This blog post is an excerpt from Alison Kibler’s article, “Sex and Our City, Part IV” in the LNP on July 7, 2024.

Under pressure from a group of reformers, Mayor Francis (“Frank”) McClain announced a crackdown on “houses of evil” in 1914. Brothels had one month to close up or brothel-keepers risked arrest and jail.

Newspapers reported that the city had shut down commercial sex. The lid was on tight. These reports were deceiving. In reality, the visibility of commercial sex was changing, as were its conditions and locations.

Many brothels in Lancaster city closed, but there was still commercial sex in the area. Sex workers were more likely to solicit on the street and use hotels and “side rooms” at bars. A side room was a special, separate entrance for women that could be shut off for privacy. And sex work migrated out of the city to the small towns and the countryside.

Black Horse Hotel in Millersville, before it was torn down in 1969.

When a group of investigators came to town in 1916, they chronicled joyrides out of the city for commercial sex. At that time, Lancaster residents traveled by car — or by “machine,” as the investigators put it — to hotels and roadhouses outside of the city. Friends picked up young women (some were sex workers) in the city center and drove to Millersville (the Black Horse Hotel), Columbia, Marietta, Rohrerstown, Mountville and Silver Spring (in West Hempfield Township). They got drunk and found private places to have sex in hotels or outside. Once in a while the joyriders crashed their cars. Chauffeurs made money driving these rowdy groups around Lancaster County, sometimes stopping at a series of hotels in one night.

The Silver Spring Hotel was a popular spot. One investigator described the activity at this hotel’s side room in this way:

Drinks were ordered; then the ‘fun’ started. It is impossible to describe the language and the actions that took place in this room. One of the men worked the piano, some of the men grabbed the girls and went through all sorts of suggestive motions, the girls sat on the men’s laps and kept bobbing up and down, kissing and hugging, and some of the girls raised their skirts and showed their legs.

Investigator’s Report, 1916

At a hotel in the Manheim Township neighborhood of Rossmere, the undercover investigator verified that couples were arriving by “machine” and using rooms upstairs:

A machine drove up and I saw one man go in. While waiting for the car, I saw another auto drive to the hotel and one man went to the hotel, returned in a few moments and then I saw two couples enter the place.

Investigator’s Report, 1916

The investigator verified that he could bring a woman here for sex:

I asked him (the proprietor) if we couldn’t have a room where I could take a drink with a woman. He said, ‘Yes’ and led us through a wide hallway, at the end of which were two rooms. He ushered us into the room on the left and said, ‘I’ll send the bartender in to get your order.’ He then went out, closing the door after him. This room is about 12 feet wide by 20 feet long. The entire floor is covered; the room contained a couch, a few chairs, and one small table in the center of the room.

Investigator’s Report, 1916

The bartender came into the room and took their order. The investigator then asked about getting a room upstairs with a bed. The owner said these rooms were not furnished yet. The side room with a couch would have to do. The investigator accepted this:

In a pinch a fellow don’t need a room when he is here, you’ve got a nice couch in that side room but I ain’t a spring chicken any more and when I’m with a woman I like my bed.

Investigator’s Report, 1916

So was the lid really tight on vice after 1914? It depends on where you look. Don’t just look for it on a city side street. You also need to take a drive in the scenic countryside.

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