Gamblers, Tramps and Thieves

Welcome to Duluth’s Hotel Brunswick, Part 1

Architect Oliver Traphagne's sketch of the Hoppman Block, c. 1890. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
Architect Oliver Traphagen’s sketch of the Hoppman Block, c. 1890. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

In 1890 mineralogist Edward J. Hoppmann and the city of Duluth alike were riding high on mining money and a real-estate investment boom. Hoppmann commissioned ever-popular architect Oliver Traphagen to build him a fine four-story brownstone office building on the site of the former Minnesota House hotel at 421 West Superior Street. He undoubtedly hoped the building would stand tall for many years, acting as a physical monument to what a German immigrant could accomplish in the New World.

Within three years of its erection Hoppmann leased the three upper floors of his building to a new tenant, who opened a European-style hotel called the Hotel Brunswick. (European-style hotels did not include meals along with boarding fees, as opposed to the “American Plan” which included three meals a day.) A buffet restaurant and saloon operated on the ground floor. Located within a block or two of all of the city’s  railroad passenger depots, right next door to the Lyceum Theatre, and across the street from the Spalding Hotel, the Hotel Brunswick was well situated to serve the best of Duluth’s clientele. But that location would also soon become the heart of Duluth’s Bowery which, like its New York namesake, became the city’s center of vice from roughly the mid 1890s until the early 1960s.

Such a Lovely Place

From the outside all seemed to be well at the Hotel Brunswick. The Hoppmanns were on-site landlords, living in rooms behind the building. However, those in the know likely caught a whiff of impropriety wafting out of its doors.

By 1896 the Hotel Brunswick operated under the management of a woman named Delia S. Klein. She was well known to Duluth’s more free-wheeling set as the wife of real estate speculator Solomon Klein, whom everyone simply called “Sol.” According to his 1899 Duluth News Tribune obituary, Sol was “a man of the type that is often described in print, but infrequently met with in real life—a square, a high-class gambler, who would not stoop to do a mean act or resort to unscrupulous methods to win another man’s money.” Sol’s mental health took a turn when he hit his forties, and his habitual generosity turned manic. He began to speak and act in grandiose ways that regularly set the streets abuzz. First, he told everyone that he had a gold mine in Pike Lake. (No such mine existed, though he took people there to see it, and was reportedly unfazed when nothing was there.) Then he tried to get investors involved in a golden opportunity he described as a sure thing. He told friends he’d bought Isle Royale and was going to make the island into a Lake Superior Monte Carlo, drawing steamers from around the Great Lakes to his fantastic casino paradise.

Worried, Sol’s friends intervened, and he was “spirited away” to the insane asylum in Fergus Falls, where he eventually died. Immediately upon public announcement of his death, a mysterious group of men began digging holes around the upper reaches of the Incline Railway, looking for what was rumored to be “buried treasure”—$10,000 in gold coins buried by Sol the Gambler. Newspapers reported eye-witness accounts of a “veiled woman in black,” who drove by regularly in her buggy to supervise the project, and that a “woman clairvoyant” had also visited to help the men determine where to dig. All such tales were dismissed by the diggers and Widow Klein. If any treasure was found, no one ever reported it. During the subsequent legal battle between Sol’s New York relatives and Delia over her dead husband’s estate, however, it came out that Delia and Sol were never legally married. Delia insisted they were married “by common law,” and used his name until the end of her life.

An advertisment for the Hotel New Brunswick covers most of the east wall of the Hoppman Building in this photograph taken during the 1890s. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)
An advertisment for the Hotel Brunswick is shown the east wall of the Hoppman Building in this photograph taken during the 1890s. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Years later Rip-saw muckraker and reckless moralist John Morrison set his sights on the Hotel Brunswick, noting that it “ever has been the center of high life and excitement. Irrigation parlors have occupied the ground floor and no one but the devil himself knows all the stunts that have been pulled off on the upper floors.” Morrison never accused Mrs. Klein of prostitution (which he certainly would have done if he felt like it), only saying she had rented out rooms to “old friends of her husband at good prices.” However, a few incidents at the hotel during Mrs. Klein’s reign may indicate more to the story.

