With an estimated 2,000 workers, prostitution was at one time Terre Haute’s largest employer, thriving in a flourishing red light district at Terre Haute’s west end, according to Raymond Miller, who wrote for the Terre Haute Star newspaper during the 1920s.
In fact, the red light district prospered in the exact place where part of Indiana State University’s campus is today. Oakley Place, where freshmen “march through the arch” each year, and Wolf Field were once part of the red light district, bordering the west edge of Indiana State’s campus.
While the change from a red light district to a growing four-year university testifies to the positive changes in Terre Haute during the decades, Terre Haute’s colorful past is not forgotten.
The concentration of illegal activity filled a 15-block radius south of Chestnut Street, north of Cherry Street and from Fourth Street west to the Wabash River. According to a 1958 Life Magazine article, within these bounds you could get “anything you want –for a price.”
Terre Haute was a very prosperous town during the early 1900s, said Marylee Hagan, executive director of the Vigo County Historical Museum. But, like any other town during the time, prosperity brought along vice such as prostitution, gambling and bootlegging.
Terre Haute’s notorious activities made headlines in the Saturday Evening Post, Time Magazine and Stag, a men’s magazine, donning the town with nicknames such as “Sin City,” “Indiana’s Delinquent City,” and the red light district with the title of “The Tenderloin.”
“It’s interesting to me that we got all the notoriety that we got when there were so many other places that were having the same problem,” said Hagan.
“Red light districts often started on riverfronts, so on the Wabash River it just kind of started. Where they had riverfronts, they also had prostitution, gambling and alcohol.” – Joel Matthews, ISU senior
Some residents voiced frustration regarding the national media’s one-sided portrayal of Terre Haute.
In response to “Indiana’s Delinquent City” by Peter Wyden of the Saturday Evening Post in 1961, several residents wrote letters to the editor, including Ernest K. De Mougin of West Terre Haute.
“I have been in no town over 10,000 population where there were no prostitutes or gambling of some type. You could look in your own city for some of the things you looked for in Terre Haute,” he said.
A 1961 editorial in the Terre Haute Star responded to the article as a “new low in journalism,” noting that the “worst offense of the article is in what it does not say, the complete and apparently deliberate omission of anything good.”
Uncovering the past
ISU senior Joel Matthews, who researched Terre Haute’s past as part of a history course last year, was intrigued by what he found.
“It was interesting to know the parts of Terre Haute and see how they used to be, to see pictures of the red light district, which was really right next to campus almost. The university was here and a couple blocks away were brothel houses. A lot of people didn’t like it, but it was pretty accepted,” said Matthews.
A lifetime resident of Terre Haute, attorney Lenhardt Bauer, spoke about the west end in a 1980 interview for the Vigo County Public Library.
“I think they had a kind of different point of view about vice in those days. People gambled or they didn’t, and nobody really cared a devil of a lot,” said Bauer. “If somebody wanted to visit the west end, they did it; and if they didn’t, they stayed away.”
The “mind-your-own-business” attitude of the early 20th century suited many local officials, who were part of a political system with its fair share of corruption, said Bauer.
“I’ve heard the stories about payoffs and what not,” he said.
Voter fraud, the rigging of political elections and crooked officials plagued the government. After the election of 1914, the mayor, sheriff and circuit judge faced indictment for tampering with the election.
Some politicians promised to close down the illegal operations, “but it was too valuable politically to both parties, to lose control for an advantage it many furnish in an election,” Tuttle wrote in a 1975 Terre Haute Star article.
The few that attempted to make strides toward progress found little success, as the district often ignored new regulations.
Charles Kean, a young pastor from England, came to Terre Haute to study prostitution in 1907, according to an article by historian Mike McCormick in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. Kean conducted door-to-door research, in which he reported finding 81 houses of “ill fame” and 385 prostitutes in the red light district alone.
After Kean’s research implicated several local officials, he was put into jail. When granted bail, he fled, and no reports of him are mentioned again, said McCormick.
