San Francisco in Crisis, Part 2: The Denizens of the Underworld

Read Part 1 

When he rose on the morning of January 25, Reverend Paul Smith was undoubtedly excited about the mass meeting where he would speak that evening at Dreamland Rink.

First, he had another meeting scheduled. At 11 a.m., a crowd of nearly 300 women “in bedraggled finery” arrived at his church. They were prostitutes who worked the Barbary Coast and the Tenderloin. “The word had gone forth Wednesday night that all women of the alleys, on pain of losing their room privileges if they failed, must present themselves at the church by the hour of 11,” the San Francisco Examiner explained.

“It was an amazing audience that faced the Methodist pastor when he ascended his pulpit. Hats of the latest mode set off faces defiant, faces simple to the point of childishness, faces indicating much more than average intelligence, faces showing all the signs of the night life’s ravages, and faces as yet untouched by its harrowing experiences.”

Mrs. Gamble’s delegation


Rev. Smith called for their spokeswoman, Rose Gamble, to join him. Mrs. Gamble was a partner of Maud Spencer and the two ran one of the richest “parlour houses” at 40 Mason Street. She was pale with dark eyes, and she was dressed in a smart checked tailor-made suit. “When she spoke she showed all the signs of an extraordinarily keen intelligence and a neat command of language,” the Examiner conceded.

“These women are better off in these houses then they would be out in the ordinary world of work,” she said. “Here, at least, they have the protection of their houses and have sufficient money on which to live themselves and to support their dependence. Yes, nearly all these women before you are mothers, or supporting children. Do you know that? What’s going to happen if you stop their opportunities? They were driven into this life by economic conditions. One of these women, now in this church, before she came into this life, wrote her brother, a Methodist minister, told him of her troubles and asked what to do. He wrote back ‘to trust in God!'”

Her voice rose. “Well, you can’t trust in God when shoes are $10 a pair and wages are $6 dollars a week. You’re asking to have this bit of town around your church cleaned up. Well, where are you going to send these women? Have you chartered a ship for them? Where are you going to ship them?
Why don’t you stop the evil at its source?” she cried. “Why don’t you attack conditions instead of persons? You think you are ‘cleaning things up’ but you’re not.”
She demanded the minister “let these women alone” and suggested he focus on teaching people to raise their children to look at their bodies as an “instrument of a spiritual purpose; that the girls are meant for the divine purpose of bringing children into the world, and the boys to participate in that wonderful accomplishment. Teach the boys to look upon women with reverence because of the divine purpose for which women have been called into the world. Do these things and you will do good.”

The crackdown would destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of women


Reverend Smith was shocked. He struggled to come up with a response. Though stopping prostitution was at the center of his campaign, he had not considered the reality of these women and what their fate would be. “Raise your hands if you wish to earn an honest living,” he asked the women. 300 hands rose.
He continued to question them. More than 2/3 of them were native Californians. More than 3/4 were mothers. They said that prior to entering the “night life,” they earned less than $8 a week.
“How much do women need, as a minimum wage?” Rev. Smith asked. The women murmured and called out, “Twenty dollars!”
“But families all over the country receive an average wage below that,” Smith protested.
“That’s why there’s prostitution,” Mrs. Gamble countered.
Rev. Smith assured the women who faced him that his efforts would be devoted to finding them honest work as it had been to the vice crusade. “When he suggested housework, the assembly laughed out loud,” the Examiner reported. “When he said girls could live and be decent on $10 a week, they laughed. And then they left.”

The newspaper was not swayed by the scene. They wrote, “The underworld of San Francisco [was] intent on clouding the issue raised by the present anti-vice campaign.”

Rev. Smith stared after them, dazed. ““This is the saddest day of my life,“ he said. “It was the saddest gathering I have ever seen. It has taught me many things. And I, for one, shall work for a minimum wage for women.”
He had forgotten, for the moment, the mass meeting he organized. And the hour was rapidly approaching.

2 thoughts on “San Francisco in Crisis, Part 2: The Denizens of the Underworld

  1. Pingback: San Francisco in Crisis, Part 3: Dreamland – old spirituals

  2. Pingback: San Francisco in Crisis, Part 1: Vice Evils – old spirituals

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