elliot of entertaining lines of lumberjacks in remote Beaver River, though that was based on neighborhood scuttlebutt collected decades after the alleged mischief-making. St. Regis Falls—deep in logging country—saw at least one bust, in 1908, when a madam misjudged the tolerance of the town and ended up in jail with two young women in her charge. The Adirondack News noted that “the house had gained considerable undesirable notoriety and was seriously objected to by the people living in the neighborhood.” North of St. Regis Falls, in Brushton, a couple of brothels got a little too big for their bloomers in 1915, resulting in the arrest of two madams. The Malone Farmer reported that about 50 “alleged frequenters of these places” were examined as witnesses.
Most enterprises thrived in the larger towns just outside of the Blue Line: Glens Falls, Plattsburgh, Malone (Pearl and Catherine Streets, in the latter, were particularly notorious). But there were outliers throughout the region, serving tourists and year-rounders alike. In 1900, the Ticonderoga Sentinel announced that Frank Rubado—who had also operated in Essex and Willsboro—was opening a summer hotel between Ticonderoga and Hague, one spacious enough that 20 boarders could be “entertained comfortably.” He was charged with keeping a disorderly house within a year. In 1915, a regular cabaret at Saranac Lake’s Van Dorrien hotel—which attracted crowds of “sports”—was found to offer more than song-and-dance numbers. It was the owners’ second offense. And down in North Creek, the proprietress of the Wayside Inn hit the papers in 1913. Minnie Drake’s trial was an event, with the town supervisor showing up to testify to the “general repute” of her establishment. Employees also came to her defense, including one who recanted previous testimony by blaming it on bullying authorities and her “very nervous and overwrought condition,” stating that she “never had sectual [sic] intercourse there with anyone, to the knowledge of said Minnie Drake.” The Warrensburgh News wouldn’t provide many more details, refusing to print “that filth,” but it was enough to convince the jury. Drake was fined $500 and left town.
Newspapers engaged in the othering of madams, pimps and prostitutes, noting when they were from Canada, from Utica, from Troy, of French descent. But there were many homegrown operations, and some were family businesses. In Plattsburgh, in the 1880s, Mary Welcome worked with her three daughters. In Lake Clear Junction, officers raided (yet another) Wayside Inn in 1923, hauling in a mother-and-son team, along with a dozen others. In the town of Dresden, two men were charged with abducting 16- and 14-year-old sisters in 1925; Loretta and Josephine Scott said that their ravishers had promised them marriage before driving them out of town. Five years later Josephine was arrested with her mother and two other sisters in the family’s boardinghouse-turned-brothel.
Young girls were common casualties. Clarissa Barber, of Plattsburgh, was first arrested at 16 years old, in 1881. After another run-in with the law, this time in Whitehall, the Plattsburgh Sentinel referred to her as “one of the soiled doves which was compelled to flee from Plattsburgh on account of the late raid of our authorities on that class of birds.” She was back in town, and back in the Clinton County jail, the following year. In Malone, in 1902, Mamie Jock was indicted for keeping a disorderly house and abducting an underage girl. The girl was from Chateaugay and had, according to the Malone Farmer, “fallen into the indignities of a soiled life.” Her father said he thought she’d been working as a maid until he got a letter from an acquaintance. Two men caught in the raid were fined $5 each; Jock forfeited her $300 bail and left the county. In 1908 Jerry Ashland, owner of Saranac Lake’s Grand View Hotel, was also charged with keeping a disorderly house and abduction, accused of having an underage girl there “for immoral purposes.”
Without the voices of the prostitutes, we can’t know how many were driven by desperation or manipulation or force and how many actively chose the vocation. Jacob Vassar, of Cadyville, certainly thought his wife had made her own bed when he placed an 1884 notice announcing that he’d no longer pay her debts, since she’d “left his bed and board without just cause … and has lived in several houses of assignation.” We do have the testimony of a Mrs. Mary Daniels, of North Elba, who swore that her husband “compelled her to do things that were both illegal and immoral” after she was arrested in 1914, claiming she could name “a number of men who she said could substantiate her story.” Either way, there’s ample evidence that it was a hard way to make a living. Children were taken away. Jail terms and higher fines were reserved for sellers, not buyers. (The New York State Penal Code didn’t officially make patronizing a prostitute a violation until the 1960s; before that customers could be slapped with generic disorderly person or public intoxication charges, or simply held as witnesses.) Violence was always a danger, as was being prosecuted for self-defense. In 1935 Dorothy Miller, a woman of color who managed that frequently raided Luzerne Road operation, was hauled in for assault after stabbing a 23-year-old who didn’t care to be refused service. Jennie Lawrence, of Dannemora, wasn’t so lucky. She was beaten to death in 1883 by her “paramour,” according to the Malone Palladium, which described Lawrence as “the proprietress of a vile den.” Her murderer, Jeff Thornton, was never prosecuted for her death. He pleaded guilty to keeping a disorderly house—not his first offense—and served three months in the county jail.
There were a few high-profile cases of attempted suicide, including two in the 1930s, when Cora Hinman Disotelle and Eva Bova—both of Malone—tried to poison themselves during sensationalized trials. And it was another suicide attempt that left us with one of the few recorded statements of a North Country prostitute. Josephine Scott, the 14-year-old from Dresden who’d been lured from home in 1925, jumped into the Whitehall canal at 23. After being rescued, she told the policeman who helped save her that she was “tired of living.”
A boilerplate indictment for “keeping a disorderly house” around the turn of the century in Warren County:
“…did unlawfully and wickedly keep and maintain a common house of ill fame and assignation, and in said house diverse evil disposed persons as well as men and women and common prostitutes on the days and times aforesaid as well in the night as in the day, there unlawfully and wickedly did receive and entertain, and in which said house the evil disposed persons and common prostitutes by the consent and procurement of the said [NAME] on the dates and times aforesaid, there did commit whoredom, whereby diverse unlawful assemblies, disturbances and lewd offenses as well in the night as in the day were then committed and perpetrated against the good morals and against the form of the statute in such cases made and provided against the peace of the People of the State of New York, and their dignity.”