Mormon History

Salt Lake City Prostitution - 1908

Glitzy Gateway mall lies upon seedy, naughty past

Kristen Rogers-Iversen
The Salt Lake Tribune


From 1908 to 1911 the block west of The Gateway was known as the Stockade, and it housed Salt Lake City's prostitutes.

    Before the Stockade was built, brothels crowded Commercial Street (now Regent Street). But Salt Lake City was growing fast, and a new mayor, John Bransford, hated having prostitution right in the business district. So he visited other cities, researching solutions.

    His conclusion: "I could see no other way out of it." Salt Lake must confine and control the ladies - far away from downtown.

    Bransford visited Dora Topham (dba "Belle London"), Ogden's most accomplished madam, and asked her to build a special "tenderloin district." Topham was oh-so-altruistically willing. She later said she saw an opportunity to do good by confining the necessary evil of prostitution, decreasing diseases, and at the same time pulling a profit.
    With a few partners she formed the Citizens' Investment Company to build the Stockade, but she herself paid most of the costs: reportedly around a half-million dollars. The Ogden Standard-Examiner wrote, "Former cottages and 'terraces' are being turned into brothels and dives" where "utter lawlessness will prevail." It was a "stupendous outlay of money for immoral purposes."

    Belle built about 100 tiny "cribs" for the prostitutes, who paid $1 to $4 rent per day. She also created some "parlor houses," each run by a "landlady" and staffed by very friendly women.

    Three entrances to the Stockade and three guards ensured that the immoral purposes were confined. More crucially, it ensured that when the police, out of political necessity, staged a raid, someone would set off the internal alarms. The police always found the Stockade dark and deserted.

    Naturally, the Stockade engendered controversy. The governor and other high officials opposed it. Newspapers debated it. Some residents on the west side formed the West Side Citizens League to fight it. The Standard-Examiner supported their point of view: The mayor had foisted the prostitutes on a neighborhood, near "the front doors of the homes on the west side of Salt Lake . . . where people, without their consent, will be forced to live in juxtaposition to that which is highly offensive to their sense of decency."

    It bears saying that it was immigrants and poor people who lived in these homes by the dirty, noisy railroad tracks and the Stockade. There had been, to be sure, no talk of building it on the east side.

    The Stockade gained some distorted notoriety. Non-Mormon V.S. Peet, on trade mission of sorts to England, heard a street speaker describe the Stockade as a Mormon plot, saying "that the Mormons kept a big building or district in Salt Lake for prostitution; it was called a 'Mormon hospital'; that every month hundreds of English girls were lured to Utah by damnable, hellish, sneaking, shrewd, ignorant Mormon missionaries, and that those girls were placed in that hospital."

    Commented Peet, "I think he must have heard of the American Party Stockade."

    Apparently all the opposition overwhelmed the fledgling enterprise - not to mention that Topham was convicted of inducing a 16-year-old into the Stockade. After less than three years of business, she closed the Stockade. She was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but the Utah Supreme Court reversed the conviction.

    The cribs were quickly demolished. Topham moved to California, where she reportedly reformed.

    Perhaps altruism really was her true nature. After her sudden death in 1925, a business associate wrote that she had always aided the poor when she lived in Ogden. In California, she wanted to forget the past and raise her two daughters. She made an "honorable living."

    While helping an employee with a car tow, she was crushed by the cars. She died of the injuries five days later.
    In the meantime, prostitution continued without her in Salt Lake City. It just was not as well-organized.