Prostitution As A Tenement House Evil 1903


By James B. Reynolds
THE subject of immorality in the tenement houses was forced upon the attention of the Commission by complaints and appeals made to it from many sources. In its consideration of the subject the Commission was hampered because of the lack of adequate and authoritative literature upon the general question of prostitution. In view of the extent of the evil in the cities of our country, and the necessity of the application of special laws for its control, it seems surprising that so little attempt has been made to accurately ascertain the exact working of the evil, its causes and its results. An investigation of the whole subject is greatly needed, but such a general investigation could not be undertaken by us and did not come within the scope of our authority. It could properly be undertaken only by some body specially constituted for the purpose.

In the investigation of our special subject we found, however, many witnesses prepared to testify, and many felt deeply that, whatever the solution of the general problem of prostitution, it ought to be possible to drive the evil from the tenement houses and thereby prevent enforced contact with it in the homes of those whose poverty made it impossible for them to change their dwelling place and to escape contamination. The special statements made to the Commission by Dr. Felix Adler and Mrs. Charles Russell Lowell, and summarized from their testimony, are herewith presented.

The verdict that the conditions which at present, 1900, exist are unendurable is unanimous. That the landlord should be cognizant of the character of his tenants was the universal opinion of all the witnesses who have appeared before us, and equally unanimous was the opinion that the landlord should be held far more strictly responsible for the character of his tenants, so that reputable occupants of tenement houses should be protected from enforced association with women of immoral character and from all the evils attendant upon such companionship. This unanimity of opinion appears to the Commission remarkable, and to afford ample justification for the legislative propositions presented in its report.

Statement Presented By Dr. Felix Adler

As to the causes of immorality in the tenement houses, it seems to me that one would naturally divide them under different heads. For instance, in any proper, careful consideration of the subject I should think that the economic causes would be mentioned first, especially the evils of the sweat shop system on the East Side, which produce a condition of things that render these poor unfortunate girls more susceptible far more susceptible to temptation than they otherwise would be. I have known directly of cases where young women refused to share the poverty of their families, saying that life at best under the prevailing conditions was a continuous series of privations, and that if they could, even for a short time, escape from this horror of the tenement house and of the poverty-stricken home in the tenement house, to the streets, or to the gay saloon, or to the company of such companions as they had access to, they preferred the latter.

I think that in the second place there is, of course, the great question of what might be done through the enforcement of the laws already existing; and then the question of the extent to which the laws now existing might be improved; and finally the question of the best means of redeeming those who have already fallen. It seems to me these would naturally be the four heads under which the whole subject might be considered, and I should think it would be a mistake if the community received the impression, through the effort now being made to secure a better enforcement of the law that that is all that is necessary, and that if the political conditions have been improved the conscience of the city may go to sleep. It seems to me that the manufacturers of the city have a responsibility in the matter, and that all efforts made to break up this congestion of pauper labor of the East Side, and transfer if possible the sweat shops to the rural districts, to the suburbs, to factories, would be a great step in the solution of our problem.

As to the enforcement of the law, I have nothing special to add to what has been said on other occasions, but as to the matter of improving the laws, I should think that some such action as has been contemplated of more easily getting access to the landlord would greatly help the situation. At present the landlord often escapes because the onus probandi the burden of proof is on the complainant. The complainant must show that the landlord had knowledge of these evil conditions, and it is very often difficult to establish the fact of such knowledge on his part. If, however, the onus was shifted upon the landlord, if when the whole neighborhood is aware that a house is used for illegal purposes, after a certain period has elapsed in which this condition can be proved to have continued, if then the presumption is that the landlord knows, because he ought to know, what is being done with his property, it would be very much easier to punish him. I have thought sometimes that we might take an attitude toward the tenement house that the halls and the stairs are to some extent to be likened to public highways, and that the police power of the State, which is not permitted to intrude into the house, might on that ground be introduced into the interior of the tenement houses.

The apartment resembles the street, and just as the power of the State is exercised over a public street, so we might claim it would be right to extend this power into the interior of the tenement houses so as to establish laws and regulations concerning what is permissible and what is not in the public part of the tenement house. The tenement, with its often vast population, is becoming a kind of public institution, which cannot properly be dealt with from the point of view of regarding it as a private house. The English principle, that one's house is one's castle, would then apply to the apartments occupied by the separate families, while all that part of the tenement house which is devoted to the traffic of the various inmates of the apartments would rather be dealt with from the point of view of the highway. If this were done, then I should think it would be possible to prevent such deplorable occurrences as arp now frequent: the assembling in the halls and on the stairways of numbers of lewd persons, men and women; the crowding on the stairways, and also improper exhibitions from the windows and from the open doors.

