The Story of the Committee of Fifteen of Chicago

Clifford W. Barnes.
Organizer and former President of the Committee

Notwithstanding the request of the editors, it would be unwise to tell this story of the Committee of Fifteen, and recall old conflicts which all wish to forget, were it not for the evidence which the story furnishes of a steady development in public opinion antagonistic to all forms of commercialized vice, and the illustration it affords of how a small group of determined citizens can gradually acquire large influences when fighting for the right.

It was during the summer of 1907 that Chicago was startled out of her usual attitude of indifference toward commercialized vice by a series of shocking revelations, which indicated that our city was the center of a well organized traffic in women, a very real white slave market. An energetic young lawyer, assistant in the State’s Attorney’s office, was given the task of prosecuting those who were carrying on this nefarious trade, and so well did he succeed that several strong vice syndicates, having connections not only in the cities of this country but even in Europe, were broken up, their principals convicted, and heavy fines and imprisonment imposed.

This success, however, aroused the underworld to action in its own defense, and before many months had passed the prosecuting attorney was given other work to perform, and various white slave cases were allowed to go by default. It was then that a group of five citizens secretly agreed to stand behind the young lawyer and furnish him with such money as might be necessary for special investigation and prosecution, providing arrangements could be made with the State’s Attorney’s office by which his whole time might be devoted to this work. Feeling the pressure of an awakened public sentiment, the State’s Attorney

( 146) granted this request, and once again the white slavers were thrown into a panic by a series of successful raids and prosecutions. But the politicians, who know no party when their selfish interests are affected, quickly brought such pressure to bear that the attorney who was proving himself so troublesome to the vice interests was forced out of office and eventually compelled to carry on his work in an independent capacity, supported only by this small group of citizens.

Shortly after this, one of the largest Chicago dailies, which had become interested in the work, offered to lend its moral and financial support to the enterprise for a period of twelve months, and so telling were the results that, by the time the years was up, the entire city had been thoroughly aroused, and the demand was heard on all sides to rid Chicago of the white slave traffic. This rapid development of their undertaking brought such additional burdens upon those who had originated the movement that it was determined to increase their number to fifteen, to formally organize as a committee, and to make a public appeal for popular support. Incorporation papers were obtained May 3, 1911, under the title of the “Committee of Fifteen,” and the purpose stated in the charter was “to aid the public authorities in the enforcement of all laws against pandering and to take measures calculated to suppress the ‘white slave’ traffic.”

In the early part of 1910, the ministers of Chicago, acting through the Church Federation, publicly requested the Mayor to appoint a committee to investigate conditions relative to commercialized vice, and so urgent became the public demand for some action along this line that the mayor reluctantly consented. In March, 1910, the Vice Commission was appointed, consisting of some of the best known citizens of Chicago, but it was said at the time that the mayor had in each case assured himself that his appointee was in favor of settling the problem by means of strict segregation and stringent regulation. The Commission carried on a most careful and creditable investigation for the period of one year, and on April 5, 1911, it submitted a report to the Common Council, in which, to the surprise of its own members, the chagrin of the mayor, and the dismay of the underworld, it unanimously

( 147) agreed that segregation of commercialized vice was a failure, regulation a false security, and ultimate suppression the only possible remedy.

Strengthened by this report, the Committee of Fifteen made such progress during the following year that the newly elected may, in the summer of 1912, acted without hesitation upon the request and closed five immoral houses and a disorderly saloon in the Red Light District. The Tribune of August 24, in commenting upon this action, said: ---

The owners included some of the most notorious dive keepers in the city. The blow was the severest struck at the world of vice since the segregated district was transferred to the 22d Street neighborhood. It came directly from a request of the Committee of Fifteen.

The mayor is reported to have said: “It was the only thing I could do.” How important this action appeared to the underworld may be judged from the fact that in less than two weeks evidence was submitted, showing that a protection fund of $50,000 had been raised by the vice lords and that political influence had bee brought to bear to prevent prosecution by the State’s Attorney. With each day the struggle between the friends and the foes of vice grew more bitter; certain members of the Committee of Fifteen were threatened with arrest; the Church Federation voiced its opposition to the evident protection which was being afforded the disorderly resorts; five thousand welfare workers marched through the streets, despite a drizzling rain, to demonstrate their antagonism to existing conditions; finally a great mass meeting was held at Orchestra hall where resolutions were passed condemning in no uncertain voice the city administration, the State’s Attorney, and the chief of police. On September 28th a signed statement appeared in the daily papers, in which the attorney of the Committee of Fifteen said in part: ---

That the state’s attorney’s office had sought to prevent the taking of evidence regarding vice in the 22d Street district.

That he only procured his indictments against the Big Six in the

(148)   tenderloin by going direct to the foreman of the grand jury with influential members of the Committee of Fifteen.

