The Levee, Chicago

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

Jump to: navigation, search
South Dearborn Street in the Levee, c. 1911. The Everleigh Club, a notorious high-priced brothel, is on the far right.

The Levee District was the red-light district of Chicago, Illinois, from the 1880s until 1912, when police raids shut it down. The district, like many frontier town red-light districts, gets its name from its proximity to wharves in the city. Chicago’s Levee district encompassed 4 blocks in Chicago’s south loop area, between 18th and 22nd street.[1] It was home to many brothels, saloons, dance halls, and the famed Everleigh Club. Prostitution boomed in the Levee District, and it was not until the Chicago Vice Commission submitted a report on the city’s vice districts, that it was eventually shut down.


The Levee District opened up in the 1880s and was home to many brothels, saloons, dance halls, and other similar places. These businesses ranged from rough dives like Pony Moore’s or the Turf Exchange Saloon, to prestigious infamous clubs like The Everleigh Club.

In order to receive protection, Levee inhabitants would annually attend the biggest event in the district, The First Ward Ball. The First Ward Ball was an annual event in which Levee residents gathered to fun and celebrate the triumphs brought to them by Michael 'Hinky Dink' Kenna and “Bathouse” John Coughlin. Madams, corrupt businessmen, dance-hall owners, saloon owners, prostitutes, brothel owners, and gamblers attended the event to support their aldermen for continuing to protect them from the law for their illegal acts. The money they raised came from the attendees purchase of tickets for the event and alcohol. When anti-vice reformers protested about the event, Kenna justified the cause for the event benefiting the people in the district, such as education and community programs. The First Ward Ball of 1908 was the most significant of these events because it was the last ball that the most prominent figures of the Levee attended. That year, anti-vice reformers tried to stop the ball from happening by bombing The Coliseum, the arena where the ball would be held at. The ball still went on and was successful. The following ball would prove otherwise. The First Ward Ball of 1909 was unsuccessful because anti-vice reformers worked towards getting the city to revoke the license for alcohol at the event. They succeeded and about 3,000 people attended, that is less than a quarter of the attendance of the previous balls. That year, reformers like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), worked towards stopping these events from happening because they felt that they were not good for the families in the Levee.[2]

Anti-Vice Reformers

The Levee districts success in vice came to an end when reformers such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and Chicago Vice Commission CVC (established by Carter Harrison, Jr.) worked towards publicly exposing the issue of white slavery and alcohol. The WCTU had a “department of rescue” in efforts to save women forced into white slavery. They also had a “department of social purity” which raised sexual consent laws. The WCTU paid investigators to conduct studies on forced prostitution in Midwest lumber camps that would all help them publish a journal with stories of women working as prostitutes in Chicago (Levee District), San Francisco, and New York. WTCU worked to fight for gender equality. Their efforts helped implement programs like living wage, 8-hour work days, marriage of equals, and the ballot, which all worked towards the solution of ending prostitution.[3]

The Chicago Vice Commission, as well as the WCTU, worked towards investigating the conditions the women working in the Levee were under. The CVC wanted to work towards terminating vice districts, such as the Levee. The members spoke to prostitutes, police, neighborhood organizations to investigate the issue of prostitution. The CVC published a report, The Social Evil in Chicago, which included all of the demographics of prostitution and recommendations for improvement. The report concluded that about 5,000 professional prostitutes worked in Chicago, about 5 million men were receiving services from them, they were mostly uneducated and unskilled, they had little to no opportunities for economic advancement, and they made about $25 weekly. The Social Evil in Chicago report was read around the world and influenced vice commissions in 43 cities towards getting rid of vice districts.[4]

Closure of The Levee[edit]

It was very hard to close the entire Levee District down and was a ‘’long’’, ‘’slow’’ process. Many reformers and reverends like Ernest Bell and Clifford Roe wanted it to be closed because they thought it was immoral to make girls do that type of work. It began on January 9th, 1910 when Nathaniel Ford Moore died in Vic Shaw’s brothel. Shaw was going to try and frame Minna Everleigh but Minna had found out before she got the chance too. Therefore, Vic Shaw was forced to call the police to report the dead and her brothel was closed. A year later, on October 3rd, 1911 the state’s attorney had gotten warrants for one hundred and thirty-five people associated with the Levee including Big Jim Colosimo, Ed Weiss, Roy Jones, and Vic Shaw. The warrants were to shut down halls, saloons, and other brothels. Following this, many people were being arrested within brothels; in Marie Blanchey’s brothel twenty women and thirty men were arrested. Word was spreading about corruption in the government so, on October 24th, 1911 Mayor Harrison had ordered to close the Everleigh Club. That very next day it was shut down. Many places in the Levee District were shut down in 1911, but it limped on for two more years. One of the last brothels to be closed was Freiberg’s Dance Hall which celebrated its last night on August 24th, 1914.[5]

Notable persons associated with the Levee District[edit]

Prostitution in Chicago After the Levee District[edit]

Although the Levee District had closed down in 1912, prostitution continued to be a problem in Chicago. The closing of the Levee had initiated changes throughout the sexual commerce. There were no longer brothels in order for this solicitation to occur but that didn’t stop these men and women from getting it done. They moved from brothels and saloons to cabarets, nightclubs and other nighttime scenes. The solicitation was still available in these nightclubs, saloons and hotels and the sex entrepreneurs were willing to still pay the law enforcement to keep quiet. In the beginning of the 1920s, vice syndicates of the time moved areas where law enforcement was easier to persuade- the suburbs.[6] Although laws were established in regards of the prostitution, they were not backed up by the court system. It’s no wonder why prostitution still was around in the 1960s. “In many cases, the defendant did not appear in trial for which case the charges were dropped and the bond seized.” [7] Even when they were sentenced, it was shown that none of the prostitutes were sentenced correctly. Only 15 of the 320 cases were found guilty in a group of cases they had selected.[8] In the last decades of the 20th century, establishments similar to those of prostitution reentered the cities. New businesses like peepshows, massage parlors and bars featuring live showgirls were opening up. They didn’t last long because in the 1980s, some of these were shut down and turned into condominiums, restaurants and high-end retail stores.[9] Although these sex establishments were closed down, it didn’t stop the prostitution. Prostitution solicitation was something still around despite the laws and ordinances passed throughout the years.


  1. ^ ”Vice Districts.” Vice Districts. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
  2. ^ Kendall. “First Ward Ball.” Chicagocrimescenes.blogspot.Blogspot, 9 May. 2009. Web. 27 Nov. 2013,
  3. ^ Kubal, Timothy. “White Slave Crusades: Race Gender and Anti-Vice Activism 1887-1917 (review).” Journal of Social History, Volume 40, Number 4, (2007): 1057-1059. Web. 27 Nov 2013.
  4. ^ Linehan, Mary. “Vice Commissions.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2005. Web. 27 Nov. 2013
  5. ^ * Abbott, Karen (2007) Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul. New York: Random House ISBN 978-1-4000-6530-1
    • Asbury, Herbert (1940). Gem of the Prairie. New York: Knopf. 
  6. ^ Cynthia Blair Prostitution Electronic Historical Encyclopedia of Chicago 2005
  7. ^ Courts fail to back city's tough prostitution law: study: Courts fail to back city prostitution law Swanson, Stevenson Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); Nov 19, 1981; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1990) pg. N1
  8. ^ Courts fail to back city's tough prostitution law: study: Courts fail to back city prostitution law Swanson, Stevenson Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); Nov 19, 1981; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1990) pg. N1
  9. ^ Cynthia Blair Prostitution Electronic Historical Encyclopedia of Chicago 2005

External links[edit]