Other officials were content with the city as it was. Mayor Leland Larrison, who favored legalizing prostitution, refused a request by Alan C. Rankin, president of ISU in 1969, to close the brothels near Indiana State, according to a New York newspaper article titled “They See Virtue in Vice.”
Larrison was quoted in the article as saying, “If the university will get rid of the kooks and hippies and beatniks, I’ll close the houses.”
He agreed with the police chief, who said activities such as prostitution were a “necessary evil.”
“It’s interesting to me that we got all the notoriety that we got when there were so many other places that were having the same problem.” – Marylee Hagen
“Basically, when the red light district was in full swing, some of the people in the brothels had close ties with clothing businesses,” said Matthews, describing how prostitutes would buy their clothing from downtown stores and madams of the more elegant houses would decorate with pieces from downtown furniture stores. “So these clothing and furniture shops would have a lot of money, because they would be decking out the brothel houses. So they would spend a lot, and it kind of spurred forth the economy in that way.”
Raymond Miller, former owner of the Terre Haute Star, agreed. In a 1999 article by Jason Hathaway, Miller said that the girls purchased automobiles from dealers in the area and purchased fine clothing from Wabash Avenue merchants.
Just as the red light district may have supported downtown Terre Haute, its demise in the middle of the century added to economic hardships of downtown businesses, according to an anonymous madam interviewed by Judy Brett on behalf of the Vigo County Public Library in 1981.
“That’s when Wabash Ave. started going to hell, when the west end closed up. They didn’t have that business,” she said.
The houses of ill fame were given the nickname of “resorts” in the Terre Haute community, perhaps because a few of the brothels really did look like resorts.
The famed Madam Brown’s first establishment, the Circle R Hotel, really did look like a hotel, according to Tuttle’s 1975 Tribune-Star article. The outside was landscaped with a formal garden. A Tiffany glass canopy hung over the door. Walking into the “resort,” guests would step onto oriental rugs and gaze up to a Tiffany chandelier. The music room boasted a grand piano and the dining room its fine china. An oversized, specially ordered mirror showed the reflection of those inside, including prostitutes whose clothing mirrored the elegance of the home they lived in.
“She [Madam Brown] decided she wouldn’t be able to make enough cleaning houses to have the finer things that she wanted, so as a young woman, she opened a brothel,” said Hagan. Hagan described Brown as an elegant woman with beautiful clothing and fine jewelry who became “quite the woman about town.”
Prostitution was one of the attractions to visitors who would pass through Terre Haute. An anonymous madam estimated that 90 percent of the district’s business was from out of town. Specifically, Terre Haute acted as a gateway for travelers between the cities of Chicago and St. Louis, said Hagan.
“The early teens and 20s were a very prosperous time for Terre Haute, a lot of wonderful buildings and downtown was certainly bustling,” said Hagan.
Terre Haute’s location on a waterfront would have added to its prosperity, as well as to the development of its red light district, said Matthews.
“Red light districts often started on riverfronts, so on the Wabash River it just kind of started. Where they had riverfronts, they also had prostitution, gambling and alcohol,” he said.
Hagan said the district’s peak time was the 1920s and 1930s. The district began diminishing after that, until the 1960s, when local residents revamped it.
“That whole area was kind of torn down and redevelopment took place and the famed Madam Brown’s house was torn down,” said Hagan.
Although Brown’s house was destroyed, her legacy lives on.
“A gentleman came up and said his dad had been stationed in the Pacific during the world war, and oftentimes the fellows would congregate in a bar and say, “Well, where are you from?” And he sat down next to a fellow and the fellow told him and he said, “Well, where are you from,” and he said, “I’m from Terre Haute, Indiana” and the guy said, “Oh, Madam Brown.” So here it is, in the Philippines, and someone knew about Madam,” said Hagan.
Terre Haute had its other secrets as well –gambling rings and gang activity.
“There are rumors about some of the big gangsters that would come down from Chicago,” said Hagan.
Al Capone allegedly came to Terre Haute. He frequently stopped in nearby Clinton for bootlegged liquor, according to Hannah Glover, a resident of Clinton.
