LONG BEFORE SEATTLE made jets, software, or coffee, it built crib houses, box houses, and brothels—lots of them, including the world’s biggest. Prostitution runs as deep as rain through Seattle’s history. This is the chronicle of a city built on sin.
1853 Young Mary Conklin washes up in Seattle after her whaling-captain husband maroons her at Port Townsend. She manages the Felker House at First and Main, the infant town’s first inn and, when required, courthouse. Her lavish profanity in six languages earns her the sobriquet “Mother Damnable.” By some accounts she later adds a brothel upstairs and becomes “Madame Damnable.”
1861 San Francisco brothel operator John Pinnell (aka Pennell), opens Seattle’s first rough-hewn bawdy house on sawdust fill just below Mill Street (now Yesler Way). He names it Illahee—Chinook for “home place”—but locals call it the Mad House and the Sawdust Pile. Native women staff the Illahee at first, but after Asa Mercer imports marriageable maidens from Massachusetts, Pinnell recruits unemployed dancehall girls from San Francisco’s Barbary Coast.
1861-1916 The Tenderloin, by some reports the nation’s most monumental concentration of vice, sprouts in the “lava bed” south of Mill Street—“below the line.” Some of its “crib houses” have 100 cubicles (cribs) waiting to welcome loggers, sailors, and especially Alaskan miners loaded with gold. One census rec0rds more than 500 women working in them. Related industries—gambling, robbery, brewing—also flourish.
1884 Washington women become the first in the United States to win the vote, launching an epic political battle between reform and morality advocates (many of them women) and boosters of “business,” including the vice business. One of the latter wins the mayor’s race, and business booms.
1884 A new ordinance bans “soliciting prostitution upon any of the public streets,” and the mere presence of “dissolute Indian women” after dark. Its effect is to favor the brothels and “box houses”—low-end theaters whose actresses hustle drinks and sexual services—staffed by white and Asian women.
February 1888 Madam Lou Graham arrives on the steamer Pacific Pride. She proceeds to build a lavish, genteel bordello above the line, opposite Father Prefontaine’s Church of Our Lady of Good Help at Third and Washington. To entice customers, she and other “parlor house” proprietors parade new girls around town by carriage.
1890s and early 1900s Teetotaling, devoutly Catholic John Considine, “Boss Sport” and “the king of the box houses,” rises to become a top national vaudeville promoter.
1891 City Hall tries to clamp down by raiding Whitechapel, the Lava Bed’s French quarter. The raids spare white and target Asian women, who seem to have replaced Indians as targets of outrage.
1894 Reformers finally gain a majority on the City Council and ban liquor sales in theaters, killing the box houses.
1903 Lou Graham dies at 42 of syphilis. Contrary to legend, she leaves her fortune to relatives in Germany, not to local schools.
1897-99 The Alaska-Yukon gold rushes and Spanish-American War spark pell-mell growth and a new vice boom. Parlor houses continue, but the trade comes to be dominated by “crib houses,” homes broken into small, sparsely furnished rooms used only for sex transactions.
1900-1916 City politics becomes a battleground between progressives upholding clean government and vice enforcement, and an “open town” faction, spearheaded by Seattle Times publisher Alden Blethen, advocating tolerance and regulation of vice. The battle recurs in various forms to the present day.
1902 The Tenderloin is relocated several blocks south, in an effort to open up valuable downtown land for other business and insulate respectable citizens from the vice trade.
March 1903 U.S. and Japanese officials announce a campaign to break up the burgeoning trade in “white slaves”—young women imported for the sex trade by procurers posing as husbands with new brides—from Japan. They estimate that 500 are kept as sex slaves in Washington alone.
May 13, 1909 After Mayor John F. Miller orders the “disorderly houses” in Seattle’s vice districts closed, police raid five houses, confiscate their liquor, and arrest those found within. Miller endorses “the purpose of segregating vice and the establishing of a thoroughly regulated district as the best practicable means at hand of dealing with the social evil.”
December 1909 Customs officials announce a “deplorable state of affairs” in the sex-slave trade, with girls being sold in Seattle for service in Chicago and New York for $400, with quantity discounts.