The Notorious Madame Gaine

The Samps Hotel, later the First Avenue Hotel, part of the “St. Croix District,” Duluth’s “Tenderloin” or “Red Light District” from the 1880s until the 1930s, photographed in 1962. The building was constructed in 1906 and demolisehed in 1972. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

When Madam Mary Gain took the stand on November 20, 1913, the Zenith City sat riveted. After thirteen years of dramatic arrests and raids on her various “houses of ill fame,” reports of drunken debauchery, violence and flippant retorts to the authorities, the Queen of Duluth’s Underworld would finally tell all.

The gallery expected salacious details, and not a few fine upstanding male citizens were probably concerned about what she might say, or allege.

Tears gushed from her eyes as she told about her parents’ tragic deaths back in her native France, her ultimate betrayal “by the man in whom she placed her girlish trust” and her subsequent fall into society’s underbelly.  She recounted her journey to the United States at the age of 21, and her work in the various “Tenderloin” districts of cities across the United States and Canada, including  Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and New York City, where the “Tenderloin” euphemism was first used. As a madam, she said, she had accumulated fortunes, lost them, and regained them again.

That November Madam Gain—also known as Marie Le Flohic—was on trial for running an “immoral resort” out of the Clifton Hotel at 321 West First Street. It had been a long journey, and she was probably as surprised as anyone that she had ended up in Duluth, Minnesota.

The Vilest Creature in the City

Madam Gain came to Duluth in 1900 and promptly bought a house on leased land in Duluth’s long-established “red light district” in what is now the Canal Park Business District. In Madam Gain’s day, the area was called Up Town. Today’s Canal Park Drive was once South First Avenue, and before that, St. Croix Avenue. The Zenith City’s Tenderloin was located along the 200 block of St. Croix Avenue and its alley between Sutphin Street and Railroad Street, south of Heimbach Lumber (see map). Nearly all the buildings in this square are marked on insurance maps as “FB” or “Female Boarding House,” code for brothel. Other boarding houses and hotels almost certainly saw their share of prostitution, but the “regular” ladies worked this unofficial zone. West of the Tenderloin, Lake Avenue was lined with industry; east of the alley was known as “Finn Town”—and even the Finns living there called St. Croix Avenue Rottakatu or “Rat Avenue.”

It must have been a bit of a come-down for a woman who’d become famous—or rather, infamous—in raucous neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and the Levee in Chicago.

While she called herself Madam Gain in Duluth, those who might seek her in those other cities, she coyly admitted, knew her as Madam Mary Hastings, and her reputation in Duluth was only a pale shadow of its former darkness.

In 1888 in San Francisco, Hastings reportedly boasted that “no man could imagine an act of perversion or degeneracy” she and her “girls” would not perform. According to one historian, she revived the concept of the “circus,” a performance including bestiality with a Shetland pony, shocking even the world-weary denizens of that free-wheeling wild west city.

Madam Hastings was best known for this cheeky quip: “Any girl who is good enough for a high class house is too good for my joint.” A San Francisco police officer called her “one of the vilest creatures in the city, and one who has corrupted many an innocent young girl.” All her employees, from chambermaid to favored whore, learned to expect violence if they disobeyed in any way.

Hastings was reportedly sent running from the City by the Bay as a result of a performance involving “breaking in” a virgin by “two strapping Negroes,” which so enraged local saloon keeper Maggie “Cowboy Mag” Kelly that she came after Hastings with a pistol, vowing to kill her on sight. Crossing the color line, you see, was a taboo too far.

Hastings fled to Chicago, where she immediately became known as the “worst of the worst.” Her name became indelibly paired with the concept of “white slavery,” in major part because she was featured in a widely disseminated reformist tract by British journalist William T. Stead called “If Christ Came to Chicago.” While madams like the Everleigh sisters wooed their employees with silken promises, sumptuous rooms and high pay, Hastings was known for deceit and rape, and her victims’ stories fed the growing reformist hysteria. When she skipped town, it was likely with bondsmen nipping at her heels.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.