On October 3d a dramatic climax to this struggle was heralded in the daily papers in front page, double-leaded articles such as this: “The State’s Attorney and Vice Foes Fix Truce,” “Inquiry in Sight,” “Prosecutor Will Confer with Reformers Today,” “Special Jury is Sought,” et cetera, the matter filling whole columns.

It was a startling request which came to the Committee of Fifteen, asking for a conference between its members and the State’s Attorney, and when the event was given such publicity by the State’s Attorney’s office, as the above indicates, the Committee was still more startled and perplexed. No one was prepared, however for that which the conference developed, which was nothing less than a proposal on the part of the State’s Attorney that the entire Red Light District of the city be instantly closed through the agency of his office, and that the Committee of Fifteen promise him its hearty support in this drastic action. Now the Committee of Fifteen, it will be remembered, had entered this fight against commercialized vice with the express purpose of aiding the public authorities in the enforcement of all laws against pandering and to take measures calculated to suppress the “white slave” traffic. It had never, as a Committee, taken formal action against the practice of prostitution when thoroughly segregated, and certain of its members were still of the opinion that careful regulation was the best method of handling the social evil. Some have thought that the State’s Attorney was well aware that this difference of opinion existed, and that he was determined by this means to make the Committee appear cowardly and hypocritical, because it could not as a body stand behind his action. Others said that this drastic move was the result of spite because certain of his political backers had turned against the State’s Attorney. The Record Herald of October 3d had the following: —

The announcement of this seeming change of front by the State’s Attorney came within a few hours after a boom to put him in the race for reelection had collapsed.


If the Committee of Fifteen as a body, however, could not take the action requested, its Chairman, on the evening of October 3e, gave out a signed statement which voiced the sentiment of a large majority and said: —

I am glad the State’s Attorney has closed these disreputable houses. In justice to himself, his office, and the law, he could not do otherwise. It is now in the hands of the citizens of Chicago to determine by jury action or by other means just what attitude they care to assume toward this whole vice problem.

Speaking solely for myself and not for the Committee of Fifteen or any other organization, I am opposed to commercialized vice with its profit divided between the keepers of disreputable resorts and a grafting police force, while the people look on, demoralized by the sight.

A serious condition will be caused by the scattering of the evil element, but on the whole I am confident the city will be morally in the a far more wholesome state that is possible with a protected red light district.

Within less than twenty-four hours after the much-heralded conference in the office of the Committee of Fifteen, one hundred and thirty-five warrants had been served on the keepers of disorderly resorts. Scores of warrants had been prepared for the arrest of owners and agents of property used for immoral purposes, and an exodus of hundreds of disreputable women had taken place in the segregated districts. To meet the evident peril resulting from this sudden scattering of lewd women, the Committee of Fifteen advertised that it would provide without cost a suitable home for all that cared to apply and would aid any who wished to leave the city and return to their own homes. It is a noteworthy fact that a very small number took advantage of this offer, virtually all the prostitutes remaining in hiding with the evident expectation that this spasm of virtue on the part of the officials would soon spend itself and their quiet return to business be permitted. Subsequent events showed how well they sensed the situation. It was not long before the State’s Attorney office was finding it exceedingly difficult to serve warrants; then sufficient evidence for conviction

( 150) seemed always to be lacking; and finally, an open rupture between it and the Committee of Fifteen followed the non-suiting of a charge brought against one of the most notorious of the white slave traffickers. Replying to an attack made upon him in regard to this case, the State’s Attorney openly charged the Committee with double dealing and hypocrisy, and said (quoting from the papers of November 24): —

When I determined to abolish the segregated district on the South Side, I felt that the committee would back me up and approve openly and publicly my stand. When, however, I submitted the matter to that body before I made the move and requested that the members publicly declare in favor of such a move before it was made, they refused to do so. Not until after the district was closed and a wave of public opinion backed the attitude of this office did the Committee of Fifteen take a stand against the segregated district.

As we have shown by the statement printed in the papers of October 4th, this attack unfair and unwarranted, but it serves to illustrate the subtle and changing character of the opposition with which the Committee was constantly meeting. When the Red Light District was actually closed by the drastic action of the State’s Attorney, and the amazed vice lords, for the first time, faced the awful prospect of a “clean” city, one of their earliest moves was to seek aid at the ands of the mayor who, unfortunately, was under political obligations to some of the most corrupt of the city’s aldermen. At his request, a special committee of the Common Council was appointed to hold public hearings on vice conditions and to make an early report on the subject. The personnel of this committee, and the evidence that was presented by various police officers and by quickly organized and falsely named “women’s protective leagues,” led the foes of segregation to believe that the verdict would be against them. But on the last day of the hearing a dramatic incident occurred which caused such widespread publicity and which soc effectively destroyed some of the best testimony in favor of the vice interests, that the Council committee declared in favor of delay, and advised further investigation at a later date. The incident was as follows: —

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The strongest evidence in favor of a segregated district was presented by an agency called the “Chicago Protective League for Women,” the chief officer and secretary of which was a certain Louis N. Quitman. On the last day of the hearing the attorney for the Committee of Fifteen openly charged this man with working in collusion with the vice interests in this fight for segregation, and said: ---

As evidence that we do rightly question Quitman’s sincerity and the correctness of the report which he made in favor of segregation, I want to read you a promissory note (holding the note up so that all could see it), which Quitman gave to Mike Heitler, showing that less than two years ago he was on such terms with that well known levee “king” as to be able to borrow $100 from him.

