We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Minneapolis Madams

The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront

Penny A. Petersen

Publication Year: 2013

Sex, money, and politics—no, it’s not a thriller novel. Minneapolis Madams is the surprising and riveting account of the Minneapolis red-light district and the powerful madams who ran it. Penny Petersen brings to life this nearly forgotten chapter of Minneapolis history, tracing the story of how these “houses of ill fame” rose to prominence in the late nineteenth century and then were finally shut down in the early twentieth century.

In their heyday Minneapolis brothels were not only open for business but constituted a substantial economic and political force in the city. Women of independent means, madams built custom bordellos to suit their tastes and exerted influence over leading figures and politicians. Petersen digs deep into city archives, period newspapers, and other primary sources to illuminate the Minneapolis sex trade and its opponents, bringing into focus the ideologies and economic concerns that shaped the lives of prostitutes, the men who used their services, and the social-purity reformers who sought to eradicate their trade altogether. Usually written off as deviants, madams were actually crucial components of a larger system of social control and regulation. These entrepreneurial women bought real estate, hired well-known architects and interior decorators to design their bordellos, and played an important part in the politics of the developing city.

Petersen argues that we cannot understand Minneapolis unless we can grasp the scope and significance of its sex trade. She also provides intriguing glimpses into racial interactions within the vice economy, investigating an African American madam who possibly married into one of the city’s most prestigious families. Fascinating and rigorously researched, Minneapolis Madams is a true detective story and a key resource for anyone interested in the history of women, sexuality, and urban life in Minneapolis.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

pdf iconDownload PDF (71.7 KB)
pp. 2-7


pdf iconDownload PDF (255.2 KB)
pp. vii-viii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (74.3 KB)
pp. ix-xii

This book began as a bike ride. One morning, instead of staying on the usual course along West River Parkway, which parallels the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, I veered off to nearby Eleventh Avenue South. There I noticed a handsome, three-story, Richardsonian Romanesque building. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (49.1 KB)
pp. xiii-xiv

This book owes its existence to many people. Erin Vasseur first pointed out that my research was more than just an interesting collection of arcane facts to be shared with my friends. Dave Stevens provided early support and encouragement for this project. ...

read more

Introduction: The Public Women of Minneapolis

pdf iconDownload PDF (271.4 KB)
pp. 1-14

In 1867 a Minneapolis Chronicle article sounded the alarm on the “Social Evil,” as prostitution was often called: “It is the duty of a public journal to look after the morals of the community, and warn the people when the approach of an evil threatens to destroy or mar their happiness.” ...

read more

1. Women’s Work of All Kinds: Paid Labor, Sex Work, and the Reform Movement

pdf iconDownload PDF (2.7 MB)
pp. 15-52

In 1874 a nineteen-year-old woman named Mary Rasette came to Minneapolis and found work as a domestic. But according to a Minneapolis Tribune article, she soon “willfully entered a life of shame” when she joined a bordello run by madam Mollie Ellsworth. Once Mary’s father learned of her situation, he removed her from the brothel despite her objections. ...

read more

2. The War on the Madams: Purity Crusades and Liquor Patrols

pdf iconDownload PDF (2.1 MB)
pp. 53-92

The brawl between Gillette and Knox may have been the first mention of Nettie Conley in the local press, but it would hardly be the last. Men like Gillette and Knox would frequently abandon their reason, as well as their cash, while in her company. Over her long career as a public woman, Conley openly operated brothels ...

read more

3. Red Lights along the Riverfront: The Madams Make Their Move

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.9 MB)
pp. 93-122

The 1880s had been a time of opportunity for Minneapolis madams; as the city grew in wealth and population, so did they. During this decade, a rough balance was reached between the forces of reform and those representing vice. Neither liquor nor prostitution could be eradicated, but both could be contained within designated geographic areas. ...

read more

4. Reforming the City: Doc Ames, “White Slavery,” and the End of an Era

pdf iconDownload PDF (2.1 MB)
pp. 123-156

Late one April morning in 1910, when most inhabitants of the Eleventh Avenue red-light district were likely asleep, the police department began “the biggest and most sweeping raid in the history of Minneapolis.” Acting at the request of County Attorney Al J. Smith, they swarmed to the “territory on Second Street ...

read more

5. Vice Report: After the Bordellos Closed

pdf iconDownload PDF (157.9 KB)
pp. 157-174

Once the Minneapolis city fathers made the decision to suppress rather than segregate prostitution, there was a demand (ironically, perhaps) that the entire issue receive serious study. In July 1910, fifty-seven prominent men petitioned Mayor James C. Haynes to conduct an investigation of what they termed the “Social Evil.”1 ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (294.5 KB)
pp. 175-214


pdf iconDownload PDF (1.1 MB)
pp. 215-228

read more

About the Author

pdf iconDownload PDF (34.8 KB)
p. 244-244

Penny A. Petersen is a researcher for a historical consulting company in Minneapolis. She is the author of Hiding in Plain Sight: Minneapolis’ First Neighborhood, a history of the Marcy–Holmes neighborhood. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816688579
E-ISBN-10: 0816688575
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816665242

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013