This is the first installation of a three-part article Satan’s Circus: Broads, Booze and Bets.
Almost on a daily basis, there is another addition to NoMad New York‘s nightlife, but it is unlikely that it will ever rival the neighborhood’s wild offerings in the last half of the 19th Century.
Satan’s Circus was in the heart of NoMad, running from 25th to 30th Streets just west of Broadway, and it had specialized streets dedicated to bars, prostitutes and gambling. By 1885, police estimated that half of all the buildings in Satan’s Circus were dedicated to some form of deviant behavior. The area would later serve as the base of a broader tract of decadence, the famous “Tenderloin.”
Broadway was the backbone of the area, where nightly femme de pave solicited tourist johns and fleeced the ones that the hordes of pickpockets didn’t get. Famous bars lined the avenue that was to become known as “The Line” and later as “The Great White Way,” when Edison electrified this stretch of Broadway, and gambling houses operated to the east and west of Broadway.
After the Civil War, houses of prostitution operated under the noses of New York census takers and police, even though they were just as illegal then as they are now. Records show that census takers did not hesitate to list “House of Prostitution” under the trade/occupation category. The police department was completely corrupt in the ranks and contaminated by Tammany Hall from above so they did little to bring order to the area. Even when John A. Kennedy, a famous NYC Police Superintendent, tried to close down the show in Satan’s Circus, he was overwhelmed with noncooperation from his cops. When he was able to shut down a house, Tammany Hall would have it reopened by the next morning. Payoffs were so blatant that it led Alexander Williams, newly assigned to head the 29th District, to say, “Well, I’ve been transferred. I’ve had nothing but chuck steak for awhile, and now I’m going to get me a little of the tenderloin.” “Tenderloin” would become synonymous with graft and corruption.
In his 1992 book City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790 – 1920, Timothy J. Gilfoyle placed the number of Manhattan brothels at 500, and NoMad had more than its fair share. The range of houses of prostitution in NoMad’s Satan’s Circus and the clientele that patronized them varied greatly, and some were very fine indeed.
Sisters’ Row, which was located on 25th Street, was a series of seven side-by-side brothels run by seven sisters, who had come to New York from a New England village seeking fame and fortune. Sisters’ Row was considered the most expensive bordello in New York City. It was frequented by the blue bloods of society — only the rich could afford their prices. On certain days of the month, no man was admitted unless he had an engraved invitation, wore evening dress, and carried a bouquet of flowers. And on Christmas Eve, all the proceeds garnered that night on Sisters’ Row was donated to charity.
This high-class establishment was only one of the choices. A look at descriptions in The Gentleman’s Directory, a 55-page pocket guide published in 1870, gives an idea of the range of brothels in Satan’s Circus. The directory listed more than 150 Manhattan establishments, identifying 49 in Satan’s Circus and 23 on West 27th Street alone.
The Gentleman’s Directory professed to be a guide to help people avoid such places: “We point out the location of these places in order that the reader may know how to avoid them and that he may not select one of them for his boarding house when he comes to the city.” The detailed information on each house and its occupants provided by the directory belies this stated intention. Some houses were lauded, while critics didn’t mince words when there were house they didn’t like (or who refused to buy ads in the guide). Here are just some of the guidebooks entries, as they appeared in the original pocketbook:
105 W 25th St.
… is kept by Mrs. Kate Woods, better known among the aristocracy as Hotel De Wood. This is a 2 story brownstone house, furnished with the most costly and newest improvements. Her gallery of oil paintings alone cost $10, 000 ($170, 000 today). Rosewood furniture mimes mirrors, Parisian figures, etc… The house is furnished at a cost of $70, 000 ($1,119,950 today). She keeps three young ladies of rare personal attractions and her house receives the patronage of distinguished gentlemen from foreign countries. This is the best house in 25th St.
116 W 26th St
… is a parlor house kept by Sarah Wilbur, this house is most elegantly furnished, the proprietress is a very pleasant and agreeable lady, of a fun loving disposition. She has seven lady boarders, who are very affectionate and agreeable. Gentlemen seeking for pleasure, will be very agreeable entertained. This is a first class house.
127 W 26th St.
… is a ladies boarding house of the second class, kept by Madame Buemont. There is a report of a bear being kept in the cellar, but for what reason may be inferred. There is not anything else attractive about the place.
47 W 27th St
… is a ladies boarding house presided over by Jenny Mitchell, a very agreeable and entertaining lady, who has 4 highly accomplished young lady boarders. The house is furnished in a very elaborate manner, with every requisite for enjoyment. It is a first class house, quiet and orderly.
103 W 27th St.
Mrs Emma Brown…There is no attraction about this house. It has four boarders and rates second class.
104 W 27 St.
This house is kept by Miss Maggie Pierce, (better known as Little Maggie of 30 12th St.) The house is well furnished and fitted up in elegant style. The landlady is good-looking and very entertaining. She has 7 young lady boarder of pleasing manners and ready wit. This is a very quiet and orderly house.
105 W 27th St.
… is a second class establishment. It is asserted that the landlady and her servants are as sour as her wine.
107 W 27th St.
This house is kept by Miss Fanny Harvey; is newly frescoed, painted and furnished with the most costly furniture, carpets, mirrors and paintings. It has seven lady boarders, young, good-looking and accomplished; they are of a cheerful, lively disposition whose merry laugh resounds through the entire palace of beauty. This is a first class house in every respect; it is quiet and orderly.
123 W 27th St.
Miss Anna Manzoe. This is a first class Ladies Seminary, conducted by an accomplished and intelligent lady, who has a class of seven beautiful young lady scholars who do credit to her establishment. The house is newly furnished in a magnificent style, is very quiet and orderly, and first class in every respect.
128 W 27th St.
Mrs Lizzie Goodrich, the dashing brunette, whose smiling face is ever ready to welcome her patrons keeps this house. Mrs. Lizzie as she is generally called, has five good-looking lady boarders whose cheerful dispositions tend to drive away the blues. There is a regular physician attached to this house, and every attention is shown its visitors. As a first class house, it is neatly and comfortably fitted up, and is very quiet and orderly.
134 W 27th St.
Kate Davis’ boarding house has four boarders. The landlady, being of very sullen disposition, a visit there would be disagreeable to the visitor.
140 W 27th St.
Mrs Cutler… lets her rooms to enterprising young ladies.
As covered in the next installation of this article, these houses of prostitution were not the only places to find “love.” Broadway was an open market of prostitutes from 7PM to 11PM each evening, and virtually every large bar and dance hall had upstairs rooms available by the hour. Some bars such as the Haymarket and Buckingham Palace Saloon also offered booths where johns could get a quick strip show or more.
The area was wide open and broads, booze and bets could be found chockablock on all the avenues and side streets of Satan’s Circus. The area’s renown was legendary and foreigners and US travelers from New England, Midwest, West, and South knew exactly where to find what they were looking for. Interestingly, that is why experts conjecture that so few copies of The Gentleman’s Directory survive. Visitors likely bought the guide for $1.00 and discarded it before heading home to their wives and mothers.
NoMad still draws people from all over the world, but now they are more likely to come for the most recent cocktail creation, a world-class meal or a stay in a luxurious (legitimate) hotel — all decidedly more restrained and safer than the life filling the streets of NoMad at the end of the 19th Century.