A prominent brothel stood on the corner of N. Prince and W. Walnut a century ago. It was known as the best brothel in town. This spot has gone through many changes since then–a painting and coating business, a tire retailer, and now Our Town Brewery. What can the “best” brothel in the city tell us about the geography of commercial sex in Lancaster, Pennsylvania 110 years ago?

I know about this brothel from reading the secret files of the anti-vice investigators who came to Lancaster for one month in 1913. These undercover investigators were agents for the American Vigilance Association who posed as traveling salesmen looking for a good time or as people interested in buying into the business associated with vice. They traveled around the city talking to brothel keepers and owners, waiters, bell boys, and sex workers about their experiences in vice, how much money they were making, how the police treated them, and more. They left behind their notes from their investigation. Although their notes are partial and often biased, their records nevertheless provide clues to the operations, people, and profits of vice in Lancaster one hundred years ago. 

One investigator, Jules Simon, who was from New Jersey, described his entrance to the brothel at the corner of Prince and Water streets in this way: 

“The inmate [The investigators referred to the women who lived and worked in brothels as inmates] who admitted me assisted me in removing my coat and hat. She then called from the ‘music room’ six other handsome girls, all dressed in evening gowns. 

The very first thing said by one of the inmates was, ‘From the Franklin & Marshall College?’

I replied, ‘At one time [This was part of his disguise; he was not actually a graduate of F&M] but not now, do any of the boys come here?’ She replied, ‘Do they? I should say they do.’ [Students had made quite a scene at the house a few months earlier; we’ll get to that later]”

This brothel  had plush wool rugs and expensive furniture. There was fine art on the walls.The sex workers who lived here were pretty, elegant. Jules Simon noted that they did not swear. There was a maid and a cook. Simon recognized one of the sex workers–Millie– from his work as an investigator in New York City. She liked working here because her expenses were less than in New York City; and her income was just as good as it had been in a big city. Millie made $50-$60 per week but paid half to the brothel keeper. She also owed the brothel keeper for the evening gowns, which the brothel keeper likely marked up considerably, and paid $1 per week for a doctor’s exam. Even with all these expenses, Millie was making more than wage-earning women who toiled in domestic service or factories. Millie encouraged Jules Simon to come upstairs for $2 or for $5, but did not offer any details about what he could expect for the higher price. Simon concluded that “this house compares, in its conduct and inmates, very favorably with New York’s best houses.” 

Who ran this house? It had been Alice Adams’ house for five decades. After Adams died in 1907, Edna Carson, whose sister Minnie, also ran houses for commercial sex, took over as brothel keeper.  An investigator described Edna as “tall, coarse, thin, conceited, illiterate” [Harsh descriptions like this were common. It’s unclear how the investigator would have known about her ability to read] Carson had a prominent romantic partner, who was not her husband–Harry Kegel, who had managed hotels in Lancaster. I don’t know much else about her life, except that in 1909 when she ran a brothel on North Cherry and East Fulton, she was arrested for running a “bawdy house” [another word for a brothel], but paid the costs and agreed to leave the city, which she most certainly did not do. 

The housekeeper, Elsie, explained to anti-vice agent Jules Simon that Edna Carson earned $700 per week, but paid only $32 a month for rent [When I first read this, it seemed unbelievable to me but historical accounts of elite brothels in other cities are comparable. Maybe Elsie was not exaggerating]. Accounting for inflation, Carson’s $700 is $21,000 in 2024 dollars.

The comfort and opulence of this house did not match all of the brothels in Lancaster.  As you walked south on Water Street, toward one of the Conestoga Steam Mills, you would find cheaper brothels. Here, investigators described houses that seemed like they were about to collapse. They smelled bad. As opposed to a floor covered with wool rugs on this corner of Prince Street, just a few blocks south the floors were covered in rags. At 252 N. Prince there was indoor plumbing, but in cheap brothels people tossed sewage in the street from slop buckets. In the cheap houses, sex workers wore knee high kimonos, not evening gowns, and they propositioned passers-by from windows or doorways. At 252 N. Prince there was privacy. 

At the cheap houses, vice was racially integrated, which usually (but not always) meant that white men bought services of Black women. We know that the creation of “red light” districts in poor neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black residents was a common practice across the country. In fact, historians note that in larger cities like Baltimore, vice districts were deliberately established in segregated neighborhoods. Black leaders spoke out against how the vice districts in their neighborhoods brought the most disreputable whites to their streets. 

This expensive brothel on North Prince avoided attention, even after the investigators issued their report and city officials started to crack down on vice, after 1914. This house was not raided by police, perhaps because it was “refined” and circumspect. But in 1913,  a year before the crackdown started, this brothel made the local papers when four F&M students broke the door down when they were refused admission. They were given a stern warning by a judge and ordered to pay the costs of the trial. 

Commercial sex was not monolithic in Lancaster a century ago. There were brothels to fit all budgets. Sex workers at the N. Prince Street brothel may have escaped the poverty of most wage-earning women in Lancaster, but other women working as prostitutes were barely getting by. And all of these workers faced threats of violence, disease, and drug addiction.

The N. Prince Street brothel may have been glamorous; but Lancaster vice, as a whole, was not. 

Photo courtesy of LancasterHistory

Resource List: 

“Cleaning Out Vile Places,” Lancaster New Era, 26 Jun 1909.

“Charged with Kicking the Door In,” Lancaster Morning Journal, 26 Feb 1913. 

Keire, Mara. For Business and Pleasure: Red Light Districts and the Regulation of Vice in the United States, 1890-1933. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. 

Gilfoyle, Timothy. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920. New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 1992. 

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