Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem
June 30th, 2016

The Magnificent Southern Hotel

The Southern Hotel on Plates 4 & 24

As much as I love the rich history of St. Louis, I must admit that a vivid imagination is often necessary to enjoy much of it. This city has always had an inclination for knocking down old stuff, and that fact makes it tough for many in St. Louis to recall what the streets, buildings, and people who moved among them looked like years ago.

Fortunately, I believe I’ve always had a pretty good ability to think things up. As much as I wish I could still gaze upon long-lost treasures such as the Planter’s House Hotel or Chouteau’s Mansion, I’ve never had a difficult time staring at a parking garage and imagining a vivid St. Louis street scene that occurred there 150 years ago.

And that’s what I did just a few weeks ago. I hopped on my bike, rode downtown, and worked my way to the corner of 4th and Walnut. That’s where the Stadium East Parking Garage stands today. It’s an active garage, often filled with cars and surrounded by ticket scalpers on Cardinal game days. But as I sat there and stared, I saw something completely different. I was looking at the majestic Southern Hotel, and I envisioned it dominating a bustling corner filled with people, horse-drawn carriages, street vendors, and noise.

4th & Walnut Today

Before I go into detail about that vivid scene, I should mention that one could spend days thinking about what’s happened on that corner. First of all, it’s where Fort San Carlos once stood, the centerpiece of the only battle fought west of the Mississippi River during the American Revolution (an event I wrote about in this blog back in 2013).

It’s also where many believe the famous Odowan Indian Chief Pontiac is buried. Historically significant for the military campaign he personally launched against the British in 1763 (the appropriately titled “Pontiac’s War”), Chief Pontiac was murdered near the village of Cahokia by a Peoria warrior in 1769. It’s believed his remains were brought over the river to St. Louis and interred in the ground near that intersection.

The Southern Hotel in 1869

Those are pretty good reasons to stare at a corner and wonder what once happened there, but I think the magnificent Southern Hotel, which stood on that corner from 1865 until 1934, provides many more. I should also admit I’ve been boasting about the Southern Hotel for years. The guy who owned it from 1865 until 1877 is someone I’m a huge fan of. That man is Robert Campbell, and it his house (now known as the Campbell House Museum) that is the base of operations for this blog and where I spend time as a volunteer.

The Southern Hotel in 1868

The idea behind the Southern Hotel’s construction, a project of several prominent city leaders in the 1850’s, was based in the belief that St. Louis required a world-class hotel as it rushed to become a world-class city. Profit was surely a motivation, but civic pride was the driving force behind this particular hotel. And when it opened in December 1865, the city celebrated. Marching bands played, governors visited, and glowing reports of the opening night’s gala were printed in newspapers across the nation. The Missouri Republican proclaimed it the “finest hotel in the world” and it was “the theme of many celebrated pens and tongues, both native and foreign”. It even became the subject of song: “The Southern Hotel Waltz”, which was published in 1865 by composer Albert Mahler.

The Southern Hotel Waltz

The Southern Hotel occupied the entire block bounded by Walnut, 4th, 5th (now Broadway) and Elm Streets (of which Elm no longer exists in that part of the city). The principal front and entrance of the hotel faced Walnut Street, stretching 270 feet from one end to the other. The Southern was six stories tall, with an exterior made of “Chicago stone”, which the St. Louis Republican at the time described as “magnesian stone of excellent properties”. It contained over 350 guest rooms and apartments, and employed nearly the same number of people to keep it running. It was designed in the Italianate style by the famous St. Louis architect George Barnett, who’s other notable works included the Old Courthouse, Henry Shaw’s Tower Grove House, and the Grand Water Tower.

TChief Pontiac Commemorative Plaqueo imagine what this special hotel looked like in its day, it’s important to note that the city of St. Louis at that time was a very crowded place. The population was almost exactly what it is today (about 320,000), but the city itself was much smaller. Before 1876, the city’s western boundary sat just a few hundred feet west of Grand Avenue, and Carondelet hadn’t been added yet. Although new neighborhoods had been developed away from the congested riverfront starting in the 1850’s, the city around the Southern Hotel remained densely populated. The neighborhood around the Southern was also a very upscale part of town. Grand homes and elegant buildings surrounded the hotel, especially to the north and west. It was a time when St. Louis was one of the biggest cities in America, and it could rival the glitz and glamour of cities like New York and Philadelphia.

