“Occupation: Social Evil”

“There has been sin in the universe ever since Satan tore Heaven asunder and hell was born, and hand to hand with sin, down through the aisle of time, both in sacred and profane history, has stalked ‘The Scarlet Woman’ – at once man’s creation, man’s sorrow and man’s curse.”

– "Missouri Republican", December 29, 1872

Of the many historical events St. Louis is known for – the Dred Scott case, the 1904 World’s Fair, the departure of the Lewis and Clark expedition – a less often remembered incident is the passage of the “Social Evil” ordinance. Enacted by the city council in 1870, this ordinance made St. Louis the first United States city to legalize prostitution.  As a provision of this ordinance, taxes were levied on prostitutes and brothels who registered with the city. These taxes were then used to build what was known as the Social Evil Hospital for the treatment of prostitutes in 1873, at the intersection of Arsenal and Sublette Streets. Registered prostitutes who tested positive for venereal diseases during regular examinations were forcibly compelled to seek treatment at this hospital. In 1875, the Social Evil Hospital was renamed the Female Hospital of Saint Louis, and was opened to the treatment of the city’s poor and indigent women and children, while continuing to treat its prostitutes. Numerous factors, including public opposition to the ordinance, as well as limited compliance with its strictures by the city’s prostitutes and madams, led to its nullification in 1874. The Female Hospital continued to treat patients for a few years, before briefly became a home for the aged from the city’s poor house. It was finally demolished in 1915.

The Becker Medical Library Archives holds several items related to the Social Evil Hospital, most notably an 1876-1886 register of patients admitted to the Female Hospital, as well as a transcript of an 1878 Missouri Republican article which records the first official inspection of the Social Evil Hospital. These two items reveal two different sides of the controversial Hospital’s operation. The 1878 article recounts the inspection of the Hospital by upstanding members of society, including the Mayor, members of the Board of Health, and press representatives. The article’s author describes the hospital’s patients, noting, “Some were giggling, others were sullen and others were completely indifferent. Questions were readily answered, and the parties would talk of going back to their old resorts without concern. With one or two exceptions, the character of the females appeared to be about as low as it could descend.”

The Mayor’s address to the patients is also recorded. In it, he acknowledges the gender disparity in the ordinance’s persecution of the female prostitutes while largely ignoring their male customers, saying, “…some of you seem to think that the city is treating you unfairly in not letting you go where you please, and do as you please. You probably have the right to think that in view of men being permitted to do as they please and go where they please; and it is a hardship to undertake to control women without controlling men in the same way. But you all understand that while we can control you to some extent, it is difficult to get at the men. You have places where you eat and sleep, and where you see men; they steal in overnight or manage in some way to elude the police, and you will see that to undertake to control the men as we are at present controlling you women, we should have to have a policeman at every door.”

The patient ledger of the Female Hospital gives no voice to the female patients of the hospital, but in the minimal descriptives recorded concerning them – including their age, diagnosis, and occupation – small glimpses into the lives of poor women and prostitutes in St. Louis in the 1870’s and 1880’s emerges. In 1877, a 15-year-old prostitute is discharged one month after being admitted for treatment for gonorrhea, while a few months later, another prostitute, aged 18 years and a lifelong resident of the city, delivers a baby boy at the hospital. Addiction and mental illness are also represented in the ledger’s pages. An 1876 patient, a 52-year-old widow and music teacher, dies one day after being admitted with a diagnosis of alcoholism, while a year later a 49-year-old’s diagnosis reads “opium eater.” In 1878, a 36-year- old married housewife is discharged two months after being admitted with a diagnosis of “melancholia.” The occupations listed for these women are varied. In the fiscal year of 1879 – 1880 alone, the hospital admitted female servants, prostitutes, housewives, laundresses, cooks, dressmakers, seamstresses, vagrants, nurses, factory girls, book agents, peddlers, actresses, type setters, and one fortune teller.

More sympathetic contemporary newspaper articles – including an 1872 Missouri Republican article held by the Missouri History Museum archives – allows some insight into the patients’ state of mind. One inmate of the hospital notes that the money collected from the prostitutes by the ordinance’s tax paid for the hospital and its accoutrements and therefore “…we are beholden to no one, and have nothing to be grateful for.”  The article’s author notes, “They have a feeling, which is easily discerned though they seldom can frame it in words, that society has marked out their path for them; the world keeps them in it; and the rebuffs, unkindness and insults met with in trying to get out of it would be about as bad as the woes of the present, without any of the present’s enjoyments.”

Nothing now remains of the building which housed these women – Sublette Park now stands on the former site of the Hospital. However, the stories of the Social Evil Hospital, as well as of St. Louis’s experiment with legal prostitution, endure in the newspapers, ledgers, and reports which remain in Missouri archives.

There are a number of interesting articles on the Social Evil Hospital’s life and eventual death, including those that cover prior attempts to treat prostitutes at City Hospital and the Hospital’s connection with famous American-born French dancer Josephine Baker. You can access the archival materials mentioned at the Bernard Becker Medical Library’s Archives or the Missouri History Museum Archives.

Many thanks to Dennis Northcott, Associate Archivist for Reference, Missouri History Museum, for his assistance procuring material for this article.