The Work of the Chicago Vice Commission.

A. W. Harris


On January 31, 1910, at a meeting of the Church Federation of Chicago. a resolution was passed requesting the Mayor of the city to appoint a commission to investigate the social evil in Chicago. This resolution was presented to the mayor, and on March 5th a commission was appointed. Later the commission was authorized be Council ordinance and an appropriation of $5,000 for the expenses of the commission was secured. This appropriation was later supplemented by a like amount. Committees were appointed and investigators were secured, with the result that a very detailed report with recommendations was presented to the City Council, April 5, 1911.

On May 16, the report of the Vice Commission was discussed at the City Club by one of the members of that commission. Dr. A. W. Harris, President of the Northwestern University. Judge Stephen A. Foster, chairman of the meeting, in introducing the speaker, made the following remarks

Stephen A. Foster

"We are to hear today the story of the Vice Commission of the City of Chicago. The wide scope of this undertaking is indicated by the terms of the ordinance under which the Commission was appointed by the Mayor of this city. The ordinance provided that the Commission was to inquire into the conditions existing within the limits of the city with reference to vice in various forms, including all practices which are physically and morally debasing and degrading, and which affect the moral and physical welfare of the inhabitants of the city.'

"Appropriations were made by the City Council to the amount of $10,000 for the expenses of the Commission, the members of the Commission serving without compensation. The ability and public spirit of the members of that Commission are well known and they discharged their arduous and unpleasant duties with a degree of zeal that might have been expected from men and women so devoted to the welfare of the community.

"The report of the Commission bares the social evil in all its hideousness, commercialized on a colossal scale, and shows how it takes and destroys the lives of the girls and boys and of the men and women of this community. Perhaps there is some grain of consolation for our local pride in the fact that the Commission finds that Chicago is far better than other large cities of the country proportionately to its size.

"I wish to call your attention to a bill

( 122) now pending in Springfield, known as Senate Bill No. 320, which provides for declaring houses of prostitution a nuisance, and for their abatement on the suit of an individual. I have not had an opportunity to carefully examine this bill, but I do know, from personal observation, that the situation in our courts with regard to this evil is well nigh intolerable. Prohibited by both-state laws and municipal ordinances, houses of ill-fame still exist, as we all know, in large ;umbers, and the keepers thereof are well nigh immune from any prosecution. They are not molested—in the way of arrest, at least—by the police or by the prosecuting attorneys of this city or county. When called into court they openly admit their unlawful occupation and still they escape without punishment. This situation is demoralizing not only to the police, but to the whole :administration of justice. If this Commission, through this legislation, the principle of which it has endorsed, can do something to help the administration of justice and to relieve it from that intolerable situation where a recognized crime is still tolerated by the courts, including the judges and the prosecutors, they certainly will have accomplished one great good for this community.

"In what I have said I am not reflecting upon the courts. Personally, I have been confronted by that same situation and have felt utterly hopeless and unable to deal with it. Outraged by the flagrant violation of law, in one instance, I ordered and insisted upon the arrest of one keeper of a house of ill-fame, who in my court has admitted his offense, but after I had fined the offender and seen the money paid over to the City of Chicago, I think I felt more humiliation than before. I felt that I had simply licensed that particular offender in the conduct of his illegal business.

"Among those who gave their time unselfishly to the work of the Commission in the investigation of this evil, was Dr. Harris, President of Northwestern University. He is to speak to you today on the work of the Vice Commission. I have pleasure in introducing to you Dr. Harris of the Northwestern University." (Applause.)

Dr. A. W. Harris

"Mr. Chairman: I am embarrassed this afternoon to attempt to present a question of the size in the time that is at all possible. I will propound three questions:

"What is the social evil? What is being done about it? What ought to he done about it? Of course the last question is the most important.

"At the very beginning, I ask you to indulge me while I read a few extracts from the statement which Mayor Busse gave to the public at the time that the Commission was appointed:

These (referring to the vice problems) are the most perplexing questions with which modern civilization is confronted. Since Chicago has been a city we have drifted as regards this question. In this we have not differed from other American cities.