The Southern was the most luxurious hotel in St. Louis, and if one wanted to be seen, the Southern was the place to be. If one stood on the corner of 4th and Walnut in the 1870’s, seeing a celebrated actress of the day, a business tycoon, or even a president walk through its doors would not have been a surprise. Inside, one could find Mark Twain playing billiards, Adolphus Busch sipping wine, or Ulysses S. Grant leaning against the Southern Hotel’s famous mahogany bar. In the hotel’s immense rotunda, Theodore Roosevelt, Oscar Wilde, or the famous actress Lily Langtry could stride by, all of whom were guests at the Southern at one time or another. And if one was fortunate to be invited, attending a lavish banquet in honor of a prominent citizen such as James Eads, Henry Blow, or Robert Campbell was a possibility.

The Southern Hotel in 1888

Famous guests aside, the Southern Hotel was also the site of some remarkable events. The most tragic of them explains why there were actually two Southern Hotels. In the early morning hours of April 11, 1877, a fire broke out in the hotel’s basement. The result was a tragedy that rocked the city of St. Louis and became front-page news across the nation. Perhaps more than twenty guests and hotel employees were killed, many more were severely injured, and the original Southern Hotel was completely destroyed. However, the story of that fire is also remarkable for the bravery and heroism shown by the St. Louis Fire Department (and that story is coming up next in this blog).

The Southern Hotel Dining Room in 1894

Another amazing story is the Preller trunk murder.  On April 12, 1885, the manager of the Southern Hotel checked room 144 after reports of a foul odor emanating from the room. Inside, he found the decomposing body of a man stuffed inside a trunk bound with rope. The victim, identified as Charles Arthur Preller, was found wearing nothing but a pair of white underwear with the name “H.M. Books” stitched into the waistband. A cross had been carved into Preller’s chest and a placard with the inscription “So perish all traitors to the great cause” was found along with the body. The subsequent trial of H.M Brooks (who had to be fetched from New Zealand) is so fantastic that I can’t do it justice here (in other words, Preller also gets his own future Distilled History post).

Bob Wilkinson, barber of the Southern Hotel

Along with fires and murders, the Southern provided the backdrop for a host of notable events. It’s at the Southern where a man named Logan Reavis argued that the capital of the United States should be moved from Washington D.C. to St. Louis. It’s where James Eads proposed building a ship railway across Mexico, and where William McKinley caused an uproar when he did something no other president had done before: he lit a cigarette in public. In a room at the Southern Hotel in 1888, Democrats decided to nominate Grover Cleveland for President. Eight years later, Republicans used the Southern to negotiate the nomination for William McKinley. The outlaw Jesse James was rumored to stay at the Southern Hotel during his visits to St. Louis under the alias “J.J. Howard”. He came often for the purpose of racing his horses at the St. Louis Jockey Club (and he was recalled as an excellent tipper). In the years prior to becoming a publishing icon, Joseph Pulitzer lived in rooms 305 and 306 at the Southern Hotel, and he was there on the night of the tragic fire. In an article written for the paper Pulitzer would own just two years later (the St. Louis Dispatch), it’s reported that Pulitzer had to flee the building “sans shirt, stockings, or anything else”.

The Southern Hotel in 1914

Sports and recreation were also no stranger to the Southern. People gambled, drank, boasted, and challenged each other daily at the Southern Hotel. The hotel’s bar is where Adolphus Busch placed $100 bets that he could name any wine he sipped, and it’s where “Gentleman Jim” Corbett challenged John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight championship in 1892. The result of that bet was one of the most famous fights in boxing history, and the first match to require that gloves be worn by the heavyweight contenders. Even baseball can point to the Southern for some of its history. Newspaper accounts of the time reported that the Southern Hotel’s lobby is where two newspaper men helped the American League’s Ban Johnson and the National League’s John Brush settle their differences. As a result, an annual event known as the “World Series” would come to be.

