The Notorious Madame Gaine

Duluth’s “Tenderloin” or “Red Light District,” highlighted in red on this detail from the 1909 Sanborn fire insurance maps of Duluth. The map’s legend shows that the letters “FB” on a structure stood for “Female Boarding House,” a euphemism for bordello. (Image: Zenith City)

A Change Coming Down

At the turn of the century, America was grappling with the tail end of Victorian mores and gender-based double standards, which encouraged the existence of “segregated districts,” or “’red light districts.” These were neighborhoods where prostitution, gambling and saloons were allowed semi-free reign in exchange for “fines” amounting to an unofficial licensing system. It was common practice for houses of prostitution to be raided, the ladies brought down to the police station, where the madam (or pimp, as it were) would be required to pay fines for themselves and their “inmates.” (Women living in brothels were frequently called “inmates,” in the lingo of the times simply meaning “residents.”) It was also common practice for madams to keep money “on deposit” at the courthouse, so that fines could be paid with expediency, and they could return to their businesses with a minimum of fuss. Protection fees paid to individual police officers and politicians were an accepted price of doing business. The St. Croix Alley was Duluth’s segregated district.

The argument for the existence of these districts was that prostitution was a “Necessary Evil” and inevitable. It was better to keep its practitioners all in one place, so the vices exercised there wouldn’t “infect” the upright citizens of better parts of the city. The police also preferred to keep the criminal element in one locality, for convenience’s sake.

However, a new wind was blowing. Women were gaining political clout, and organizing themselves in an unlikely alliance between religious reformers—the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and their allies—and more progressive “New Woman” types who believed in women’s equality as a human right. Murmurings of reform grew to a low roar as the new century dawned, and all across the country the red light ladies and dirty saloons filled with vice were on the chopping block.

The main tack these reformers took was to separate the “evil women” from the “white slaves” in the public consciousness. The term “white slave” was meant to evoke the abolitionist movement of the previous generation, and these prostitutes were characterized as innocents who’d been tricked by panderers and madams, victims of what we today call “human trafficking.” An evil or “immoral woman” might become a prostitute by choice or inheritance. A “white slave” was manipulated by criminals using tactics still common today, such as manufacturing transportation debts and then holding the victim hostage until she could pay it back.. These methods were bolstered by Victorian ideals of sexual purity that held that an unmarried woman once sullied by sexual experience remained soiled goods forever.

A gigantic influx of immigrants also added to this stew of moral reform. Immigrants of nearly all origins were considered by “real Americans” to be of dubious moral character. Not only did these people not know how to keep their slum homes properly clean, but they seemed to be drawn to vice as a collective character flaw. Or so went the stereotype.

More educated reformers understood the clear relationship between poor employment opportunities and prostitution. Uneducated women—farmers’ daughters from rural areas or immigrants—could count on only two avenues of employment: domestic service or factory work. The first was widely understood to be degrading and poorly paid, and the latter was rife with dangers to life and limb—and likewise paid poorly. Both avenues could lead to encounters with men who took advantage of their positions to sexually abuse powerless young women. Women of this class might see prostitution as degrading, but the pay was much better and the conditions could be safer. Encounters with abusers or abandonment might drive these young women into the welcoming arms of a brothel as a last refuge.

Reformer agitation led to the passage of anti-pandering laws in many states, but the first big weapon against “the social evil” was the Federal Immigration Act of 1907. It prohibited importing women into the country for the purposes of prostitution, and mandated the deportation of any woman or girl found prostituting herself within three years of her arrival in the United States.

Put Out the Red Light

Madam Gain’s first appearances in Duluth’s courts were marked by her violent nature, as she was charged with assaulting various women beginning in 1900. Her “resort” was also periodically closed for liquor violations—usually the crime of selling beer after hours.

