According to the Department of Justice, Seattle is considered one of the United States’ worst cities for sex trafficking. While Washington led the nation to criminalize human trafficking, it remains a hotbed for purveyors due to the city’s ports, I-5 corridor and its proximity to an international border. For many, it’s tough to imagine trafficking of women and girls happening openly in our city. But, for anyone who knows Seattle’s history, present day sex trafficking goes back to our city’s origin.
In 1851, the Denny Party washed ashore at Alki Point. Not long after the city’s birth, Mary Ann “Mother Damnable” Conklin (1821-1873) ran the first Seattle hotel and brothel, the Felker House, a two-story building on Jackson Street and First Ave South. Following shortly thereafter, San Francisco brothel owner John Pinnell opened Seattle’s first burlesque house, Illahee (a home away from home) on sawdust fill just below Mill Street (now Yesler Way). Pinnell lured Native American tribes with dreams of a better life for both the young girls he recruited and their families so that he could profit off of the demand for sex of newly arriving lumberjacks.
From 1861 until 1916, dance halls (that sold women) flourished in Pioneer Square. This red light region of Seattle became known as Down on the Sawdust, The Lava Bed, The Tenderloin and finally Skid Row. The Tenderloin District became one of the West Coast’s largest areas of prostitution, boasting hundreds of small cribs (homes broken into small, sparsely furnished rooms used for sex transactions) selling sex to loggers, sailors, and miners. Although some local politicians were under pressure to curb the brothel business, many turned a blind eye, as the sex trade was bringing in badly needed revenue during Seattle’s recession. Some action was taken to curb the growing sex district, but 1884’s ordinance banning “soliciting prostitution upon any of the public streets,” drove independent sex workers into brothels and crib houses, inflaming the commercialization of sex trafficking where pimps and madams ran the game.
Seeing the opportunity to profit in Seattle’s flourishing sex trade, Madam Lou Graham arrived in Seattle and built a lavish, high-end brothel. To lure johns, Graham displayed girls by showcasing them around the city by carriage; this perhaps, was a crude version of porn that still flourishes today.
By 1894, politicians who opposed of the red light district finally won majority on the Seattle City Council and banned liquor in theaters. Because alcohol was closely connected with the establishments that fueled commercial sex, the ban on liqueur brought about the end of the crib houses as well. From 1900 to 1916, Seattle warred, with closed town factions (desiring ethical government and vice enforcement) battling open town factions (advocating the toleration of prostitution, gambling and alcohol).
Nationally, U.S. and Japanese officials announced a campaign to break up the exploding sex trade of young Japanese women being imported by male traffickers posing as husbands for the purposes of sexual exploitation. At that time, more than 500 women were brought as sex slaves to Washington alone.
In 1909, Mayor John F. Miller ordered the “disorderly houses” in Seattle’s red light districts closed. Miller endorsed “the purpose of segregating vice and the establishing of a thoroughly regulated district as the best practicable means at hand of dealing with the social evil.” Later that year, customs officials announced a “deplorable state of affairs” revealing girls being sold by traffickers in Seattle for $400, with quantity discounts.
In 1910, City Councilman Hiram Gill, an open town advocate with financial ties in the Tenderloin, ran for mayor and was elected. Vice and corruption thrived under his leadership. The following year, Gill and Police Chief Charles Wappenstein were caught conspiring in the construction of a 500-room brothel located on Beacon Hill, the largest in the world.
The roaring twenties brought Nellie Curtis, a madam of legendary proportion. Curtis opened her first brothel in the Camp Hotel on First Avenue. One brothel turned into many, and like most pimps, she profited greatly off of the women being sold. Curtis later took over Pike Place Market’s LaSalle Hotel, eventually making it Seattle’s largest brothel and a profitable business until the mid 1950s.
In usual fashion, the 1970s sparked a plethora of action and protest. Led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Association of Seattle Prostitutes, Seattle Police Department came under fire for use of female officers as decoys in their efforts to fight against the sex trade. The groups claimed the police’s actions violated the First Amendment rights of “working women” and unfairly discriminates against them. By the late 1970s, Seattle police reported that prostitution was at the highest level seen in nearly a decade.
In the 1980s, the Texas couch dance, later known as the lap dance, was invented in Seattle. Just a few years later, in a continued effort to curb prostitution and catch johns, Seattle banned driving around in circles and cat-calling to pedestrians. At that time, Seattle was claimed to be, “the most rampant juvenile prostitution in the country,” according to the National Association for Missing and Exploited Children. Seattle Police Department reported more than 2,000 prostitution arrests in a single year, an all-time record.
Seattle reached another milestone in 2007, when Seattle Lust Tour, still in operation today, was birthed. Reportedly the first tour of its kind in the world, the Seattle Lust Tour guides tourists and Seattleites to historic sites of prostitution and debauchery.
Seattle has long been the leader in trafficking and prostitution, but has also long been a leader in efforts to combat the problem and share those with the rest of the country. Today is no different. Ten years after Seattle passed the nation’s first anti-trafficking laws, Washington continues to lead the fight in anti-human trafficking, passing twelve additional laws. Washington lawmakers, local law enforcement and many social service agencies, nonprofits and churches have fought back against the sexual exploitation of vulnerable populations. REST is privileged to be a part of this necessary and vital work. If you are interested in joining the fight against the exploitation of girls and women, please visit our website to learn how.
Bridget Battistoni is Director of Operations for REST: Real Escape from the Sex Trade