The Southern Hotel in 1934

After the fire in 1877, the Southern Hotel was rebuilt (eventually) and it opened again to great fanfare in 1881. The new version was bigger, fancier, and advertised as “completely fireproof”. This newer version of the Southern continued as the city’s premier hotel, and it thrived during exciting times such when the world came to St. Louis in 1904. But cultures change, cities change, and the glimmer of the Southern began to fade in the early 20th Century. Citing declining patronage, the Southern Hotel was closed for good on August 1, 1912. Despite immediate rumors that it would soon reopen as a hotel, be converted into an office building, or even turned into a beer garden, none of them came to fruition. The former Southern Hotel spent its final two decades mostly empty or sporadically utilized as an exhibition hall for automobile shows. Burdened by taxes they no longer wanted to pay, the owners announced in 1933 the building was to be demolished.

And just two years later, a shiny new Mobil gas station opened on a pretty remarkable corner in downtown St. Louis.

The Drink
Tony Faust's Restaurant and Oyster Bar

For someone like me (someone who spends way too much time thinking about how and what people were drinking 150 years ago), places like the Southern Hotel are special. Today, great bars can still be found at hotels, but it’s not quite the same. Hotels were social centers back then, and hotels were places where 19th Century drinkers went if they wanted something other than a shot of whiskey (see: saloon) or a stein of beer (see: beer garden). Specifically, it was hotel bars that helped usher in an increasingly popular form of drink in the late 19th Century: the cocktail. St. Louis’s most famous example of this is the Planter’s House Hotel, which stood on the other side of the Old Courthouse. That’s where Jerry Thomas, a man known as the “father of American mixology”, plied his trade in the mid-19th Century.

Today, good cocktail bars are ubiquitous, and I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of passing one of them up in order to get a drink for this post. For one thing, parking is no fun for hotel drinking, especially at the many downtown St. Louis options. However, it’s only fitting that I make my way to a hotel bar and toast the Southern, so I chose the St. Louis Union Station’s Hilton Hotel. Thinking it’s probably closest I can get to the spaciousness and grandeur of the Southern Hotel in its prime, I can report that I wasn’t disappointed at all. Union Station’s Grand Hall, with all its tourists, light shows, and lack of cocktail snobbery (that I can provide), is a fun place to have a drink.

Union Station's Grand Hall

I ordered the New York Central Manhattan off the cocktail menu (of course), and I’ll admit I wasn’t disappointed with that, either. The price is ridiculous ($11 for Four Roses?), but I’m pleased to report it was stirred and served up without me asking for it that way.

Cheers to you, majestic Southern!

Southern Hotel Timeline

 Key sources:

  • The Campbell House Museum archives gave me enough material about the Southern Hotel to write a book about the Southern and everything that happened there. I’m considering it.
  • “St. Louis’ Southern Hotel Fire of 1877” – Gateway Heritage, Fall 1985, pages 38-48
  • Many of the anecdotes about stuff like Busch’s wine bets, Corbett’s challenge, and the presidential nominations came from newspaper articles “remembering” the Southern Hotel when it was demolished in the 1930’s. Someday, I’d like to go back and nail them down with primary sources, but I think that will have to wait for a bigger project (book) to do that. In the meantime, the September 8, 1933 and the August 15, 1934 editions of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were a big help
  • In researching this post, I probably dug through over one hundred newspaper articles from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the Missouri Republican, the New York Times, and many others. I’m not going to list them all here, but if anyone would like a list, please contact me.
  • More attention to sources will be given in my next post about the 1877 fire that destroyed the Southern Hotel
May 7th, 2014

More Love for Rob & Ginny

Rob & Ginny's Crib

A few months ago, I started my third year as a volunteer docent at the Campbell House Museum in downtown St. Louis. I’ve said it many times before in this blog, but I just have to say it again: I love this place. There are so many reasons why it’s special, so I decided it was time for Distilled History to highlight a couple more of them for people to come down and see it in person.

When people take my tour of Robert and Virginia Campbell’s house, most visitors will recognize right away that I tend to focus on the history of the family and the house they inhabited. I do love all the stuff that’s inside the house, and I’ll always point it out, but I’ll admit that china sets and chamber pots are not my strong suit. If Ulysses S. Grant drank out of a silver cup that’s now on display in the butler’s pantry, knowing why he drank (and of course what he drank) is far more interesting to me than the cup itself.

