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A History of Prostitution in Early Vancouver

history prostitution Dupont Street looking east from Carrall, ca. 1900. City of Vancouver Archives #677-26

A History of Sex Work in Early Vancouver

[by Lani Russwurm]  We visit the site of some of Vancouver’s oldest brothels on The Forbidden Vancouver Tour.

When Florence Mackenzie came to Vancouver in 1894 to set up a brothel, sex work in the city was openly conducted in a designated area, or red light district, in Chinatown. Five years later, an attempted murder helped to end Mackenzie’s operation. Soon the authorities would chase the red light district out of Chinatown and into other neighbourhoods. By the time war broke out in 1914, the city had outlawed prostitution altogether, forcing it underground.

Dupont Street

Mackenzie set up shop at 101 Dupont Street. Her neighbours included many women with colourful names like Victorine Lenon, Miss Trixeda, Miss May La Boe, Tootsie Earl, and Gabrielle Delisle. The red light district (so called for the red lights signaling sex for sale) was the two-block stretch of Dupont between Westminster Avenue (now Main Street) and Carrall.

history prostitution Florence “Mother” Mackenzie, 1899 mugshot. City of Vancouver Archives, VPD series #202, Loc. 37-C-9

Florence “Mother” Mackenzie, 1899 mugshot. City of Vancouver Archives, VPD series #202, Loc. 37-C-9

Mackenzie and many other Dupont Street women were Americans, likely driven from other cities in anti-vice campaigns and/or attracted to Vancouver as a potentially lucrative opportunity because of its large population of single men.

By the time she arrived, Mackenzie was already a seasoned veteran of the sex trade and would have been used to being pushed around on the whims of local police and city officials. Vancouver was no less fickle than other North American cities. The red light district would be moved several times over the next 20 years, but for Mackenzie, Dupont Street was the end of the line.

Mackenzie was a buxom, tough looking woman already in her sixties when she came to town. An anonymous cop noted on her rap sheet that she had “been a prostitute in almost every city on the continent & is one of the worst of her kind.” Another wrote that she was “an old whore.”

Over the next few years, Florence Mackenzie moved to 37 Dupont and became known as “Mother Mackenzie,” one of the toughest madams in town. Along with other pimps, “inmates,” and “frequenters” of such places, her brothel was periodically raided and she dutifully paid her fines as a cost of doing business. For the City, fining brothels was a way of taxing an illegal industry and gave the appearance that police were keeping a lid on the sex trade.

history prostitution Water Street around 1880. The settlement was still called Granville, or Gastown after Gassy Jack, whose saloon is on the far left. This is where Birdie Stewart set up the town’s first known brothel in 1873. Photo by Joseph Davis, City of Vancouver Archives #Dist P11.1

Water Street ca 1880. The settlement was still called Granville, or Gastown after Gassy Jack, whose saloon is on the far left. This is where Birdie Stewart set up the town’s first known brothel in 1873. Photo by Joseph Davis, City of Vancouver Archives #Dist P11.1

Gastown

Dupont Street may have been Vancouver’s first red light district, but the first known brothel in the area was Birdie Stewart’s house on Water Street near Abbott that opened in 1873. The town was still called Granville then—locals called it Gastown—and was too small for segregated districts. One pioneer recalled that there was a row of cabins at Cordova and Abbott streets occupied by Chinese people and “some other occupants of ill repute,” suggesting Birdie may have had some competition.

Chinese residents established their own colony on the north shore of False Creek in the 1880s, then on the margins of Vancouver. For the anglophiles steering Vancouver’s development, the sex trade also properly belonged on the margins, so Dupont Street, Chinatown’s main drag, doubled as the red light district.

Madams were generally content to contain their operations within the red light district. Ones who didn’t faced the consequences, beginning with Josephine Bliss, who in 1894 became the first woman in Vancouver to receive prison time without the option of a fine for operating a house of ill repute on Columbia Street, just around the corner from Dupont.