“I think there probably is some truth to it, because they would get out of town when it got a little too hot in Chicago and stay until they felt safe to go back to their big city,” said Hagan.
John Dillinger, a notorious bank robber of the 1930s, used a house just blocks away from Indiana State’s football stadium as a hideaway, said McCormick.
A popular place for several gangsters was the Spring Brook Rod and Gun Club, an establishment which still exists today, now under the name of the Rod and Gun Steakhouse. Built by bootlegger Eddie Gosnell in 1921, the restaurant offered gambling, liquor and private dining rooms in the back.
“She [Madam Brown] decided she wouldn’t be able to make enough cleaning houses to have the finer things that she wanted, so as a young woman, she opened a brothel.” – Marylee Hagen
According to a Tribune-Star article, Bob Johnson noticed the club in 1948 when he was a young boy fishing at Spring Creek. He said he looked up and saw some nice cars. “I’d see all these Packards outside during the day and I said, “This has to be a gangster joint,” said Johnson.
Clientele of the private club included Chicago gangsters, gamblers and Terre Haute politicians and businessman, said Johnson. In later years, well-known people and businessmen replaced the gangsters and gamblers at the club.
Gosnell was married to Madam Brown, and two of the chandeliers from her house still hang in the steakhouse today.
As for the illegal gambling, Johnson said they never had a problem.
“We pretty well knew what was going on. The Gosnells knew everyone and if there was going to be a raid, they’d always get a call. I can still remember carrying slot machines out, and we’d hide them in this shed down by the river,” said Johnson.
Other gambling sites, however, were not so lucky.
In 1957, the largest illegal international gambling ring at the time was discovered at offices on Wabash Avenue and raided by United States treasury agents, according to Life Magazine. Total bets within the ring added up to at least $1.5 million per month, placed by prominent members of society from the U.S., Canada and Cuba, one of whom was famous American film star Zeppo Marx.
Around this time, some residents started taking initiatives to reform seedy Terre Haute. When Larrison refused to make an effort to reform the district in the late 1960s, Vigo County Sheriff Clyde Lovellette – a six-foot-10-inch former basketball player – took action, raiding three brothels and making nine arrests.
It was a small step, but one that started a journey toward remaking Terre Haute. Redevelopment began in the former red light district. Brothels and bookie joints disappeared as residents consistently worked for change in their community and the era of Brown and Gosnell faded.
“In spite of the economics of today, Terre Haute is doing pretty well. We’re being good custodians of the city.” – Marylee Hagen
Abe Malooley, former owner of the Saratoga restaurant, held a positive outlook for the future of Terre Haute during a 1981 interview for the Vigo County Oral History Program.
“I think that there’s a great future. I don’t look for any big department stores, but I look for offices. I look for many professional people to be downtown, even government. And all these empty lots, there will be buildings go up regardless.”
Currently, two construction projects are underway in downtown, one for an office complex.
“I think that we’re in process of revitalizing in the downtown area,” said Hagan, noting the development of businesses, the arts corridor, Riverscape, and integration of ISU with downtown Terre Haute. “In spite of the economics of today, Terre Haute is doing pretty well. We’re being good custodians of the city.”
But little reminders of the past still remain –whether walking into the Vigo County Historical Museum under the glass Tiffany umbrella of Madame Brown’s house, or seeing a chandelier from her house at the Rod and Gun Steakhouse, or perhaps unknowingly passing someone on the street who has ties to the red light district.
In 1981, the anonymous madam was asked if she knew anyone who used to work in the west end.
“Oh, I know one who works in a hospital…I know another one that she married a guy that works at the Tribune, and she was a marvelous cook,” she said. “I know quite a few of ‘em around.”
Regardless, the madam noted that they don’t talk about the past.
It’s kind of like the motto, noted in a 1969 article by Time Magazine, that once hung on the door of a gambling joint known as Club Idaho: “What you see, what you hear, when you leave, leave it here.”
Bethany Donat is a junior communication major and a media relations assistant in the Office of Communications and Marketing.