Disorderly House

8:23 AM

An brief but tantalizing article was printed in the Omaha World-Herald on January 25, 1891, and I will reproduce it in entirely:


Yesterday a warrant was issued from the police court, charging Manager Kellogg of the People's Theater with keeping a disorderly house. The complaint alleges that Kellogg has a number of girls soliciting trade for beer, and that the girls work everyone they can for suckers. The complaint alleges that a house of this kind is a nuisance to any community and should not be allowed in the city.

Disorderly house is a specific criminal complaint, albeit one we don't hear much anymore. At its simplest, it represents any house in which the behavior of the inhabitants is liable to become a nuisance. In practice, it typically meant a brothel. In fact, here is the city ordinance from 1881:

Sec. 3 [Complaint of Citizens.]--If two or more citizens shall at any time make a written complaint to the city marshal to the effect that any house or place in their neighborhood is openly and notoriously kept or maintained as a house of prostitution, or disorderly house, it shall be the duty of that officer to forthwith make a proper complaint before the police judge against the person or persons so keeping or maintaining such house, and against all inmates thereof, and all such persons shall, on conviction, be punished as provided in section one of this chapter.
And so it is that disorderly houses, when they appear in Omaha news, tend to be brothels. The first mention of such a thing seems to be the story of Mr. Harry Lucas, arrested in 1880 and charged with keeping a disorderly house -- in particular, something called a "deadfall," which Herbert Asbury helpfully defined in his book "The Barbary Coast – An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld" and paraphrased by Wikipedia: "The deadfalls were the lowest of the establishments and had hard benches, damp sawdust on the floors, the bar was rough boards laid atop of barrels, had no entertainment, and their wine was often raw alcohol with an added coloring"

In 1885, a charge of a disorderly house brings a war of words between a doctor, JW Search, and a madame named Thompson, with Thompon's lawyer casting aspersion against Search, saying that he was a man "who don't know nux vomica from aqua fortis." Nux vomica is a poison nut from a tree that produces strychnine, by the way, while aqua fortis is the corrosive nitric acid. So now you know more than Dr. Search.

Search presented voluminous, and apparently upsetting, details about the sanitation at Madame Thompson house, which she and her "girls" denounced as lies. The result? "[A] verdict in favor of Mrs. Thompson."

This wasn't an uncommon outcome. Omaha had semi-legal prostitution, thanks to a clever reversal of the usual system of prosecuting and then fining lawbreakers. According to Alfred Sorenson's "Story of Omaha," "Many immoral women inhabited the tenderloin district in the vicinity of Ninth and Douglas streets. Police raids on disorderly houses were of rare occurrence, no arrests being made unless some serious disturbance required the presence of the officers of the law. Instead of fining these women in open police court the custom was to receive the monthly fines -- $10 for the landladies and $5 for each inmate -- from the hands of a messenger who was sent to the court to 'settle up.'" As Sorenson points out, "The custom was virtually a license system."

And so there winds up being a surprising number of stories about charges against disorderly houses that are dropped. And why not? They had, after all, prepaid their fines. And so we never hear of the charges against the People's Theater again.

Interestingly, this is not the first time the phrase was connected to the People's Theater. In March of 1889, then manager John Sellon tried to work around the city's ban on prize-fighting by having two pugilists engage in a pillow fight as an "afterpiece," according to the Omaha Bee. The police shut it down, much to the irritation of Sellon. He responded by "claiming that he pays a license to run a variety show, and so long as he does not conduct an indecent or disorderly house he thinks he should be allowed to say what kind of acts should go on his stage."

The People's Theater wasn't the only performance venue slapped with the disorderly house label either. In February of 1890, police arrested four women from a location on Twenty-seventh street called Theater Comique. The Bee reported on the theater in this way: "The so-called theater is one of the vilest in the west where loose women and coarse men mingle with one another in the gallery and wine room with the utmost freedom. The stage show abounds in suggestive language and is a public disgrace to a civilized community. The women receive a mere pittance for their labor and in the wine room and at their abodes are nothing but unlicensed prostitutes."

The Theater Comique was one of the theaters run by the notorious Nugent brothers, who have appeared on this blog before.

A few days following the Bee story, the arrested women were released after their manager paid a fine (although one woman was advised to leave town). The Bee received a message regarding the theater from a local businessman: "It is a nest of iniquity that should not be tolerated in any city. Nightly the young sons of respectable parents spend their time there and become contaminated by their vile associates they are compelled to mingle with," although the letter writer allows that the variety show itself is not too bad.

Nonetheless, the women returned to work, as the Bee put it, plying "their disreputable vocations in abbreviated garments." One wonders why the arrested at all, but the first story might hold the key. They aren't identified simply as prostitutes, but as unlicensed prostitutes. Once their fines were paid, they were functionally licensed, and, as People's Theater manager John Sellon suggested, once you pay your license, you expect to be able to decide what sort of acts go up on your stage. Or in your wine room. Or in the abodes of your performing girls.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.