History Vancouver prostitution Canton Alley, ca. 1928. Library and Archives Canada #PA-126739

Canton Alley, ca. 1928. Library and Archives Canada #PA-126739

Vancouver grew rapidly after incorporation, and by the turn of the 20th century Chinatown was closer to the centre of the city than the outskirts. Plans were underway in 1903 to build a new train station for the Vancouver Westminster & Yukon Railroad on Dupont Street between Columbia and Carrall. Passengers would have to disembark right in the heart of the red light district if it were allowed to remain there.

Vancouver also had a new, moral reform minded mayor in 1903, Thomas Neelands, who set out to clean up his vice-ridden city, including Dupont Street. Unfortunately for him, the rest of city council outvoted him and the red light district remained on Dupont, notwithstanding a series of raids that landed numerous sex trade workers in jail. Others were given the option of leaving town instead of imprisonment, but otherwise business carried on as usual.

history prostitution Shanghai Alley tenements in the 1940s. Photo by Don Coltman, City of Vancouver Archives #586-4593

Shanghai Alley tenements in the 1940s. Photo by Don Coltman, City of Vancouver Archives #586-4593

The problem with moving the red light district was that no one would welcome brothels in their neighbourhood. Park Lane residents, for example, were furious at the suggestion that the restricted district be moved there. Nevertheless, the crackdown on Dupont Street brothels began in 1906. The red light district shifted to two small lanes off Dupont, Canton Alley and Shanghai Alley, which between the two hosted 105 brothels (mostly lone women operating in a single room), according to one count. Sex workers displaced by the San Francisco earthquake that year intensified the situation when they flooded into Vancouver and other cities in the Pacific Northwest.

Shore Street

The campaigns to clear bawdy houses from Dupont Street and Shanghai and Canton alleys in 1906 failed, in part because the madams challenged the city’s legal authority to regulate something that was under the jurisdiction of the feds. Finally the city’s madams were allowed to set up shop on a half block stretch of Harris Street (now East Georgia) between Westminster Avenue (Main Street) and False Creek. To avoid embarrassing the more respectable Harris Street residents to the east, it was renamed Shore Street in 1908.

history prostitution A rare photo of the brothels on the north side of Shore Street, shortly after the relocation of the “restricted district” to Alexander and during construction of the original Georgia Viaduct. City of Vancouver Archives #LGN 1188 (cropped)

A rare photo of the brothels on the north side of Shore Street, shortly after the relocation of the “restricted district” to Alexander and during construction of the original Georgia Viaduct. City of Vancouver Archives #LGN 1188 (cropped)

Shore Street only served as the red light district for a few years before it was time to move again. In 1911 some wealthy Chinese businessmen were planning a new Chinatown on Albert Street, today’s Franklin Street, on the eastern edge of the city. Many felt that would be an ideal location for the red light district as it was “less central and conspicuous” than Shore Street. And like Dupont before it, there would be few white voters there to object. New Chinatown never took off however, besides a handful of developments, and so Chinatown and the red light district stayed put. (Coincidentally, the industrial Franklin Street became a sex trade stroll in more recent times).

Alexander Street

Finally in 1913, construction of the first Georgia Viaduct obliterated Shore Street. The red light district had already begun the move to Alexander Street the previous year, in what was then part of Japantown. Several of the purpose built brothels can still be seen on Alexander Street, though now they serve as affordable, supportive housing for some of the most marginalized Vancouverites.

history prostitution Vancouver Alice Bernard had this building built at 514 Alexander Street in 1912 when she moved her operation from Shore Street to the new red light district.

Alice Bernard had this building built at 514 Alexander Street in 1912 when she moved her operation from Shore Street to the new red light district.