The crowded Council chamber burst not cheers, and the verdict we have mentioned was returned.

Steady pressure was now being exerted by all the newspapers of Chicago to back up the Committee of Fifteen, and in the Interocean of December 1, 1912, the mayor is quoted as saying: —

As long as the places are closed already I believe it a good time to give the question of non-segregation a thorough test. I would like to see it worked out, and see whether or not the ills it is said will result from non-segregation are a myth, or if there is some foundation for the fear. The places are closed now. Why not try it out thoroughly?

But the mayor’s good intentions did not carry him very far, for the police made no real effort to “try it out thoroughly,” and within a few months the “district” was once more doing a lucrative business. It was then that the Committee determined, as a last resort, to force the property owners, willy nilly, to assist in ridding the city of this vicious traffic. Owners and agents whose property was used for commercialized vice had been severely criticized in the report of the Vice Commission. It was shown that enormous retails were received from the meanest tenements in the Red Light Districts, and the pulpit, the press, and various reform agencies had appealed in vain for better, if less lucrative, use of this property. The Committee of Fifteen, having made similar appeals at various times, now announced its deter-

( 152) -mination to publish a list of the owners whose property was used in this way, and on June 13, 1913, sent a letter to the mayor, the chief of police, and the health commissioner, calling their attention to sixty-two disorder resorts and giving the names of those who were on record as owning the property. This was the beginning of the most effective anti-vice campaign carried on at any time in the city of Chicago. The papers, heedless of possible damage suits, published these lists, frequently on the front page, as they appeared at regular intervals, and were merciless in their condemnation of careless or indifferent owners, as well as those who wilfully sought this illicit gain.

The days and the weeks which followed were not altogether pleasant for the Committee, for it was necessary, in order to be perfectly fair, to publish without partiality whatever names were listed by the investigators. In this way some very good citizens were given a kind of publicity which they strongly resented, and which they felt should have been visited solely upon their agents. But whatever the feelings aroused, the results were tremendous and almost instantaneous. One of the most reputable of the real estate agencies cancelled thirty-eight leases within a few days; another twenty-for, and hundreds, of whom the Committee only heard indirectly, took similar action. Several of the large trust companies, handling real estate investments, employed a strong staff of special detectives to investigate their property in different parts of the city, and before the year was up it became almost impossible for a person of questionable character to rent a house or apartment belonging to a reputable owner. But some owners are not reputable, and there were enough of this class to provide homes for a large number of the underworld. Against these the civil authorities were constantly urged to take action but for the most part with results that were far from satisfactory. The chief of police, for instance, on being asked what he proposed to do in regard to the first list of disreputable houses sent him, replied: —

There’s no rush. You see such things are not like robbery or murder or anything like that. The people are down there and they probably

(153)   will stay down there. They won’t run away and you can make an arrest whenever you make up your mind to.

In reply to the question as to what he would tell the Committee of Fifteen, he said: “I will tell them this: I’m investigating; I always investigate.”

The Committee meanwhile had increased its influence by adding a Board of Directors which included thirty-five well known citizens of Chicago, and by broadening its purpose so as to warrant the taking of any “measures calculated to prevent traffic in women.”

The mayor proved less difficult than his chief of police to the demands of the Committee and, upon returning from a short vacation in the early summer, he straightaway closed seventeen of the most notorious saloons in the Red Light District. In an interview reported July 4, 1913, he said: ---

I have grown tired of waiting for the police report on the communications from the Committee of Fifteen. This will be a lesson not only to them (the saloons closed) but to other saloon keepers, and I want it also to be a notice to the police that I know they have not been doing their work.

There followed immediately a series of changes in the police force, and on July 18th, in closing a long interview regarding the vice situation, the mayor is reported to have said: “There is one thin I intend to do and that is to keep the lid on tight in Chicago.”

It was of course aggravating, after these bold statements, for the mayor to have handed him, at regular intervals the following summer, long lists of disreputable resorts which the investigators of the Committee of Fifteen found without difficulty, but which the police somehow utterly failed to see. The mayor, moreover, seemed unwilling to hold those high in authority in the Police Department strictly accountable for these conditions, so the Committee was not whole unprepared for a gradual change of attitude on his part, and for some such antagonism as first appeared in a Tribune article of October 3d as follows: —

( 154)

The motive of the Committee of Fifteen in its fight against the social evil was brought into question by the mayor yesterday. The Committee, he said, appears to be confining its activities to the old levee territory west of State Street. There have been persistent reports that large interests are anxious to gain possession of that property.