These evils that go together with the particular vice that you are considering I think could be suppressed if that point of view can be fairly taken. I am not a lawyer, and may be therefore not able to say whether the legal mind would sustain that conception; but I merely mention it here as a suggestion, and in connection with the improvements in the law. Besides an attempt to shift the burden of proof upon the landlord as to the matter of knowledge, it occurs to me that if penalties were inflicted upon the housekeeper in case of a violation of these rules of propriety; if not only the landlord, but the housekeeper, as his representative, were held responsible, that probably instead of finding the housekeeper an obstacle, as she often is, in the way of enforcement of the law, we should then have a means of compelling the housekeeper, through fear of the penalty to be inflicted, to carry out the law. I am not sure whether there is such a law; but would it not be possible to provide that every tenement house, every house harboring more than three families, should be required to have a housekeeper representing the landlord on the premises ? Whether we should go on further and adopt the European method of registration, I am not sure. If we could obtain a register, containing the names, the age, the sex, and if possible the occupations, of all the inmates of the different apartments of a tenement house, such a register to be kept and duly corrected from time to time by the housekeeper, it would be much easier than it is now to prevent overcrowding, and to prevent the lodging of infamous vice in the tenement houses.

Statement Presented By Mrs. Charles R. Lowell

As to the present conditions, of course there is no question that they are very bad in every way. The immoral women in the houses directly tempt young girls to join them. They also indirectly present the strongest temptations, for they are the only women who have good food, fine clothes, and an easy life in these houses. A girl who is earning $2 or $3 a week by standing behind a counter, running errands 10 hours a day (and 14 or 15 hours at what is called the "holiday season ") cannot but compare her own life with that of one of these girls, who seems to have all she wants and to do nothing to earn it.

As to the causes of the conditions, the foundation cause is the corruption of the Police Department. Other causes are the temptations so freely offered to girls and boys, the shows all around the neighborhood, for instance, which stimulate evil imagination; the saloons, etc. This is only another symptom of police rottenness.

The low moral tone of both landlords and tenants is notorious, the former being ready to share in the profits of the vice, the latter being unwilling to protest against it.

Still another cause of existing conditions is the failure of police magistrates to deal rightly with men and women when arrested. The men arrested in raids are all discharged, upon giving false names and addresses. If they were taken into court and subjected to the public disgrace they deserve, many who perhaps are more foolish than depraved would no doubt fear to run the risk of entering such places, and would thus be saved from both temptation and sin, and the trade would consequently be less lucrative to the women and their masters.

The women are also wrongly dealt with. Fining only forces them to continue in the same life, when the object should be to remove them from it and to reform them if possible. To fine them is to bind them to it. They have only the one means of earning money, and if they pay for their fines by past sin, or if some one pays for them, they become enslaved to bad men more irrevocably. I think it would be better to make no arrests at all than to arrest and fine these women as at present. Commitment for six months to the workhouse would at least be a punishment. Judge Mott has the honorable distinction of sentencing to the workhouse instead of fining, and when he is sitting, these women shun his district for that reason. That we have heard constantly. I belong to a committee that visits the station-houses, and in going month by month to the places the police matrons have said, " We have not had many women this month." "Why not?" "Judge Mott is on the bench." That is constantly what different members of the committee visiting different station-houses hear.

It is not necessary to commit to the workhouse, however, if the women themselves can be persuaded to enter some of the " homes " which are ready to receive them, and where they will be helped to reform, and later to find employment. The Magdalen Asylum, the House of the Good Shepherd, The House of the Holy Family, the Salvation Army Home, are some of these.

As to the remedies, the first is to reform the Police Department. Dr. Parkhurst has always been right in saying that that is the first step. A corrupt police can and will render unavailing any and every system which might be adopted.

Assuming that to be understood, there are many steps to be taken, all dependent upon an aroused moral public opinion.

The police magistrates, the institutions, should all join in trying to deliver the women from the life of sin, and in trying to reform them. The following plan has been suggested: that probation officers and court officers (all women) should be nominated by the various institutions interested in such work to go with the police when arrests are made, and try on the spot to persuade the women to go into one of the homes named ; that the magistrate should in such cases suspend sentence, and allow the institutions the opportunity to deal freely with such women.

When they refuse such offers, they should be committed to the workhouse for six months, and later, when the reformatory at Bedford is opened, to that institution.