My preference for the “how did it happen” instead of the “how pretty it is” could be why the history of the city of St. Louis gets a prime seat at the table during one of my tours. To me, the history of the Campbell House and the family is far more vivid when accompanied by the story of the city that rapidly grew around them. The two are irrevocably linked together.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. When Robert Campbell stepped onto the St. Louis riverfront for the first time in 1824, he stood before a town containing around 4,000 people. St. Louis was young, and it didn’t extend very far from the river that had initiated its creation. Lewis and Clark had set off just from the same point just twenty years earlier, and one of the city’s co-founders, Auguste Chouteau, was still alive.Rococo Revival Furniture

When Robert died just fifty-five years later in 1879, that small town had grown into an enormous beast of 350,000 people. He’d watch his house, built in 1851 on farmland beyond city limits, become enveloped by buildings, commerce, and a city that wasn’t taking it slow. The story of how all of that happened, and all of the accompanying subplots (Civil War, cholera, cyclones, and beer, to name just a few) makes for a fascinating Campbell House tour. Hear it, and one will understand that Rob and his family were on board for on one hell of a ride.

Anyway, one of the great things about being a visitor to the Campbell House is that every tour is different. While my tour may focus on how Rob and his family  moved through St. Louis, another docent may provide amazing facts about Rococo Revival furniture, Virginia’s intricate needlework on display in the formal parlor, or the $40,000 spent on one massive shopping trip in 1855 (for those wondering, that’s like dropping 1.5 million in today’s dollars).

Weekend Manager ExtraordinaireOne person in particular has a fun project going that’s helping me further appreciate these inanimate aspects of Campbell life. David Newman, the weekend manager, posts a daily photograph on social media as part of a project he calls “Campbell House Photo-a-Day”.

David is one of my favorite people at Campbell House. He’s barely over twenty (I think), and his energy level is really kind of disgusting. Along with his weekend responsibilities of keeping me and a few others in line, he’s in graduate school, he’s a Park Ranger at White Haven, and he’s frequently marching off to Civil War reenactments playing the role of a Union private. When all of that isn’t happening, he’s playing gigs or jamming with his band mates until the wee hours of the morning in his apartment in the Campbell Carriage House. Watching this guy go makes me feel very old.

But David knows his stuff, and talking Campbell history with him is fun. If we aren’t leading people around the house, we can usually be found seated around the break room table checking each other’s facts, comparing notes, and making sure our tours are solid.

He’s also got a great eye and is an accomplished photographer. I love this project he has going on, so I decided to take a break from the usual burden of research-heavy Distilled History and show off what David is up to. The following slide show highlights forty or so of my favorite images he has taken in recent weeks. Hopefully, they’ll convince a few Distilled History readers to take his tour and see these things for themselves.

After that, I hope people will come back and hear my side of the story.

(To see more of David’s fun project, search for #chmphotoaday on Instagram)

The Drink

Beer in the Garden

Another (new) aspect of my tour at the Campbell House is one that I’m pretty excited about. Since I started volunteering there, I’ve always thought it would be great if I could offer a cold beverage to people while they listened to me throw down some good history. I mean, my two favorite subjects are history and booze, so why not try to add a drink to my favorite history in St. Louis?

However, I knew without asking that serving beer inside the Campbell House was not an option.  Spilling PBR on a 165 year-old sofa would put me in some hot water. Even worse, it would certainly be me that spilled it. That can’t happen, but the idea kept nagging at me. But then it hit me: There are no sofas in the garden.

Suddenly, I had it all figured out! If I offered a cold beer to museum visitors outside, it would make for a fitting conclusion to the tour. It could also be an opportunity for visitors to take a seat under the gazebo and we’d continue the conversation from one of the best viewpoints of the house. We could even talk about Campbell family alcohol preferences (another topic I’ve included in recent tours).

Remarkably, when I reluctantly asked the museum brass if I could do this, their response was immediate.

Great idea! But the beer must be free.

Woah! Not only did they like the idea and support it, but the lack of a liquor license means I can’t charge a dime for it. My plan was to give it away all along, so everything has fit neatly into place. Come for a tour at the Campbell House, ask for the Distilled History guy, and you’ll get free beer on your tour. If you’re lucky, I’ll even have some homebrew on hand that I’m brewing specifically for this endeavor.

So, there you go. Plenty of reasons, including cold beer in your hand, to get down to the Campbell House Museum. You’re out of excuses.