As a matter of fact, the conditions incident to the problem in Chicago—a problem as old as the city itself—are better than they hay ever been before within present-day memory * * * Many years ago, the authorities attempted to localize vice in certain districts of the city. * * * Executives have acted, in doing this, with the best motives, and often with the advice of ministers of the gospel and other men of character. The only criticism that can be offered is that none of these moves was based on careful investigation and far-seeing planning. Our statute books—state and municipal—are crowded with laws on the subject.* * *

We can, as a basis, agree, I believe, that the practice as to vice in Chicago has been of long continuance; and that, in this respect, we arc no better and no worse than other American or European cities. These conditions are with us. To pretend that they do not exist is hypocrisy, far-reaching in its harmful effect.

These premises being accepted, we find that there are many questions springing from them to which thinking men and women, careful students of society and government, are giving deepest thought. Such questions are:

Should the existence of the `social evil' and of the men and women connected with it be ignored?

Should vice be segregated? If so, what would he the method of maintaining control of segregated districts?

What is the best method of controlling communicable diseases? * * *

What treatment of vice as a disease of society is best for all concerned?

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"There is one phrase in this statement I would like to emphasize: ‘Vice as a disease of society.'

How the Investigation was Made

"The Commission consisted of thirty persons, two women and twenty-eight men, business men, philanthropists, ministers, physicians, lawyers, judges, teachers, and others. They organized by appointing sub-committees, by employing a secretary who had had experience in such work as the Commission was to undertake and then by appointing a group of investigators. These investigators were expected to go into the field and collect information at first hand. The secretary of the Commission was Mr. George J. Kneeland. The investigators were helped in their work by interviews and hearings. We listened to ministers of the gospel, keepers of saloons, judges, lawyers, representatives of philanthropic associations and to any others who thought they had a message.

“The investigators worked on many lines. They investigated real estate offices in order to determine how many, if any, real estate agents would knowingly rent buildings for immoral purposes. They investigated solicitation upon the streets, they investigated saloons, they talked with women of the streets, they made visits to houses. they made visits to other cities in order to determine the conditions there. Some of the members of the Commission also visited the segregated districts.

“There are, in Chicago, three pretty well defined restricted districts. one on the west, one on the north and one on the south. The district on the south, that in the vicinity of 22d street, is the best known and is usually described as 'the levee.' The Commission obtained from the police a list of the houses and the number of inmates. Then the investigators followed up these lists. We found that the police list, as originally given to us, included only a small part of the number of houses of prostitution in Chicago.

"The investigators found women upon the streets and in the saloons and traced them back to their houses. They also found a long list of flats used for immoral purposes. There is a technical distinction between a house and a flat when used for such purposes. As a rule, in a flat, the women are not residents, but are called in by telephone when needed and are exchanged from flat to flat. These flats are found even in the best districts and are by no means confined to the restricted districts. Neither are houses confined to the restricted districts.

"We went into amusement places and investigated theaters. The ordinary theater was very little investigated, and there is practically nothing about it in the report. However, we investigated five-cent theaters rather carefully. The chief evil about them grows out of the necessary darkness. The performance in the fire-cent theater, as a rule, is not very objectionable. I visited twelve or fifteen of them one evening, and I found no, pictures that seemed to me to be objectionable. Practically all of them, in my judgment, were inane, but if they pleased the people who saw them they could not do much harm.

"We also investigated dance halls, and found them very commonly connected with saloons.

Practically no investigation was made of the great evil of clandestine prostitution. We confined our work to public prostitution in houses, in flats, and in public places. The isolated prostitute who takes a man now and then to a room we were not able to follow. Experience has shown well that it is practically impossible to do anything with that problem.

The Commercializing of Vice

"The most. important and the most startling fact in regard to prostitution — and I want to lay great emphasis upon it—is that public prostitution is already, or is rapidly becoming, a commercialized business. There is some indication that it is feeling the influence of the centralizing methods characteristic of other lines of business.

"In one of the restricted districts inmates were given warning that their houses must be closed, but they were allowed to move into other streets. When they attempted to do so, they found that the available properties were in the hands of a small group of men, who demanded in rents sums very much greater than had been paid in the old streets. I cannot say that we can prove there was a definite plan in this case,

( 124) nor did we establish a connection between the vacating of the first street and the opening of the second one. But it is clear that the segregation of prostitution gives opportunity for cornering available properties. That is all on the subject I can take time to say here, but it shows a method by which a small number of men may get a large grasp upon that business.

