C 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins
When Prescott made headlines in 1864 as the first capitol of Arizona Territory, the news created an influx of the usual gold miners, merchants and of course soiled doves, a hidden staple to any boomtown economy.
Prescott’s shady ladies first made news in 1868 when the Arizona Journal Miner reported a shooting at a brothel on Montezuma Street, better known as Whiskey Row. Such reports would increase as more prostitutes settled in Prescott. Of the women plying their trade in 1870, at least three of them soon met a bad end. One was Jenny Schultz, who was killed at her bordello at Cortez and Gurley Streets in September. In November, Ellen “Nellie” Stackhouse was strangled at her brothel on Montezuma. Then there was Mollie Shepherd, who purportedly sold her brothel for thousands of dollars.
In 1871 Mollie boarded a stagecoach with her cash, but between Wickenburg and Ehrenberg the stage was robbed. All were killed except Mollie and army paymaster William Kruger. The two were ultimately suspected of the robbery, but lack of evidence set them free. Mollie and Kruger went to California, where they actually received celebrity status. Later, however, Kruger claimed Mollie died of wounds she received during the robbery—initially reported as only powder burns. When no record of Mollie’s death was found, the investigation turned back to Kruger, who mysteriously disappeared. Nothing was ever heard of the couple again, save for a man by Kruger’s name who was killed by a stray bullet at a Phoenix hotel in 1872.
By 1873, the red light ladies of Whiskey Row were in full swing. Tombstone sheriff Johnny Behan’s wife would later testify that her husband “openly and notoriously visited houses of ill-fame and a prostitute at said town of Prescott” that year. Another famous visitor was Big Nose Kate and her paramour, Doc Holliday, in about 1879. By 1880 there were approximately 18 prostitutes in Prescott proper. The red light district was located mainly along Granite Street but some girls were also said to be working on Leroux Street. The red light district was nicknamed “Whoretown.”
One of Prescott’s best known madams was Lydia Carlton, who ran a brothel for many years on Granite. Her 2-story house featured bedrooms and social rooms, and she charged about twice as much as other brothels. The house also served liquor, and customers were expected to purchase drinks both before and after choosing their company for the evening. Lydia also required her customers to be inspected for venereal disease prior to doing business and turned infected customers away.
In 1887 prostitution in Prescott was still a mere misdemeanor, allowing women to operate with relative ease. By 1900 there were approximately 100 girls in the red light district. A new Arizona statute even allowed cities to legalize and regulate their own red light districts. In 1901 the statute was amended to prohibit brothels from being located within 250 yards of a public building or 400 yards of a school. In 1902, the city began requiring weekly health exams. The new rules kept prostitution arrests in Prescott considerably low.
By 1910 the number of prostitutes in Prescott was shrinking, largely due to social pressure from church organizations but also the law. Only about 20 soiled doves remained in Prescott, including Madam Grace Watson and two dance halls. With Arizona entering statehood in 1912, authorities began cracking down even more. Stricter ordinances in 1913 included prohibition of building new brothels. By October, many girls had left town.
In 1918 authorities at Fort Whipple gave official orders to close the red light district. The post was joining numerous other military outfits throughout the west who were tired of their soldiers contracting venereal disease, going AWOL and coming off leave with bruises and black eyes. Despite the crack down, however, newspapers reported a murder at Nellie Stewart’s bordello in 1919. In 1928 Madam Irene Brown’s house was raided. The following year, the former Golden Eagle Saloon was converted to the Rex Arms. The Rex and another place called the Hazel Rooms operated as clandestine bordellos. Prostitution continued to flourish in smaller numbers, and it was not until 1947 that County Attorney David Palmer was able to crack down and eliminate prostitution in Prescott altogether.
Virtually nothing remains of Prescott’s notorious red light district today. The corner of Goodwin and Granite Streets, where numerous cribs and the Union Saloon once flourished, is now a place for shops and restaurants.