July 16th, 2012

The Campbell House & Virginia’s Punch

Campbell House Museum

It’s not difficult to find historic houses in America. Travel around this country and it seems every town claims to have at least one or two homes that have stood the test of time.  Few, however, can match the history, authentic restoration, and original content that can be found in the house that sits at 1508 Locust Street in St. Louis.  This is where the Campbell House sits, and it’s a remarkable place. For eighty-four years, from 1854 to 1938, a wealthy fur trader named Robert Campbell and his family called this home. Today, it’s a museum and one of the most accurately restored 19th century homes in the United States.

The home was originally part of Lucas Place, an exclusive neighborhood that was located on the western edge of the city. Developed in 1849, Lucas Place was the first suburb and the first clearly defined wealthy neighborhood of St. Louis. I plan to write more about Lucas Place future posts, but for now I’ll simply say that it didn’t last long. As St. Louis rapidly grew in the 19th century, wealthy St. Louisans continued moving further west to neighborhoods such as the Central West End and Vandeventer Place. As a result, the stature of Lucas Place declined as early as the 1870’s. By 1900, only a few of the original Lucas Place mansions remained. Despite the transformation of the neighborhood around them, the Campbell family stayed put.

Lucas Place
This is Plate 42 of Compton & Dry’s Pictorial St. Louis 1875.  This map shows the dramatic neighborhood change compared to today.  Campbell House is circled below, surrounded by several much larger houses.  Today, all of the structures that surround it are long gone.
Compton & Dry - Plate 42

The other white dots mark three churches. Along with the Campbell House, these structures are the only buildings depicted in the drawing that still exist today.

Robert & Virginia Campbell

When I first toured the house last year, I was fascinated by the stories I heard about the house and the family that lived there.  Robert Campbell was born in Ireland in 1804 and came to America in 1822. He eventually came to St. Louis and became a fur trader. He spent the next ten years of his life in the Rocky Mountains, learning the trade and ultimately creating his own company. Upon returning to St. Louis in 1835, he embarked on many profitable business ventures that caused his wealth to grow significantly. By the early 1850’s, Robert Campbell would be one of the richest men in Missouri.

Also in 1835, Robert met his future wife, Virginia Kyle. At the time, he was thirty-one and she was only thirteen.  Despite the disparity in age, the two became close and began writing letters. After a lengthy (and turbulent) courtship, Robert and Virginia married 1841. In 1854, they bought the home on Lucas Place that is now called Campbell House.

Parlor, Servants Bells, & Sunglasses

Together, Robert and Virginia Campbell had thirteen children. Tragically, only three of them would survive past the age of seven.  Three sons (Hugh, Hazlett, and James) would continue living in the home long after their parents passed away. However, none of them would marry or have children of their own. When the last surviving son died in 1938, eighty-four years of Campbell tenure in the house came to an end.

Me at the Campbell House

This is all just scratching the surface. I’m writing this post because if you are reading it, you need to get over to this house and see it. Even better, you could land me as a docent. I started volunteering at Campbell House in January of 2012. I love the place. It’s filled with history-minded people (and a few drinkers) that I naturally get along with. I learn something new each time I walk through the door. Eventually, I even hope to begin assisting with some research projects.  There’s still much to learn about the Campbell family and the home they lived in. Until then, I’ll continue giving killer tours (and possibly mow the lawn from time to time).

If you come for a tour, you’ll learn the story about the house, the family, and the servants that worked for them. You’ll hear about Virginia’s parties, hosting elaborate dinners for prominent St. Louisans such as James Eads, Henry Shaw, Susan Blow, and William Tecumseh Sherman. During his Presidency, Ulysses S. Grant is known to have dined at the Campbell House on at least three occasions. You’ll also get insight into why the Campbell House stills stands. As the neighborhood transformed around them, there’s evidence to show why the Campbell family never left.

You’ll also see original Campbell furniture, artifacts, paintings, and photographs. The decor, paint, carpet, and fixtures have been painstakingly restored to what the house looked like in 1885.  It’s a great window into the past. For more information, visit the Campbell House website. They also write a great blog, covering all sorts of fun Campbell and St. Louis history topics.

The Manhattan

As I mentioned, one of my favorite aspects of working at Campbell House is that each time I walk in the place, I learn something new. There are so many people who work there that are passionate about one subject or another. My new pal Shelley, the Assistant Director of Campbell House, is a big foodie. She introduced me to Virginia Campbell’s handwritten cookbook. Inside is a recipe for a punch recipe that I’ve been told is very good.

