In downtown Salt Lake, just past Cedars of Lebanon and Este Pizza, you’ll find Edison Street. It’s really more of an alley at this point—its only distinguishing feature is a brightly colored mural lining one wall, an image of the Virgin Mary surrounded by Latin words of the Ave Maria. The mural is perhaps more ironic than was intended. If you stand right beneath it, that haloed holy figure appears to stretch her arms toward you, as if she might gather all the people on the street into those arms of forgiveness. And rightly so. Nearly 200 years ago, Edison was home to Salt Lake’s very own red light district.
No one knows exactly when prostitution first took hold of this city of saints, and documentation of Salt Lake’s seedy history is hard to come by, but the few photos and accounts that exist point to the 1800s and early 1900s as the heyday for whorehouses. Madams operated their businesses right under city officials’ noses, until the working girls began to outnumber the well-to-do and city fathers decided they’d had enough. In 1907, Police Chief Thomas D. Pitt suggested a change in the city’s policies surrounding prostitution, and Mayor John Bransford and several city councilmen set to work on a solution. And thus the stockade was built. Completed in December 1908, the stockade covered a square block between 500 and 600 West and 100 and 200 South and sheltered the city’s upstanding citizens from the local sex business without shutting down the operation.
From Gallivan to the Gateway
Directly east of Main Street, the hub of business activity in the late 1800s, Regent Street—then named Commercial Street—was also the center of prostitution, along with Plum Alley, Floral Street and Edison Street. The Gallivan Center used to be a ghetto of sin—the whole block once housed several whorehouses. At night, gentlemen in top hats would mingle with railroad workers and miners on these side streets seeking liquor, sex and opium in the predominantly Chinese Plum Alley. Edison Street, behind the former Ken Sanders Rare Books, was home to a “colored” vaudeville theater. “In the early 1900s that was the African-American red light district,” Sanders says.
After Mayor Bransford gave the go-ahead on construction of the stockade, councilmen Martin E. Mulvey and L.D. Martin, also the architect, helped to set the plan into motion. There were a few discreet entrances in the surrounding walls of the stockade, and once inside men would find rows of “cribs”—small rooms just big enough for a bed and built in a line to accommodate as many clients and girls as possible. It might have been a challenge to convince a whole network of hustlers and madams to move from their downtown paradise to an empty lot a few blocks west. But the mayor had Dora B. Topham, the queen of the red light madams, in his arsenal.
Queen of the Underworld
Also known as Belle London, Topham was the woman who ruled this haven of prostitution, according to Jeffrey Nichols, associate professor of history at Westminster College and author of Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power. She had her beginnings as a well-known madam in Ogden and was the owner of London Ice Cream Parlor on 25th Street, though customers did not frequent the shop for the ice cream. She was equally popular in Salt Lake, and when it became apparent that the Stockade would need an investor and owner, it was essentially a brokered deal between the city fathers and the madam. Says Sanders, “They told her they’d leave her alone if she practiced her trade in only this area.”
Topham made an ideal candidate for the stockade manager: She had been in the business of prostitution for many years; she was respected, rich and powerful within the scope of that world and she had worked alongside city officials before. “Why officials did not choose a Salt Lake madam is unclear,” Nichols writes. “Several women had been operating houses with the connivance of the authorities for years.” Whether other madams turned down the job or weren’t savvy enough to juggle politics and prostitutes, Topham—an out-of-towner—was able to manage the tricky trade, which was riddled with theft, drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide. But, after a long bout of reform attempts and a pandering conviction, the do-gooders finally got their way and Tophman closed the stockade in September 1911.
With little literature and few historical accounts, the ghosts of the prostitutes and madams of Salt Lake’s streets have been reduced to legends and folklore. “[There are so few] first-hand materials from the women themselves,” says Nichols, whose book is the only existing academic history on the sex business in Salt Lake’s earlier years. “[I] did talk to one family, who told me about some indirect, vague language their very old great-grandmother used that, once I provided some documentation, made them realize some 60 years later that she was referring obliquely to as a madam.”
Newspapers proved also to be some of the few lasting documents on prostitution, Nichols says, using the sex business to teach a moral lesson. But the validity of the facts, including names, was often neglected and highlights the disregard society held for prostitutes. Of course, none of the city’s more notorious criminals, streetwalkers and drug dealers wanted notoriety, and the most colorful figures were able to exist off the books. Preservation of the district’s architecture—hardly a priority—was also ignored. While Floral Street and Edison Street still exist, most of the area has been renovated beyond recognition. “Victoria Alley is now under the Gallivan Center, most of the Stockade is under the Gateway, and Plum Alley is under a parking garage,” Nichols says.