bookmark_borderSex 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 With the city keeping the report under wraps, Kelly published The Double Shame of Baltimore: Her Unpublished Vice Report and Her Utter Indifference.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.

bookmark_borderA viral song from 1909 turned American music sexy, rude, and violent

Posted on February 20, 2020 by billlefurgy

Sex elbowed its way into American popular culture during the early years of the twentieth century. I learned more about this while researching my novel, Into the Suffering City, which is set in 1909 Baltimore.

Romance had, of course, long been a staple of music played in the home and other venues. Songwriters a tacit agreement with moral guardians: focus on chaste courtship and keep the euphemisms and double entendres subtle. A song such as “Cuddle up a Little Closer, Lovey Mine” (1908) could tease with lyrics such as “she grew more cold, and he grew more bold” and “like to make you comfy, cozy/’cause I love from head to toesie, lovey mine.” No real harm done–-everyone assumed the cuddling couple were engaged and merely exploring the bounds of premarital affection.

Cracks were appearing in the surface of this placid conformity. Ragtime music, with its lively sound, appeared in the mid-1890s and was growing ever more popular. Young people found excitement in the music’s syncopation–displaced beats from the typical beat sequence of a song. “Syncopation caused an individual to feel a propulsion, a swing,” states the Library of Congress, “and if played correctly, a musical looseness generally unknown to the public.” Many older people found ragtime disreputable and dangerous due to its association with “low-class Black music” associated with brothels and saloons; no doubt this disdain only encouraged many others to embrace the sound.

Newspapers of the era document plenty of ragtime outrage. The Sioux City Journal of March 9, 1903, carried a story declaring the music immoral. “It’s rhythm is pernicious, it’s words abominable. If mothers want their boys to be good they must teach them to tune their whistles to ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and spank them into abandoning … “[Just Because She Made Dem] Goo-Goo Eyes.” The St. Louis Republic on June 13, 1904, reported “the influence of ragtime music on the morals is like that of absinthe–it kills the better understanding,” and “the plague of trashy music is upon us like a fever epidemic, and its evil effects can be heard at all times and most places.”

The article was right about one thing: the audience for provocative music was expanding by leaps and bounds. New York’s songwriting capital, Tin Pan Alley, certainly noticed. In May 1909 Harry Von Tilzer and Jimmy Lucas released (actually, they stole it) “I Love, Love, Love My Wife, But Oh! You Kid!” a variation on a more innocent 1908 song. The lyrics were spiced up considerably:

Now Jonesy was a married man,
Oh yes, he was,
Sweet girlie on the single plan,
I guess, she was,
Now Jonesy stopped and spoke to girlie,
Just as old friends often do,
And he said “I’m married,
But, that but my dear means you.”

This casual acknowledgement imminent sex–-extramarital at that-–was rocket fuel for the song’s popularity. “Oh, You Kid madness” ensued with neckties, buttons, pins, figurines, and dishware. Everyone, so it seemed, was flinging the catchphrase around with a grin and a chuckle, impervious to the condemnation reigning down from clergymen and other upright citizens.

Issues cropped up when men used “oh you kid” on the street to flirt. Some recipients were indignant; the October 3, 1909 Detroit Free Press recorded one woman’s rejoinder as “you low down, cock-eyed street loafer!” The August 31,1909 Baltimore Sun says a judge fined users of uninvited “kid” comments $25.

Bigger problems took place when the catchphrase was lobbed at a woman within hearing range of a male gallant. The October 28, 1909, New York Times states that a stranger beat up a man who called out “oh you kid” to a young woman–even though the two were married. The judge hearing the case stated “he would not fine any man who administered” such a whipping. At least one fatality is attributed to such street interactions: the October 17, 1909, Baltimore Sun tells of a husband shooting a man to death in Atlanta after a “kid” remark.

The song and its related street altercations epitomized a fundamental contradiction in cities of the era. As young people flooded in to find work, there were naturally more of them out and about in public savoring freedom they never could have experienced back on the farm. This inspired a sense of adventure for most and boldness on the part of some. But an older social code that called for enforced female chastity still held sway.

The success flowing from “Oh! You Kid” opened the floodgates for racy songs, which chipped steadily away at staid social convention. Performers such as Sophie Tucker led the charge with tunes such as “That Loving Soul Kiss,” “Moanin’ Low,” and “I’m the Last of the Red Hot Mammas.” Tucker even turned the tables with a female meditation on adultery called “My Husband’s in the City.”

Thankfully, there are no known reports of street fights taking place over the lyrics of any Tucker songs.