In 1903 two men were apprehended after stealing $800 worth of diamonds from an unspecified person at the Hotel Brunswick. Precious stones were then, just as now, a convenient way to store ill-begotten income. Gamblers and brothel owners in particular were fond of this method of banking. Then, in 1906, a chorus girl named Emma Moon went missing during her stay at the Hotel Brunswick. Her manager told the press that she’d been kidnapped by “three lake captains,” who took her to Superior and then, “on a trip down the lake.” Miss Moon’s fate is unclear.

Living it Up

In 1908 Mrs. Delia Klein told everyone she was moving to Philadelphia, and then moved to Buffalo. After her departure, Mrs. Hilda Baker took over operations. In 1912 the hotel closed down, probably because Edward J. Hoppmann was too ill to attend to business affairs. Finally in 1915, as her father lay dying, Theresa Hoppmann found a new lady to run the hotel—Jeanette Palmer.

There is no question whatsoever that Jeanette Palmer was a brothel owner and madam. She first appeared in Duluth in 1902 as a young woman of 22, living on St. Croix Avenue in Duluth’s red light district (part of today’s Canal Park). She moved several times in the early part of the century, renting at least once from the notorious Madam Gain. Several years later, in 1917, Madam Palmer testified to her profession during the trial of a crooked Superior politician and businessman named Robert J. Shields, who was charged with violating the Mann Act, which “made it a felony to engage in interstate or foreign commerce transport of ‘any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose’.” She testified that she met Shields in Minneapolis in 1913, where he persuaded her to open a “disorderly house” in Superior, offering her funding and promising her police protection.

The front of the Lyceum Theatre and the Hoppman Block photographed in the 1920s. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)
The front of the Lyceum Theatre and the Hoppman Block photographed in the 1920s. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Palmer’s 1915 stint at the Hotel Brunswick was very short-lived, however, because her professional profile made her a target for law enforcement. Police Commissioner William A. Hicken and Police Chief Chauncy Troyer ordered detectives to “shadow” her as she prepared to reopen the hotel, spending thousands of dollars on furniture. In February of that year Hicken and Troyer announced in the Duluth News Tribune that she “bought more furniture than the division of public safety thought wise” and should not be allowed to manage a hotel because her large outlay could not be offset with solely legal operations.

However, the police had no legal means by which to prevent her reopening the hotel. So instead, Hicken threatened to revoke the liquor license of the saloon on the premises, which would force the saloon’s owner, F.W. Hartlage, to move. Hartlage was greatly displeased at this development, since he’d recently completed an expensive renovation of his space. This strong-arm tactic worked: Jeanette Palmer never operated the hotel, and soon left Duluth forever.

A year later, Mrs. Julia Wallace opened the Hotel Brunswick for business once again. Madam Wallace was older, and carried an even more sordid reputation in Duluth than did Madam Palmer. Wallace’s first appearance in Duluth’s public record was in 1903, when she was charged with grand larceny. A “friend” lost a watch and chain and a diamond pin in the boarding house they shared. After the woman reported the matter to the police, Wallace “took an active part in the search and was free with suggestions as to where they might have disappeared.” After the friend left for Illinois, Wallace was seen wearing the jewelry, claiming to have “found” the items.

The Hoppman Block photographed in 1963. It was demolished by 1966. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)
The Hoppman Block photographed in 1963. It was demolished by 1966. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Wallace can be found in the Census of 1905 at age 44, living on St. Croix Alley. Later descriptions by the Rip-saw’s John Morrison asserted she was a descendant of William Wallace—the Scottish patriot portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart—but it seems likely a fabrication, since she admitted to government officials that both her parents were Irish. False names were commonly used by prostitutes and their madams, and it is likely that both “Jeanette Palmer” and “Julia Wallace” were aliases. Madams were also prone to creating vivid personas as a form of marketing, and Wallace would certainly have recognized Duluth’s strong and wealthy Scottish contingent as potential clients. In 1905 she listed herself as a “housekeeper” for four female boarders. They were all between the ages of 21 and 23 and declared they worked in legal professions—likely lies—including “telephone operator,” “domestic,” and “washer-woman.”