I think the fining for vagrancy, for misdemeanors, and for disorderly conduct should be forbidden by law ; also that such part of Section 318 of the City Charter as authorizes the entry of the police to houses supposed to be used for such purposes, solely on the statement of a police officer, should be repealed. It facilitates blackmail.

Another amendment to the law should be to make it a felony to keep or to let rooms for immoral purposes in a tenement house, it being now only a misdemeanor in any case.

I think if that distinction were made, it being a misdemeanor to let such rooms in a private house, if it were made a felony to let such rooms, or to carry on such immorality in a tenement house, it would emphasize the greater sin, the greater wrong of the sin in a tenement house, and the recognition by law that it was a worse sin would have a good influence on public opinion.

The experience of the city of Glasgow is one that is encouraging in the highest degree, and I believe the same results could be very readily attained here, provided that our Police Department was established on the right foundation, and was an honorable body of decent men.

I should like to quote just a few extracts from testimony about Glasgow, because it is very remarkable and ought to be known. This is a summary of what has happened since 1870. " The Glasgow administration, which, as we have seen, includes repressive law, municipal vigilance, and organized beneficence, has been carried on since 1870. Its results may be noted under the seven following heads: "

First The streets have been cleared of the disreputable business of solicitation and assignation, and left free for their legitimate use as safe and decent thoroughfares.

Second The number of brothels has been steadily and largely decreased, notwithstanding the growing population.

Third Clandestine prostitution, judging from the most careful observation possible, has decreased generally in the same ratio as the brothels.

Fourth There has been a slight decrease in illegitimacy.

Fifth An increased desire to reform has been shown by fallen women.

Sixth Crime, always connected with vice, has diminished.

Seventh Disease which arises from promiscuous intercourse has decreased.

This was written in 1881. It is called the " Wrong and Right Methods of Dealing with the Social Evil, as shown by lately published Parliamentary Evidence, by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell." I am sorry to say it is out of print. It begins by showing the evils of the " Let Alone " system in London, and then the regulations of the registration system in Paris, and shows how each is bad, and third, the Glasgow system, which was the maintaining of public order with the assistance of a body of private citizens who helped in this work, and the help of the magistrates.

The facts in relation to brothels, and the effect of law and public opinion upon them, is noteworthy. In 1849, with a population of 314,000, and an inert public opinion, there were 211 brothels, with 538 inmates. In 1870, with a population of 510,816, and a public opinion gradually awakening to the evil, there were 204 brothels. After nine years of vigorous measures required by the citizens, the brothels were reduced to less than one-seventh of the original number. This remarkable result shows the power of public opinion when it demands and supports the enforcement of law.

The great mischievous error, that vigorous repression of the public manifestations of vice is necessarily productive of an increase of secret vice, is entirely disproved by carefully recorded facts in the municipal experience of this great city of Glasgow.

The Chief of Police himself says: " Notwithstanding the frequently expressed opinion of well-meaning people, who take, as they state, a philosophical view of prostitution and brothel-keeping, and from their mode of reasoning arrive at the conclusion that both are necessary evils, and incapable of being either eradicated or greatly diminished, I consider myself justified in the opinion that the results indicated above, and which have been brought about by a steady and persistent application of the law by the authorities, have been of very great advantage to this community. Viewed from no higher standpoint than that of profit and loss in property, the benefits are apparent and tangible; but when the social and moral advantages are taken into account, the removal of seductive temptations from the youthful and thoughtless, and not infrequently from the intoxicated and foolish adults, the results, though they cannot be expressed in figures, are far more precious. While the reduction in the number of brothels has been so considerable, and the streets have been to a great extent cleared of abandoned women who used to frequent them, I am to the present time without one single complaint from a respectable citizen that prostitution has gone into more secret or private channels, or that the repressive measures of the authorities have inflicted the slightest hardship upon any one.

A recent report of the Glasgow Chief of Police states also, that the brothels in 1892 were 7; in 1893, 9; in 1894, 11; and in 1895,9; in 1896, 13, when the population was 707,000. When the population was 500,000 there were 204, and they say in 1896, when the
population was 707,000, there were only 13 brothels known to the police at that time in Glasgow.

It is to be remembered, likewise, that the protection of the character of the individual police officer is one of the most important things to be provided for in any plan of dealing with the subject of prostitution. The methods heretofore employed in this city, and all systems of license, whether legal or by the use of the fining system, are absolutely demoralizing to the men who enforce them.


Website: The History
Article Name: Prostitution As A Tenement House Evil
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Tenement House Problem: including the report of the New York State Tenement House Commission of 1900 by various writers The Macmillan Company-1903
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