In 1904, she appeared in a legal dispute over her desire to move her existing house on St. Croix Avenue to another lot. In her testimony, she divulged she had $6,000 in the bank, owned a house worth $13,000 (not including $5,000 in furniture), and real estate holdings worth $9,000—and no debt. In today’s dollars, she was well on her way to being a millionaire. On cross-examination, the attorney demanded to know if she might lose large amounts of money in her line of business, insisting that it might be risky. After playing dumb about why that might be, she finally retorted, “Well, I would be able to pay it.”

By 1908, Madam Gain owned the Clifton Hotel, located at 319–323 West First Street, along with two “disorderly resorts” on St. Croix Avenue. (The Clifton Hotel would later be named the Elgin Hotel and finally the Lincoln Hotel; it should not be confused with the Lincoln Hotel that stood at 309–317 West Second Street).

In December of that year, Madam Gain experienced a series of run-ins with the law that brought the hammer down on St. Croix Avenue as a whole. First, she was charged with importing girls for immoral purposes, a violation of the Federal Immigration Act. (A young Frenchwoman who’d been arrested for solicitation in Superior alleged Madam Gain had paid for her train ticket from New York City.)

Then, the very next day, Gain was arrested for “striking Mrs. Nellie Barret in the face,” and charged with assault, for which she was promptly found guilty and fined $100. Next, an unhappy customer threw a stick of wood through the window of Gain’s establishment at 219 St. Croix Avenue, nearly hitting two girls sitting in front of the building.

These three incidents in quick succession were too much for the City Council. On December 15, they discussed the possibility of closing the red light district on St. Croix Avenue. At first, aldermen merely wanted to close down Madam Gain, but others argued it was discriminatory to go after her alone. On December 16, the Duluth News Tribune ran a headline: “All the Evil Resorts May Be Closed Tonight,” and reported that things were quiet as the resort owners awaited the expected raids. The newspaper opined, “It is certain that today will mark the end of Madam Gain’s regime in Duluth. The madam told a friend yesterday that she was about tired of the business, anyway, and that if the police closed her up, she might ‘start a peanut stand somewhere else in the city.’”

Within a week, Madam Gain had sublet her buildings on St. Croix Avenue and removed herself to the Clifton Hotel, announcing her retirement. Meanwhile, she began to furnish her new private residence at 314–316 East Second Street, which she intended to make a “palace of luxury.”

On December 22, 1908, the city council voted unanimously to close all “houses of disrepute” on St. Croix Avenue. The meeting was packed with religious leaders from various denominations who testified against the “scarlet women.” The Reverend J. T. Moody of the Bethel declaimed, “There is a surplus of bad women. They bring about the ruin and the downfall of young men who otherwise would lead a good life. The district ought to be exterminated for the sake of the young men.” He went on to claim that the elimination of the district would cause the women to go home or perhaps to the Bethel, where they could be “saved.” Another resolution was passed to eliminate alcohol sales in the district, which was loudly cheered by the audience. The mayor announced that all the brothels would be closed by December 31.

Raids began on St. Croix Avenue with the New Year, and within a month, Madam Gain started racking up charges for running an “immoral house” at the Clifton Hotel. She publicly vowed she wouldn’t be defeated, “not until I have spent every cent I possess.” She openly mocked the undercover “stool pigeons” hired by the police, and pointed indignantly at other hotels run by other madams who were free to go about their business unmolested. By May, Madam Gain had leased out the Clifton Hotel and returned to St. Croix Avenue; in the summer, she retreated to Superior. By this time, she’d been arrested over 100 times in the ten years since her arrival.

In 1911, Madam Gain publicly announced her intention to leave Duluth and retire to France, making a great show of selling off all her property to an obscure real estate company. What the newspapers and public officials didn’t know was that the buyer of her property was her own brother, August Le Floric, and she had no intention of leaving town at all.

Raids continued along St. Croix Avenue, but it didn’t seem to put a dent in business. In February 1913, a speaker at the YMCA declared that an extensive undercover investigation sponsored by the National Vigilance Committee showed that Duluth was home to 197 “disorderly women” living in 60 resorts, 19 of which were on St. Croix Avenue, the rest being in various places downtown. Duluth, he said, was “the loosest city” in the nation.

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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.