Red Lights and Silk Stockings
Blaine County's Ribald Past
Photography: Courtesy of Idaho State Historical Society and The Regional History Department of The Community Library
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Historical records show brothels on the southeast corner of Main and Fifth streets, the west side of Washington Avenue between Third and Fourth streets and lining the alley in back of today’s Sawtooth Club on Ketchum’s Main Street.
Jenny Hardy is said to have hung her covert advertisement of red curtains in the window of one of the more lavish bordellos. But as the mining boom began to fade, Hardy retired the business. She sold the building to merchant and ex-postmaster E.B. Williams, who moved it several blocks east to Main Street, and turned it into the highly respectable Williams Hotel, which burned in 1904.
Hailey soon after became a bustling community of its own and, accordingly, along with its numerous businesses, saloons and two newspapers, played host to its own ladies of the evening.
Their houses of prostitution lined River Street between Galena and Bullion streets, says Holland. Among the notorious was the “Palace of Sin,” thought to have been the one run by Peggy Palmer. Palmer’s chief rival, Dot Allen, had a bordello a block away. Allen was said to have been an exquisite beauty, well dressed and dripping in jewels, and secretly admired as a shrewd businesswoman who earned enough to send her brothers and sisters to college.
Not to be outdone, by the mid-1880s Bellevue’s red light district had three brothels filled with tantalizing women. Tawdry tales were a given, but true love was not unheard of. Miners and cowboys were ragged around the edges themselves and forgiving when it came to questionable morality.
In “Bellevue Bustled in the 1880s,” an article by John Kelley, he wrote that one man fell so hard for a Bellevue belle that he shot himself in the heart in Hailey’s old Mint Saloon, unable to bear the thought that she was in the company of other men.
Alas, maybe if he had waited, he could have made an honest woman out of his quarry, because by 1907, Holland says, Bellevue’s red light district was gone, chased out by the city charter, which ordered local government to suppress “disorderly houses, houses of ill fame.”
While other towns cleaned up their streets, prostitution still had a hold elsewhere in the Valley for many more years.
In fact, in Hailey, the houses of prostitution remained north of Bullion Street on both sides of River Street for nearly 30 more years. Brothels on River Street extended as far north as where Zaney’s River Street Coffee House is today.
Public records of these three decades are scarce since “local census takers were loathe to ruin a town’s image, few sporting women appear in the returns,” Spence writes. “The profession remained generally invisible, carried officially as ‘servants,’ female ‘hotel keepers,’ or ‘boarders.’”
Newspaper editors also largely ignored the goings-on in the red light districts, though they no doubt knew the latest news and how to get it thanks to word of mouth.
Multiple literary sources document the flashy spending patterns of prostitutes.
The best paid prostitutes seldom made even as much as $20 and half of that money went to the madam for care, room and board, according to author Anne Seagraves. What spare cash they had went to fancy clothes, jewelry and perfumes, as well as vices such as cigarettes and alcohol.
Madams typically had accounts with local merchants and the girls could charge purchases on her account. Merchants usually added a tax to the madam’s account, sometimes as much as 20 percent, and the girls made up for that difference in repayment. The result was that many found themselves in a seemingly eternal cycle of debt and repayment.
Prostitutes were expected to stay out of the public eye, so they did their shopping through backdoor entrances and at unusual shopping hours. Typically, one night per week was designated for their shopping expeditions, when area stores would open up to accommodate them.
The J.C. Fox Store, which sold dresses, jewelry and lotions, was located on Main Street in Hailey, and had just such a special entrance. Fox was said to make trips to big cities to buy the latest fashions for his clientele. He opened his back door entrance after hours for the prostitutes.
Hailey native Lois Jean Heagle recalls that her father Lawrence F. Heagle, who was later a state senator and the mayor of Hailey, worked for the local drugstore, J. J. Tracy’s, before his political career. He often delivered goods to the houses of ill-repute in Hailey. Heagle recalls hearing stories of the silver dollar the hookers gave her father during one of these exchanges. The then high school aged young man always noted how polite the women at these houses were.