"Let me call your attention to a few facts in regard to the situation. If you have seen the report you will understand how utterly inadequate is any such attempt as this to make you understand what the conditions are. The report is not guesswork nor hearsay. If you read it you will find definite reference to definite times, places and people. These references are indicated in the report by numbers but the details are in the hands of the Commission and can be supplied if there is proper reason for calling for them.

"If you would understand the situation, read the report and study the long list of selected typical instances. Some of them may seem Improper to present to an audience, but I venture to say that it is necessary to deal with such matters plainly. One of the first suggestions made to the Vice Commission was to select a more pleasant and less suggestive name. We did a wise thing when we decided to use no euphonism. to call vice, `vice,' to call a harlot, a 'harlot.' The public must he brought to face the plain, unvarnished facts.

"Let me tell you one instance from hundreds of them. I one day heard this story told by a woman, whom, if you should pass her on the street. you would suppose to be a respectable woman. She was well but not loudly dressed. When asked what was her business, she said. I am a prostitute.' There was no evidence of embarrassment in telling it. She stated that she was twenty-eight years old and that she had been married at the age of fifteen and had been placed in a house of prostitution by her husband immediately after their marriage. In response to questions, she stated that she had one helper, that her charge for service was fifty cents and that her weekly earnings were three hundred dollars.

Time to Stop Drifting

"How can any decent community face such answers without feeling a tremendous shock. If we are drifting into a situation, that allows a woman to tell such a story of life in Chicago, it is time to stop drifting, and to ask what can we do about it.

"Now, what are you going to do about it? In the back of the report you will find page after page of law. What are we doing with that law ? For the most part, we are not enforcing it. A great deal of the law is probably not enforceable; at any rate, it is not being enforced. It is commonly said that the Mayor ought to do this and the Mayor ought to do that ; that the chief of police ought to do this and the chief of police ought to do that. Investigation led us to the opinion that the last chief of police made an honest and unusually successful endeavor to ameliorate the conditions. He established certain regulations, the most important of which was perhaps that prohibiting the sale of liquor in houses of prostitution He forbade swinging doors and signs, the admission of boys to houses and the; wearing of short dresses and transparent skirts by the women. There are many regulations—good regulations—and they are reasonably well enforced. Why are they not better enforced? Let me turn your attention to the financial features of the business.

"By taking the police list and such statistics of the business as we had. we reckoned out the profits in the city of Chicago. You will understand that any such conclusion must be inaccurate, in wide broad limits, but the error, in this case, is upon the side of conservatism. Exact records are kept in some of the houses. In the appendix to the report are pages taken from the account book of a house. showing how many men were served by each of the girls during one week. These pages are part of a court record. Based upon such data we estimated the profits from the business, including body profits and liquor profits, as amounting to $15,000.000 a year. I personally believe that sum is entirely too small, and I am quite ready to accept even twice or four times as much. Is it then any wonder the law is not better enforced? We may not excuse a

( 125) public officer who fails to do his duty; but it is a tremendously difficult thing for a policeman to enforce laws against a business yielding such enormous profits.

Prostitution and the Liquor Business

"Furthermore note the connection of the business of prostitution and the liquor business. I am not one of those that believe that ail men in the liquor business are necessarily bad. I remember an interview with a representative of the Liquor Dealers' Association. who spoke with the greatest indignation against prostitution and was particularly bitter against the corrupt saloons, that live very largely upon prostitution. He denounced them as indecent, as houses of prostitution. He was jealous of the reputation of his saloon as a decent and well conducted saloon, But there is a most intimate connection between liquor and lust. Every house of prostitution makes a large part of its profits from the sale of liquor, Just so soon as prostitution and liquor come together, the price of liquor goes up. The bottle beer, that sells for five cents over the counter, costs twenty-five cents at a table, if served to a man talking with a woman, and as she has a bottle also, the man pays in all fifty cents. Of this the woman gets 20 per cent as her fee. If the same sale is made upstairs, each bottle becomes a fifty-cent bottle. Cocktails served to women are often merely colored water.

"There are many saloons in which there are women solicitors. This liquor profit is the temptation that draws many women into evil ways. A woman drifts into the saloon in the first place because of sociability, or because she likes liquor. In a little while through encouragement she finds that she can make money by getting men to buy liquor for her, and soon the woman is 'hustling,' as the phrase is. In many saloons the bartenders and waiters are themselves agents for prostitution.

