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Maiden Lane: From Brothels To Boutiques

Maiden Lane San Francisco
Maiden Lane, as seen from Union Square, San Francisco

Today Maiden Lane is an upscale, boutique-lined, pedestrian street running east off Union Square, notable chiefly for its gates and for being the home of San Francisco’s only Frank Lloyd Wright designed building. However, the narrow, quiet, street has a scandalous past as one of old San Francisco’s main red-light districts, in the late nineteenth century. At that time a walk down the lane would have been a risky venture, since robbery and assaults were commonplace here, and the only window shopping available would have been of the ladies of the night, sitting in view of the street in their parlors. It’s really quite some transformation, but how did it happen?

Early Years of Maiden Lane

The street’s original name was St Mark’s Place and the first official mention of it was in 1856, when twenty-four residences were listed. The owners seem to have been respectable enough at that point, as the number included several physicians and business owners. Until 1860 much of the area was marked by sand dunes (as were large parts of San Francisco’s peninsula), but in July 1860, the opening of the Market Street Railroad meant that development could proceed west and the area around Union Square was rapidly built up.

In 1862 a Miss Kate Buchanan gained the distinction of opening the first brothel on St Mark’s Place, at number 17. Why here? Probably because prostitution tended to take place on smaller, narrower back alleys, since the city had a policy of ‘containment’, which effectively meant turning a blind eye to establishments such as gambling houses, opium dens and brothels IF they were confined to less visible locations off the main streets.

From there more and more houses of ill-repute opened on the street. A newspaper report from 1869 describes a hack-driver being shot after driving “a party of demi-mondes” from a brothel on St. Mark’s Place to the Cliff House and back. Incredibly, the driver disarmed the shooter, gave him a beating and dragged him to the police station – despite having suffered a gunshot wound to the head. Cabbies were a tough breed in those days it seems. In that year the Board of Supervisors voted to change St. Mark’s Place’s name to Morton Street.

Wild West Era

Morton Street’s fame must have grown quickly, because in 1872 Tomas Redondo (AKA ‘Procopio’, ‘Red Dick’, ‘Dick of the Red Hand’ and ‘Red–Handed Dick’ – what a collection of aliases) and Tomas Murietta, a well-known killer, cattle rustler, horse-thief, and stage coach robber in California, who claimed to be a nephew of legendary bandit Joaquin Murietta, were arrested at a restaurant on the street. Clearly San Francisco literally was the Wild-West in those days.

Other figures associated with the Wild-West who were also regulars at the establishments on Morton Street, were two brothers of Wyatt Earp, Virgil and Warren. Virgil was visiting San Francisco for surgery on his arm, which had been injured in the famous gunfight at Tombstone and they were playing a game of faro in a hotel on the street when the police burst in. It turned out that one of the other gamblers, a man named Charles Falk, had embezzled the money he was losing from his employer! Apparently, the Earp brothers still netted nearly $1,500 from the game though (as a side note the dealer gave his name to the police as ‘A. Stranger’).

By that time the street had been almost completely taken over by vice. Indeed, many of the addresses had fractional numbers by then, such as 112¾, as property owners could make so much money from renting out their houses as brothels. A man named Terence Clark was renting his house during this period for the incredible sum of $100 per month, showing the riches that were to be made on Morton Street from gaming and prostitution. Apparently ‘the Magdalens’, as they were often called, charged from twenty-five cents to a dollar, depending on age and experience.

Area Becomes Tourist Attraction

It seems that street was becoming something of a destination for sight-seeing tours (probably like the red-light district in Amsterdam). One report from the time gave this colorful account:

When a respectable woman came through Morton Street on a slumming tour the prostitutes greeted her with ribald jeers and curses, and cries of ‘Look out, girls, here comes some charity competition!’ and ‘Get some sense and quit giving it away for free!’

According to reports the prostitutes would sit by the window, staring straight ahead, as potential clients walked past on the boardwalk. If a man showed interest he would enquire of her price. Once an agreement had been made, he would enter the premises and the woman would close the shutters. Sounds just like Amsterdam then – allegedly.

Organized Crime on Morton Street

A memorable character from the mid 1870’s, whose story gives a fascinating glimpse into the reality of life on Morton Street, was Martin Mace. According to a local reporter:

He is attired in fashionable clothes, the circumstances tend to prove, however, that he is a consummate villain, and should have long ago been consigned to quarters in San Quentin. Before coming to California, he was a sailor before the mast. His ship went down one night with no apparent reason, and an immense sum of money was paid as insurance. He then abandoned a seafaring life and assumed proprietorship of a house of ill-fame on Morton Street, which business turned out to be much more lucrative that that of a sailor.

The San Francisco Chronicle

With his new-found wealth Mace met and married a young lady from a respectable background. However, he immediately moved her to Morton Street and tried to pimp her out (a common way to get around anti-prostitution laws was to do that as, at that time, a wife was considered her husband’s property and therefore his to sell for sex at his own discretion). Unfortunately for Mace, one day a wealthy bachelor “happened” into his house of ill-repute and, upon hearing her story, determined to rescue her. He managed to spirit her out and send her to the East Coast, although Mace was able to sue him and his two associates and get a settlement of $10,000 in return for dropping the suit.

Crime, as you can see, was rampant on Morton Street, including assault, theft and murder. One issue was that victims of crime would often fail to press charges or turn up at court, since they didn’t want their names associated with such a scandalous place. A newspaper article from the period reported thus:

Lizzie Hall was called to answer a charge of assault to murder. She is charged with having shot a man in a house of ill-fame on Morton Street, about six weeks ago. The case has been continued several times owing to the prostrated condition of the injured man. It was ascertained yesterday that the man had disappeared, and the case was dismissed.