Events moved quickly after this, and more and more specific demands were made upon the mayor to close certain disreputable resorts. No attention, however, was paid to these demands, and finally, on the 20th of October, what the papers termed a war note was prepared by the Committee of Fifteen and sent to the City Hall, which said in closing: —

The people of Chicago have a right to know whether they are really under the rule of an invisible government which controls the city in the interests of commercialized vice, and whether you, their chief magistrate, intend to take proper action in regard to such matters.

As this produced only a bitter retort from the mayor, and a charge of “politics,” the papers of October 21st contained the following statement from the chairman of the Committee: —

The Committee of Fifteen is not a “political” organization, nor has it any present intention of becoming such. If, in its attempt, however, to drive out commercialized vice from Chicago, it becomes necessary to bring about a change in the city administration, I feel sure that we will consider it incumbent upon the Committee to take as large a part as it possibly can in such an effort.

On the 22nd of October the papers announced in big letters that the most notorious of the vice resorts had been closed by the mayor, though he denied being influenced by the “war note” of the Committee. Only ten days later another noteworthy event had occurred, namely the resignation of the chief of police, who had said: “I always investigate,” and the appointment of a new officer in his place.

But our story grows too long, and there is much in the bitter contest of the succeeding months which we may well pass over. Suffice it to say that the Committee continued to make its reports

( 155) to the mayor, and the paper continued to publish them until, by slow stages, public opinion came to demand a change from the old laissez faire method of handling the problem of prostitution, and to insist that it was both right and practical for public authorities to make a persistent effort to eliminate commercial vice.

In December 1913, the Committee announced a plan by which it hoped to multiply its powers and at the same time promote a city-wide campaign of investigation and education in all matters pertaining to the problem of commercialized vice. Local “Councils” were organized in fourteen districts, each with its own officers and with strong committees on membership, investigation, political action and education, the who body being closely affiliated with the Committee of Fifteen. This work involved the employment of several additional secretaries, and while it gave great promise of success and quickly enlisted a large following, it was found, after a year’s trial, to be too costly to warrant its continuance upon a large scale.

From time to time the Committee has been successful in obtaining the enactment of various state laws which have been of great assistance in lessening the evil of prostitution. The Injunction and Abatement law is, perhaps, the most noteworthy measure in this class, and when it was finally passed, the Committee ceased to publish its periodical lists of disreputable resorts, with their owners of record, and devoted all its energy to making this new and powerful instrument effective. Since July, 1915, evidence has been obtained sufficient to warrant direction action under this law against nearly five hundred houses of ill fame, but so wholesome is the fear which the law creates that a large majority of the owners have cleaned up their premises immediately upon notification, leaving but a small number who dared to stand trial. The reports indicate that the Committee has lost no case which it has prosecuted under the Injunction and Abatement Law.

Perhaps no better conclusion to this story could be found than to quote the words of the mayor who, for so long, was antagonistic to that which the Committee was trying to accomplish. As his

( 156) term of office drew to a close, he is reported in a public interview to had said: —

I have reached the conclusion finally that my idea of the vice question have been wrong. For many years I did not view segregation as an alarming development in the treatment of the problem . . . I have no hesitancy in subscribing now to the general indictment of the segregation plan. Its worst feature to me is the corrupting influence it exercises over the entire law-enforcing arm of the government.

Segregation means protected vice, and your can’t have protected vice without running the big risk of seeing your law enforcing officials corrupted. The temptation seems to be great. Theo policeman on the beat goes to pieces very quickly after he once takes graft from the vice districts. Grafting off these pitiable creatures is unspeakable, and at that it is but the first step in a career that sinks deeper in infamy very rapidly. The policeman who takes this kind of graft will take graft from pickpockets, thugs, gunmen, and burglars.

Chicago is through with the segregated vice idea. We will never entirely eliminate prostitution in Chicago, any more than they will in any other large city of the country. But we can reduce it to the smallest minimum. We can make it unprofitable for those who have capitalized the weaknesses of the unfortunate, so much so that what prostitution will remain will represent solely the individual sinner and not an organization. The pander and the unspeakable things that are associated with him are going to leave Chicago.

Chicago is cleaner today than any other large city in the United States. It is getting better every day. It will be a better and cleaner place one year from now than it is today. And throughout this healthy progress we have seen every defense of the segregation plan knocked over.

There isn’t anything that a conscientious person can say now in support of segregation. Repression is the only effective way of handling it and repression means treating it just as any other crime is treated.


No notes

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