(Pictured above, The Court bordello)
By James Donlon
The world’s oldest profession once had a welcome home in Jacksonville.
Four blocks from what is currently Lee Street, the city’s red light district thrived in the early days of Jacksonville. Called “The Line,” a stretch of brothels known as bordellos were both a cultural and economic hub for the city once.
The red-light district can be traced back to the late 1800s and by the time of the Great Fire of 1901, it contained some dozens of bordellos.
The stretch of land sat between the railroad tracks and Downtown, making it the perfect spot for weary travelers to unwind. Along with available women, these bordellos offered an array of fine musical talent and gaming.
The women working at the bordellos, somewhat euphemistically called “female boarding houses,” were of mixed races and nationalities. The bordellos themselves were integrated and the Line employed women from Georgia and South Carolina as well as Ireland and Canada.
The largest bordello was The Court and was run by Cora Crane, the common-law wife of author Stephen Crane. It was a posh two-story brick building with 22 bedrooms.
The Court was a lavish establishment with plush sitting and gaming areas for customers. A gift shop sold postcards and other trinkets so visits to this “sporting house” could be memorialized.
Before The Court, Crane ran the Hotel de Dreme in the1890s, one of the area’s most popular brothels.
Other bordellos included The Senate, The New York House, The Turkish Bath and one operated by Belle Orloff, a well-known female madam. Orloff became known for her heated discussion with Temperance crusader Carry A. Nation on her visit to Houston Street bordellos in 1908.
The Line is one of the many slices of Jacksonville’s history that Ennis Davis, a Jacksonville urban planner and historian, said should be better known.
“You had this red light district that was operated by many women at a time when many women were at a disadvantage to establish careers of their own,” Davis said. On the Line, “they owned real estate, they invested in musicians, they invested in hotels adjacent to that red-light district.”
The Line even had a big impact on local politics.
In the election of 1915, one of the candidates for mayor was J.E.T. Bowden, who ran in part on a platform that included the protection of the red-light district. The incumbent mayor had been actively closing the area’s brothels and Bowden wasn’t sure that was good for the city.
The most storied occasion in the campaign became a speech Bowden made before a large crowd in Hemming Park, proclaiming the economic positives of the red-light industry in town. It was a position that he often repeated.
“I am a firm believer in the segregation of what is known as the social evil, but for my thinking this evil is not such a terrible evil after all — my honest conviction is that these poor unfortunates are the greatest safety valves to society,” he said. “As a rule they are beat and banged around by every new mayor coming into office, but I for one propose to give them all the protection that is possible …
“From time immemorial, prostitution has existed and will exist to the end of time. And my way of thinking is that those entrusted with administration of law should recognize this condition and not try to prohibit but to control.”
The event was electrifying. Fireworks cracked overhead and a high-wire bicycle act showed off for the thousands of attendees who packed the park.
Reportedly the most colorful part of the speech, however, might have been the prostitutes who some onlookers said rode on horseback holding red lanterns and circling the park as he was speaking. Whether that event occurred, however, is a matter of conjecture.
What is known is that Bowden’s stance on prostitution helped him win the election.
Over the years Jacksonville’s red-light district began to lose its cache, with bordello after bordello being shut and town down.
The House of Spanish Marie was one of last known prostitution houses. Originally a church, the congregation relocated as the prominence of The Line grew in the area. It was one of the last bordellos to exist before being shut down in the 1950s.
By the time the 1990s arrived and a new urban redevelopment project began, this one called the River City Renaissance, all traces of what remained of what was once a bustling, vibrant district had been erased.