A popular method of robbing patrons of the bordellos was what’s known as ‘the old panel trick’. This was effected by the prostitute putting her clients’ wallet in a closet or drawer – allegedly for safekeeping – while a confederate opened a hidden panel on the other side and removed the victim’s money. Since the client had already paid for the service, he wouldn’t realize until he was back on the street that he’d been robbed, by which time it was too late.

Suicide, unfortunately, was common too. In 1877 a German carpenter called William Shick took his life by shooting himself in the head while drinking heavily in his room at the Germania Hotel (appropriately enough).

The San Francisco Police periodically closed the street down, but none of their embargoes had much affect and business would quickly return once the short blockade of the street ended. Hardly surprising really when you consider that many of the policeman were running protection rackets themselves. When the Police Commission finally got round to investigating corruption one officer admitted that he had “been investigated before by the Commission for unofficer-like conduct in a house of ill repute on Morton Street.” 

However, one police raid “captured a large number of the inmates, who had been making themselves more conspicuous than the law allows.” Nevertheless, many prostitutes evaded capture as “within the past few days, in a number of the houses, doors have been made, leading to the adjoining houses through which the inmates pass when in danger of arrest.” Morton Street had, in fact, colonized many of the surrounding buildings.

Even more amusingly, in 1885 the California Supreme Court moved into premises on Post Street, where the rear windows would look down magisterially on Morton Street. In those circumstances is it any wonder that when the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance making it a criminal offense for Morton Street property owners to rent their premises for immoral purposes, that Judge Love (was there ever a more appropriate name?) struck down the rule, using the novel argument that it violated the separation of powers by giving the Chief of Police the power to pass moral judgment on the tenants’ activities?

One of the best-known parlor houses was run by ‘Diamond’ Carrie Maclay. In 1891 she died there at just thirty-six years old from an opium overdose, under circumstances that suggested a carefully planned suicide (she was an experienced addict, had a large party with close friends the night before and wrote a will only a few months earlier, as well as spending $11,000 on medical bills in the last year of her life). She left her library, two paintings, a silver tray and pitcher, and two silver goblets to her “dear friend” Judge Richard Mesick.

What made this last bequest so intriguing was the entwining of their initials on the goblets. Maclay’s 1893 estate appraisal listed twenty-three pieces of expensive diamond jewelry – explaining her sobriquet. When Mesick died later that same year the newspapers described him as a high-living Virginia City lawyer (and later judge) during the Comstock silver rush. The newspapers also reported a high number of bills from restaurants and brothels.

End of Prostitution on Morton Street

By 1896 the atmosphere in the city was changing rapidly. The year before Mayor Sutro had been elected on a populist platform of reform and cleaning up political corruption. The Police Commission announced that all Morton Street prostitutes had to vacate their premises by March 4, or they would be arrested and, just like that, they were gone.

It was obvious now to everyone that the Police did, indeed, have the power to shut down the brothels – if there was sufficient political willpower. Within a few years many of the buildings on Morton Street had been pulled down and new, larger, commercial buildings been constructed. By that time most of the prostitution had concentrated around the Barbary Coast neighborhood.

Maiden Lane Gets a Makeover

In 1900 Morton Street was renamed Union Square Avenue. There was a scheme to turn the alley into a European-style arcade, devised by J. W. Raphael of Raphael’s Dry Goods Store and Moses A. Gunst, owner of a chain of cigar stores, but the 1906 Great Fire put an end to that. It also had further name changes, to Manila Alley in 1909 and Maiden Lane in 1922, which it’s remained to this day. It’s generally understood that the street took the name from the Maiden Lanes in Covent Garden, London and Manhattan, New York. 

Cars were banned in 1955, an unusual measure at the time, to further improve Morton Street’s aesthetic qualities and therefore boost the commercial prospects of the businesses on it. That certainly seems to have worked. Nowadays it’s worth seeing just as an example of how cities can be reimagined to prioritize the pedestrian – which is actually great for business. In 1958 urbanist, author and journalist Jane Jacobs wrote the following, and it’s still true today:

Starting with nothing more remarkable than the dirty, neglected back sides of department stores and nondescript buildings, a group of merchants made this alley into one of the finest shopping streets in America. Maiden Lane has trees along its sidewalks, redwood benches to invite the sightseer or window shopper or buyer to linger, sidewalks of colored paving, sidewalk umbrellas when the sun gets hot.

All the merchants do things differently: some put out tables with their wares, some hang out window boxes and grow vines. All the buildings, old and new, look individual; the most celebrated is an expanse of tan brick with a curved doorway, by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The pedestrian’s welfare is supreme; during the rush of the day, he has the street.

Maiden Lane is an oasis with an irresistible sense of intimacy, cheerfulness, and spontaneity. It is one of San Francisco’s most powerful downtown magnets. Downtown can’t be remade into a bunch of Maiden Lanes; and it would be insufferably quaint if it were. But the potential illustrated can be realized by any city and in its own particular way.

Jane Jacobs, Fortune
Maiden Lane, San Francisco
Maiden Lane today

We take a walk down Maiden Lane, and take you on a trip back to its decadent past, on our Notorious SF: Scandal & Crime tour, every Saturday night at 6 pm.

If you have any feedback on Maiden Lane: from Brothels to Boutiques please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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