Virginia's Roman Punch Recipe

Here’s the recipe card, which you can get your own copy of when you come to Campbell House.

Roman Punch

Grate the rinds of 12 lemons, & 2 oranges on 2 lbs of beet sugar, and squeeze on the juice, over it, and stand until the next day, then strain it through a sieve, add a bottle of champagne & the whites of eggs beaten to a froth. Freeze or not

Of course, I had to try making Virginia’s recipe for this post. Even better, I wanted to learn more about the history of punch. I knew that punch goes way back in the history of drinking, much farther back than cocktails. That’s about all I knew.

Today, punch is often known as some sort of Kool-Aid concoction made with floating fruit. It’s often non-alcoholic (except at proms). In college, we used to make a variation of punch called “Hairy Buffalo”. Our recipe started with soaking apples and oranges in grain alcohol.  When properly saturated, we’d dump the fruit into a garbage can and fill it with Kool-Aid and more grain alcohol.  Older and wiser, this is not the kind of punch I want to research or drink (ever again).

Drinking Punch

Punch actually has quite a history to it. The term “punch” actually comes from the Hindi word “panch”, which means “five”. It’s named as such because that is the specific number of ingredients used to make the drink.  The original ingredients vary by source, but it’s always five and one of them is always alcohol. The others could be sugar, a bitter aperitif, lemon juice, beer, milk, tea, spices, or wine, considering which source you refer to.

The term “punch” first shows up in British documents in 1632. It’s believed that it was introduced the west by British sailors and employees of the East India Company.  Since that time, the variety of punch recipes has become extensive.

Anyway, back to Virginia’s recipe, which is named “Roman Punch”.

Virginia's Roman Punch

Making the punch was a pretty comical adventure. I grated my thumb a few times along with the lemons, I had no idea where I could get “beet sugar”, and the process of frothing an egg white was completely foreign to me. Fortunately, I had help from my friend Gina who’s a great cook. I’m also very happy I didn’t put Gina’s eye out when I popped the champagne cork (it bounced off two walls before we even heard it).

I chose to freeze the drink for several hours to make it nice and cold. I had five friends come over and help me drink it. I’m happy to say it came out far better than I expected. It’s extremely sweet and extremely uh, “lemon-y” (12 lemons will do that). I wouldn’t drink it all day, but I think it would make a nice drink on a hot summer afternoon. My pals each said they liked it. They each had a glass before tackling the stash of beer in my refrigerator. I’ll have to try some other historic punch recipes in the future.

July 10th, 2012

The Social Evil Hospital

Note: This was originally a Facebook history fact that I posted in April 2012. I wasn’t writing this blog at the time, so I went back to get some more information and images to expand on the original post. I also found a good place to get a drink.

Social Evil Hospital

On July 5, 1870, the city of St. Louis passed an extraordinary new ordinance. Commonly referred to at the time as the “Social Evil Law”, it made prostitution a legal activity in the city of St. Louis. As long as the practice occurred in a licensed establishment (brothel) staffed with licensed employees (hookers), you could score a trick in Mound City without any threat of legal repercussion. Imagine that for a moment. From 1870 until the law was repealed four years later, a brothel in St. Louis was a legitimate business enterprise. Modeled after similar legislation in Europe, St. Louis was the first American city to attempt such a groundbreaking experiment.

“If the evil cannot be suppressed,” opined the Missouri Republic, “the wisest course is to regulate it with proper bounds.” The majority of the all-male (of course) St. Louis city council shared this opinion. They believed that legalizing prostitution would contain illicit behavior and prevent the spread of venereal disease among the population.

Along with the new ordinance, the “Social Evil Hospital” was constructed in 1873. Located at the corner of Arsenal and Sublette, the hospital was built across the street from the Insane Asylum on the western edge of the city. Under provisions of the new law, all prostitutes and brothels had to register with the Board of Health and pay a monthly fee. The money from these fees was used to construct the hospital, maintain the facility, and pay the salaries of its employees. A companion “House of Industry” was built next door where reformers attempted to “save” the women and teach them skills needed in more respectable lines of work.

Here’s the Social Evil Hospital depicted on Plate 95 of Compton & Dry’s Pictorial St. Louis. The Insane Asylum, which still stands today, is located across the street.