Four years later Wallace was among seven women arrested for “conducting or residing in disorderly houses,” and was fined $180 for the brothel charge and selling liquor without a license. A scant month later she was arrested again for “conducting an immoral house” along with two women boarders who were charged with “leading immoral lives.” Two weeks before Christmas in 1911 police raided the red-light district again in what some termed a “moral crusade.” Wallace, who had been listed in the newspapers that year as a significant Children’s Home donor, was arrested with four other madams. This time she was surprised to find herself jailed for 30 days as a violator of state liquor laws.

In 1913 Julia Wallace moved to Hibbing, though she visited frequently. In 1914 she joined Madam Gain in testifying before the Grand Jury investigation into corruption in Duluth’s police department.

A few months before Jeanette Palmer’s abortive attempt to take over the Hotel Brunswick in 1915, Julia Wallace had been caught up in a controversial regional raid by federal Indian agents who were seeking to enforce the ban on liquor in treaty-ceded territories. In this raid, “hundreds of gallons of liquor [were] unearthed and destroyed.” Wallace’s new place, located two miles outside of Hibbing, had a “root house built of ornamental bark in the rear of the establishment” where she had hidden four kegs and nine cases of beer. She, along with the other Iron Range saloonkeepers, had felt certain they were operating within the law.

Plenty of Room

By New Year’s Day 1916 Wallace had returned to Duluth and was listed as the proprietor of the Hotel Brunswick. This is when she captured John Morrison’s attention in the Rip-saw. He began with dripping sarcasm on March 24, 1917:

“In the historic old hotel Brunswick, adjoining the Lyceum, Madam Julia now conducts a private rest resort for ladies of high moral endeavor or gentlemen pilgrims who seek a shade in the wilderness, as it were. Some Sabbath mornings all the way from a dozen to a score of these good women, refreshed with cheering cups of tea, issue forth from the rear of Madam Julia’s rest resort and proceed to church or on errands of mercy. To prevent the entrance of suspicious characters, such as a chief of police or a commissioner of public safety, who might put a stain on the immaculate reputation of the place, there are numerous doors, electrical signals, peepholes and even passwords. When it comes to protecting the characters of noble women, too much care cannot be taken in these flippant and careless times.”

Two months later Morrison tried direct castigation as he eagerly anticipated the advent of Duluth’s dry ordinance. In a front-page article complaining about Wallace and another madam, he described Wallace as running a “Satanic Salon” at the Hotel Brunswick, where she “stands a pinch by the police now and then but never appears for trial” and objected to “the large number of drunken women shot out the back way into the alley.”

By August Morrison went jubilantly Biblical in style, declaring in a bold font that, “Madam Julia Wallace Removeth to St. Paul: The Gentle Guardian of Little Alice in Wonderland Faileth to Get Hotel License Therefore Shaketh Dust of Duluth from Her Feet.” In his eulogy to the Hotel Brunswick, he described the hotel’s history from his perspective, took his typical swipes at public officials he believed corrupt, and told of Wallace’s foiled efforts to buy a hotel license through female proxies. According to Morrison, she skipped bail on her latest charge and never looked back, leaving the Hotel Brunswick closed for good.

The story of the Hoppmann Block continues next month with the tale of how the son of Edward Hoppmann—dentist Carl Hoppmann—got his head blown off by barber Casper M. Nelson.

Welcome to Duluth’s Hotel Brunswick, Part 1

2 Responses to Gamblers, Tramps and Thieves

  1. Wow, fantastic tale backed by amazing research. I remember the building well, and in the early ’60s it served briefly as a San Francisco-style coffee house, with muted candle-lighted atmosphere and readings by Duluth poets inspired by the Beat Generation. Nothing rhymed. Patrons were seated on the floor. It only lasted a short time. Morrison’s Biblical-style farewell reminds me of labor leader John L. Lewis’ declaration: “He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted.”

  2. Now this was an eye-opener! Who knew? Thankyou for that entertaining story!! Such a lovely building.

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