".Amusements have a very close connection with prostitution. Most of he dance halls which are connected with saloons, are unqualifiedly had. In many cases the girl pars no admission fee or a very small one; the boy pays a larger fee. Our investigation shows that a great many dissolute women began prostitution in the dance halls.

The Economic Side of the Question

"Another cause of prostitution is an economic cause, for which I am free to say that I see no easy remedy. In the city of Chicago a great body of young women are working for wages which are insufficient to maintain them. There are women working for four, five or eight dollars a week, who pay from this sum their living expenses, and provide themselves with amusement. The attempt is hopeless. The same woman whose wages. capitalized, amount to $5,000 is worth $50.000 as a mere body. It is easy for a girl who is getting only from $4 to $6 a week in a store, to earn $50 a week as a prostitute. Beginning in a little way with one ratan or with two men, soon she is in the business to stay,

"It is not a simple question you have to deal with. What are you going to do about it? We have been drifting. The report makes nearly a hundred recommendations. Here are a few of the most important:

"Abolish liquor in dance halls. When that recommendation was under discussion, it was objected, 'That is impracticable. If you say that no liquor shall be sold at a dance, you will prevent the use of liquor at many prominent and fashionable dances.' There is a real difficulty; but the difficulty must be faced. The community ought to forbid the use of liquor in connection with dance halls.

Divorce prostitution from saloons. There are saloons connected with houses of prostitution, or with assignation rooms over them. There are saloons connected with hotels which are used for assignation purposes. All these connections must be stopped. There ought to be no saloon in a house in which there is prostitution.

"Our recommendation on the amusement question may he called socialistic. The community must come to recognize that, just as it furnishes educational opportunities, just as it furnishes protection against sanitary dangers, it should provide proper and safe opportunities for amusement. And these must be suited to the tastes of those they serve.

"A saloon man when asked, `Why not

( 126) forbid all women in saloons?' replied, `A woman has a right to go in a saloon. It is the only decent place of amusement open to her. She cannot find amusement by going into a church, for the churches are all shut up. She may pass a dozen closed churches, in coming to my saloon. She cannot get into one of them, and if she did get in, they would want her to play tiddledywinks and go home at half past nine.' There. is some truth in this. Many girls in questionable dance halls would prefer to be in decent dance halls if there were such.

Repression is Advocated

"The chief recommendation was repression as the immediate method; annihilation as the ideal. This community is not willing to recognize prostitution, which sells souls and body, as a thing to be tolerated. But it would be idle to expect to wipe out prostitution in a year. Therefore, we recommended as the method, persistent repression, ever working nearer to annihilation.

"It seemed to the Commission that the important thing was to find the root of the trouble, and then to strike at the root. Prostitution is to be treated not so much as a crime as a civic disease. The real weakness in our present method is this. We have enacted our ethical ideals as law—as Anglo-Saxons are very likely do. By law we have declared that there shall be no prostitution. But as I talk to men on the streets, I find that very few of them believe that law to be enforceable. The legislature never enacted a law to control this situation which it believed would be enforced. The present laws cannot he enforced ; things drift; the community despairs and ignores the situation. But something must be done. So the legislative power and the legislative duty are passed over to the mayor, the chief of police, and the policemen. For the regulations in regard to the conduct of a house of prostitution there is no sufficient legal basis, for the house has no legal right to exist. Without authority, the police make regulations and with the same authority they brush them aside. As a result the police make or unmake the real law. You have law made while you wait. The same man or men, is the legislator, administrator and judge. This breeds tyranny, and against tyranny I know only one remedy, bribery, and the bribe makes the officers of the law partners in the crime. This situation is the cause of graft and the root of the evil of prostitution. To remedy this situation, we must find some proper legal basis for practicable regulation. The Commission therefore recommended not detailed methods of procedure—to do that would be like curing disease by correspondence. The Commission asked the appointment of a permanent body, to be called a Morals Commission, whose duty it should be to study this disease, to make a new diagnosis from time to time, and to apply new methods, to make ever new regulations.

"A second recommendation was the organization of a `Morals Court' which should deal with the cases connected with prostitution.

"We believe we have found a method that promises a patient and a scientific study of the problem. We are hoping the community will show sufficient interest to give these recommendations support.

"If you have not read the report, get it, read it and put your influence back of the recommendations." (Applause.)


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