Compton & Dry - Plate 95

All registered prostitutes were also required to get a weekly medical examination. If they passed, they were given a licensed certificate to work. If they failed, they were expected to report to the Social Evil Hospital within twenty-four hours for treatment.  It was likely not a very pleasant experience. Bunked several to a room, patients were kept under guard and forbidden to leave unless discharged by a physician. While there, they had to endure the condescending attitude of reformers attempting to change their lifestyle.  In the first year of hospital operation, several escape attempts were reported.

Social Evils

At first, the law had significant support. Over 800 prostitutes registered in the first three months. However, many found the strict regulations far less appealing than the back alley methods they were accustomed to. Many vigorously objected to the high fees and forced medical inspections. As for reform, few prostitutes showed any inclination to attempt a more “respectable line of work”. The House of Industry closed shortly after it opened. Within a year, many prostitutes simply refused to pay the fee and went back to plying their trade under their own rules.

Opposition to the new law started to grow from community leaders. William Greenleaf Eliot (T.S. Eliot’s grandfather) argued the law discriminated against women since male prostitutes were not required to register. Others started petitions for equal rights for women instead of simply giving them the freedom to sell their bodies.

Supporters continued to insist the law was working. The chief of police argued that the city’s prostitutes exhibited better behavior and the sex trade had been removed from the public eye. In fact, prostitution was a big business that brought revenue to the city. One of the largest brothels paid an estimated $2,500 a month in fees (nearly $30,000 today).

By 1874, The number of registered prostitutes had plummeted.  Corruption also invaded the system. In one example, a prostitute presented a medical certificate that had been dated three weeks in advance.  Despite continued support from local politicians insisting the law worked, the city council voted to repeal the ordinance in April 1874.

Josephine Baker

The Social Evil Hospital continued treating women and children for a few years under a new name, the Female Hospital.  It operated for several years until patients were moved to the City Hospital near downtown. The building was razed in 1915.

However, the Female Hospital does hold an interesting footnote. On June 3, 1906, an African-American washerwoman named Carrie McDonald gave birth to a baby girl she named Freda Josephine.  That young girl would grow up to become the famous dancer and political activist Josephine Baker.

The land where the Social Evil Hospital once stood is now called “Sublette Park”. It’s an attractive park with several tennis courts located in the Southwest Garden neighborhood of St. Louis. It’s named after William Sublette, a prominent early St. Louisan who had a successful career as a fur trader. Sublette owned a large estate named “Sulphur Springs” just north of where this park stands today. William Sublette died July 23, 1845 and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in north St. Louis.

Sublette’s business partner for many years was Robert Campbell, owner of the home where I volunteer as a docent.  Sublette’s land is now occupied by a Holiday Inn, but Campbell’s beautifully restored home still sits in downtown St. Louis (and this is a shameless plug, I know).

Sublette Park Today

Note: There’s a great deal of information out there about St. Louis’s experiment with legalized prostitution. A definitive source is an article titled “Regulating Vice:  Prostitution and the St. Louis Social Evil Ordinance, 1870-1874” by Duane Sneddeker.

The Drink

To serious cocktail drinkers, the drink destination of this post may come as a bit of a surprise. Located not too far from Sublette Park is a well-known south St. Louis restaurant named Biggies. It’s a regular family place with a big menu and all sorts of St. Louis memorabilia on the walls. Since it’s close to my house, I’ve eaten there often. And believe it or not, Biggies serves a good Manhattan.

Biggies Manhattan

There are two reasons I love drinking Manhattans at Biggies. First, the bartenders are always extremely friendly. You always get a big smile and a friendly hello.

Second, special instructions to get a perfect Manhattan are never needed (at least in my experience). Order the drink and you get it how it should be made: Up, stirred, and served in a fancy cocktail glass. It comes with one cherry and a small splash of maraschino syrup.

Keep in mind that a “perfect” Manhattan specifies a specific recipe for the drink. It’s served with a 1:1 ratio of whiskey and sweet vermouth. This is how my father liked his Manhattan and it’s the recipe I was first exposed to.

These days, I normally use rye whiskey with a 2:1 ratio, but the perfect Manhattan brings back good memories. It reminds me of my good ol’ Dad who died back in 2008.

It makes me happy to drink it as he did.

Update November 2015: A kind reader informed me that I had incorrectly placed Sublette Park in the Hill neighborhood. In fact, it’s in the Southwest Garden neighborhood. 

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