How did prostitution in Denver, Colorado come to an end?

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Answered by: Lisa, An Expert in the Social History Category
In 1908, only two states in the country had laws concerning the “traffic in women” – prostitution. Colorado was not one of these. In fact, in 1907, a state wide constitutional amendment banning prostitution was defeated. In 1908, District Attorney Willis Stidger, viewing prostitution in Denver as a serious problem, tried to shut down Denver’s red light district through a series of raids, but even this was not effective. It wasn’t until George Creel, formerly an editorial writer for the Rocky Mountain News, was appointed police commissioner in 1909 did there start to be any real effect on the number of prostitutes and brothels in Denver. Creel had a unique ideal; basically a “culling of the herd”. He stated that the women who worked as prostitutes were victims, not criminals, and reforming them, teaching them new trades and skills, would be the best way to eventually get rid of prostitution in Denver. His plan was to raid and arrest a certain number of working girls each evening, and then they would be sent to a municipal farm for reformation. Working with Josephine Roche a local socialite and activist, his plan was to take over the Denver County farm near Henderson, Colorado. Each girl, as she was arrested, would be tested for venereal diseases, and if she had them – which a majority did – would be given the opportunity to work off their sentences on the farm, living the good healthy country life and learning a new trade.



The farm would provide disease treatment, rehabilitation for the young ladies who were alcoholics or addicted to drugs, and help find those who were just misguided and longed for a new life, separating them from the hard core offenders. His idealistic dream was to reunite these women with their long lost families and have made them into proper little future wives and mothers.

Creel’s plan worked for a while. Prohibition on alcohol was enforced on Market Street, and in six months of 1912, the number of women still on the street was reduced from 700 to 250. It got the ladies off the streets for a short time, but some of them just came right back. These ladies weren’t misguided or forced into their trade, as was the common presumption of the time – the idea of “white slavery” was on the minds of many. Most of the women were in it for a few years, to get themselves and even families out of financial straits, to save up for a different life elsewhere; many of the ladies ended up marrying former clients and did become good solid wives and mothers.



They didn’t like the idea of being taken away from the opportunity to make more money in a week than they did in months.

Part of the failure was Creel’s inability to get the farm, so all reformation activities were done through the House of the Good Shepherd in Denver, where Mother Superior St. George helped Creel with the activities. Josephine Roche helped raise funds and went along on raids, and Creel used the media to its fullest advantage. Of course, this effort was not taken seriously; detractors liked that all the brothels were located in one area, rather than spread throughout the city and in the neighborhoods where they lived. The Madams found the idea hilarious, but went ahead with concessions in order to just be left alone.

However, this was truly a mark of the end of Market Street. Creel launched a second phase in January 1913, requiring all arrested women – no matter what the crime – to undergo testing for diseases. A newly appointed city commission embraced Creel’s ideals, and police raiding became a standard. By 1915, Sherriff Glen Duffield Closed down Market Street for good, as well as closing down “Hop Alley”; no more opium dens or gambling joints were allowed in Denver. Some of the prostitutes went underground, seeing in secret clients they used to see openly. Some madams moved their brothels to other cities in the Denver Metro area and continued to run their businesses for several more decades. Some, like Mattie Silks, turned their brothels into “hotels” and continued to operate that way for a time, but by World War I, this idea failed and the madams finally admitted defeat. By 1918, all 48 states had laws against prostitution, and while the business still existed, it was covert and the grand houses were no more. These were replaced by “hotel girls”, phone up escort services and streetwalkers. The grand area surrounding Capitol Hill fell into hard times, and by the end of World War II, once high end neighborhoods were now low income areas dominated by housing projects. Colfax Avenue, touted in the 1890s as “the grandest avenue in America” with its stately mansions and tree lined streets, was now part of Highway 40, the road widened, trees and grand homes torn down, and it became the new avenue for vice in the city. Playboy in 1950 proclaimed Colfax Avenue the “Nastiest Street in the country”. The homes of Market Street were town down and in time made way for the high rises and businesses of downtown Denver.

Today, Colfax Avenue is a conglomeration of businesses, restaurants and galleries, seeing a new revival as a cultural center to the city; the criminal elements have found different parts of the city in which to reside. No longer a place tourists are warned about; today tourists flock to businesses along the area like the Tattered Cover Bookstore, and the streetwalkers of the past are no longer seen.

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