Duluth’s Notorious Madam Gain

This drawing and caption appeared Ernest Bell’s 1910 book War on the White Slave Trade: Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls. (Image: wikicommons)

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.”

Duluth’s “Tenderloin” or “Red Light District,” highlighted in red on this detail form 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 • Click to enlarge)

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.

A Change Coming Down

Ernest Bell’s 1910 book on the prostitution epidemic in the U.S. claimed that 60,000 American women died each year because they turned to prostitution to earn their way through life. (Image: wikicommons)

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.

As this image and its caption suggests, “real” Americans were concerned that most immigrant—or “foreigners”—didn’t share their values and frequenting their establishments could lead to a life on the streets. (Image: wikicommons)

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.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….


  • Bakk-Hansen, Heidi and Tony Dierckins. Devilish Duluth: Notorious Tales from the Zenith City. Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota: forthcoming.
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