Lancaster’s Notorious Past

Did you know Lancaster was once infamous as a “wide open” city for vice? Around 1900, police and other officials encouraged and even participated in prostitution, gambling, and drinking.

Cabs idled in front of brothels on Water Street. Red lights illuminated the transom windows, while music from player pianos invited passersby to the temptations inside.

Lancaster had brothels to fit every budget. To find them, visitors only needed to talk to a waiter, bartender, or pool hall hustler. Traveling businessmen also met full-time sex workers in restaurants or hotel lobbies, where they could retire to a furnished room, paid for by the hour. On an evening stroll through the city center, men found wage-earning women looking for dates. After their factory shifts, these women offered sex in exchange for a restaurant meal or movie tickets.

The mayor’s approach to vice was “live and let live.” He was known as a live wire who supported and participated in vice. Found in the city’s alleys, cafes, cigar stores, theaters, and dance halls, vice seemed to be everywhere. It was hardly a secret.

The prevalence of vice troubled some city leaders. The Reverend Clifford Twombly worked to stop vice by voting out corrupt politicians, raising wages for working women, and closing brothels.

Reformers tried to put the lid on vice in Lancaster. Did they succeed? Follow Lancaster Vice to find out.

Lancaster Vice tells the story of the criminal world of commercial sex, gambling, and drinking with a walking tour, “The Lancaster Vice Files” podcast, and a blog.

You will meet the men and women who labored in vice–the gamblers, speakeasy owners, brothel keepers, and more. These are people who would not usually make it into history books, or on to historical markers or monuments. You will learn how these seemingly ordinary people navigated legal, political, and economic challenges and how vice fit into their work, leisure, and families. Some had big dreams–to travel far from their homes and the drudgery of their jobs, with the hope of finding a life of romance and luxury. Others had more immediate and pragmatic goals. Survival.

M. Alison Kibler, professor of American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Franklin & Marshall College, created Lancaster Vice with the assistance of F&M students: Jillian Barger, Carly Bozzo, Omar Khan, Jayden LaCoe, Grace Lewis, Kylie Loughney, Maria Leon Reyes, Lauren Proffitt, Rachel Rubins, Dylan Sykes, and Lauren Sphar. Mabel Rosenheck, of LancasterHistory, helped develop the walking tour. The Center for Sustained Engagement with Lancaster and the Catalyst Fund, both at Franklin & Marshall College, provided financial support.

Meet Your Guides

Get to Know Your Guides

How It Works

What to Expect


Register in Advance

Advance registration is strongly encouraged.

Time and distance:

The walking tour lasts 90 minutes and covers approximately 1 mile over city sidewalks. Please wear comfortable shoes and plan to arrive 10 minutes before the scheduled start of the tour.


The tour starts at Lancaster City Welcome Center, at 38 Penn Square. The tour ends at Water Street.

Ticket Prices:



In the event of inclement weather, any cancellation will be made at least two hours before the tour start time and ticket holders will be notified via email. Tours will proceed if there is light rain, but may be rescheduled if there are thunderstorms or especially heavy rain in the forecast. Full refunds or rescheduled tickets will be offered if a tour is canceled due to weather.

Group Size

Tour groups will not be larger than 16.


This program is recommended for those who are over 18.


With 24+ hours prior to a walking tour, Lancaster Vice offers a full credit for the value of the booking. Cancellations with less than 24 hours prior to the tour or no shows cannot be credited.


Alison.Kibler@lancastervice.com with questions.