The buildings built as brothels were essentially rooming houses, but were typically fancier. Instead of a store or bar on the ground floor, they had a bar and lounge, and often a piano player to entertain guests. The only known photo of Shore Street shows that they were a step up from the rickety wooden structures on Dupont. The ones on Alexander Street were even gaudier, reflecting the prosperity of the madams.

history prostitution Vancouver 500 Alexander Street at Jackson Street in 2010, built as a brothel in 1911 for Madam Dolly Darlington.

500 Alexander Street at Jackson Street in 2010, built as a brothel in 1911 for Madam Dolly Darlington.

Soon after the red light district relocated to Alexander Street, moral reformers campaigned to shut it down. By the time war broke out in 1914, the city declared that the red light district was closed. Since then, the debate over how to handle the urban sex trade has continued unabated and unresolved, but there haven’t been any other red light districts sanctioned by the City of Vancouver. Sex work has at times been dispersed, sometimes moved from indoors to outdoors, with certain streets like Davie, Seymour, and Franklin becoming known as “strolls” after the sun goes down.

A Jealous Rage

Meanwhile back on Dupont Street, things began falling apart for Mother Mackenzie in 1899. She took in Reta King, a sex worker who arrived from Seattle in May that year with her paramour, Bert Washington. In July, Mackenzie recruited a neighbourhood girl, seventeen year-old Tessie McDonald, into her den of vice, and Washington shifted his affections from Reta to Tessie.

history prostitution Reta King’s mugshot. City of Vancouver Archives VPD series #202, Loc. 37-C-9

Reta King’s mugshot, 1899. City of Vancouver Archives VPD series #202, Loc. 37-C-9

One night Tessie was sitting on Bert’s lap and carrying on with him in front of Reta, whose protests to Mother Mackenzie fell on deaf ears. “He had been taunting me all evening,” King explained. With a six-shooter concealed in the folds of her dress, she followed the couple from the brothel to the Opera Resort, a saloon on the southeast corner of Carrall and Dupont.

King entered the saloon and found the couple in the card room. She pushed the door open and Washington jumped up and slammed it shut, but not before King fired a bullet that missed Washington and pierced Tessie’s neck. Two more shots through the wooden door failed to hit anyone and King fled. Sergeant North of the Vancouver Police Department was drawn to the area by the sound of gunfire. King ran into him at the corner of Columbia and Dupont and gave herself up.

history prostitution Vancouver Opera Resort Saloon at the southeast corner of Dupont and Columbia, where Reta King shot Tessie Mcdonald in a jealous rage in 1899. Photo courtesy John Atkin.

Opera Resort Saloon at the southeast corner of Dupont and Columbia, where Reta King shot Tessie Mcdonald in a jealous rage in 1899. Photo courtesy John Atkin.

Tessie McDonald had only been at Mother Mackenzie’s for about a week, and had already been taken back home once by the police before landing in the hospital. Luckily her injury was not life-threatening, but Reta King’s homicidal outburst likely brought heightened police scrutiny to Mackenzie’s operation and stoked the indignation of the public towards the red light district.

On the Run

A few weeks later, Mackenzie was a fugitive, dodging a charge of procuring Tessie’s 14 year-old sister Sadie and 15 year-old Gertie Angus, the daughter of a Hornby Street mechanic. Police found Mackenzie hiding out at the McDonald girls’ mother’s house behind the city hospital at Cambie and Pender streets.

Mother Mackenzie was sentenced to two years in prison. As she was being hauled off to the BC Penitentiary she insisted that she had harmed no one. If she did, she said, raising her arm to the sky, “may God, whom some day I shall meet, so paralyze this uplifted arm that it will never be straightened again till broken off to be coffined.”

To find out more about Vancouver’s oldest brothels, come join us on The Forbidden Vancouver Tour.

To see Vancouver’s historical red light districts on Google maps, click here.

For more on the history of sex work in Vancouver, check out Red Light Neon: A History of Vancouver’s Sex Trade (Subway Books, 2006) by Daniel Francis.

Cover photo: Dupont Street looking east from Carrall, ca. 1900. City of Vancouver Archives #677-26