Sex in Baltimore: Shocking Report Kept from the Public

In 1915 a government study on illicit sex left Baltimore “naked and exposed.” The Maryland Vice Commission, in the words of one excitable observer, had spent “three years stripping the clothes off” the city, and the official report presented a mountain of evidence about prostitution and other furtive sexual activities.

Prostitutes plying their trade in the red light district of Dawson, Yukon. Source: University of Washington, Special Collections.

The immediate public reaction was one of denial. Mayor James Harry Preston, quoted in The Baltimore Sun, labeled the report “a scandalous libel on life in Baltimore.” The head of the police chimed in, stating “these conditions do not exist” and swearing that his force kept a diligent eye on “questionable houses” to “arrest those who enter it for immoral purposes.”

Photograph of Storyville prostitute, by E. J. Bellocq, circa 1912. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of Storyville prostitute, by E. J. Bellocq, ca. 1912. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Some reacted to the allegations with full-throated outrage. A grand jury summoned the commission chairman with a demand for the names of those interviewed in the study with an intent to interrogate them. “A heated argument followed” between the chairman and prosecutors, but no names were released.

Contemporary newspapers focused on the report’s findings in connection with streetwalkers and “questionable houses.” But the commission also reported on what it termed “clandestine prostitution,” which included the common practice of successful men keeping mistresses. This revelation no doubt made city leaders uncomfortable.

A powerful group of reformers refused to let the issue fade from view. Leading the charge was Dr. Howard A. Kelly, a prominent Johns Hopkins Hospital doctor and teetotaling moral crusader. Kelly was deeply religious and was known, when stopped at a red traffic light, to ask cab drivers “when you get to the gate of heaven, will there be a red light or a green light?” With the city keeping the report under wraps, Kelly published The Double Shame of Baltimore: Her Unpublished Vice Report and Her Utter Indifference. “Vice in low theatrical shows and sex immorality is literally eating the heart out of our city life,” he wrote. “For the first time in her life, Baltimore has gazed into a clear glass and beheld her natural face.”

Dr. Howard A. Kelly. Source: The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
Dr. Howard A. Kelly. Source: The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Kelly reprinted two articles by Winthrop D. Lane, a pioneering social worker, who struck an even higher level of moral outrage. Lane wrote that the commission found “supposedly respectable” citizens, including many men “in high station,” were in fact sexual predators. They seduced stenographers and other young girls who worked for them. They preyed upon waitresses, salesgirls, and switchboard operators. They took women to private offices for immoral purposes. And a shocking number of “supposedly respectable women” solicited the attention of such men.

The city’s denial of the findings deeply aggrieved Kelly and Lane. “Apparently Baltimore did not know that she had ‘a body of flesh and blood and weakness’ … the discovery has been too much for her,” wrote Lane. Both held out hope that the report would be published so that “cities of similar characteristics and greater imagination” could benefit.

That didn’t happen. Opposition to the report was so intense the commission never dared publish its findings.

Controversy over the report receded quickly, arguably with the total defeat of both opposing viewpoints. The moral reformers hit a high-water mark with the start of prohibition in 1920, but their influence faded as the measure failed. And the Baltimore sin-deniers lost whatever credibility they had with the surging popularity of “The Block,” the city’s famous burlesque locale (and red-light district).

A single typescript original of the vice commission report rests on a shelf of the Special Collections Department of the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. The research appears rigorous and through, and while there are period-typical judgments as to “perversion” and “low intelligence,” information is presented with an objective intent.

The report is a unique document, historically invaluable, with dozens of transcribed interviews about why women went into prostitution, what their lives were like as prostitutes, how much money they made, and their physical experience of sex with customers. The document also has a commendable focus on public health concerns, political corruption, harassment of women in the workplace, and the evils of income inequality.

While failing to convince Baltimore of its “flesh and blood and weakness,” the vice commission succeeded far beyond its wildest imagination in creating a priceless historical record of the city and it’s all too human residents.

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