is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Controlling Vice: Regulating Brothel Prostitution in St. Paul, 1865-1883

Author(s):Best, Joel
Reviewer(s):Hemenway, Robin L. E.

Published by EH.NET (July 2001)

Joel Best, Controlling Vice: Regulating Brothel Prostitution in St. Paul,

1865-1883. Series Eds. David R. Johnson and Jeffrey S. Adler, History of

Crime and Juvenile Justice Series. Columbus: Ohio State University Press,

1998. 175 pp. Tables, bibliographic references, and index. Cloth, ISBN

0-8142-0807-X; Paper, ISBN 0-8142-5007-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET and H-BUSINESS by Robin L.E. Hemenway, Program in American

Studies, University of Minnesota.

Soiled Doves and “Practical Men”: The Regulation of Deviance in a

Midwestern Town

In 1999, Minnesota Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura, known for his candor

about a wide range of issues, aroused public ridicule when he suggested (among

other things) that prostitution should be legalized. “Prohibiting something

doesn’t make it go away,” Ventura claimed, in an interview with Playboy

magazine. “Prostitution is criminal, and bad things happen because it’s run

illegally by dirtbags who are criminals. If it’s legal, then the girls could

have health checks, unions, benefits, anything any other worker gets, and it

would be far better.”

Joel Best’s Controlling Vice, a “historical and sociological study” (p.

xi) of prostitution in St. Paul, Minnesota on the eve of the Progressive Era,

suggests that such pragmatic attitudes not only have historical roots in

Minnesota, but have hardly been uncommon in the United States. Best tells

the story of the informal regulation strategy that characterized the official

stance toward brothel prostitution in St. Paul from 1865-1883. During those

years, madams and their prostitutes were arrested, charged, fined and then

released to resume their activities, with the implicit understanding that the

process would be repeated on a monthly basis. This open regulation of

brothel prostitution ensured a certain degree of stability for prostitutes and

their customers, creating a “stable marketplace for vice” (p. 34). As long as

brothel madams and their prostitutes paid their monthly fines and sought to

keep drunkenness, violence, theft and other disorderly behavior to a minimum,

the police left them alone. Prostitutes who did not adhere to these

guidelines were subject to harsher sanctions. Those who behaved themselves,

however, could ostensibly remain in operation for several years.

As Best shows, St. Paul’s method of controlling prostitution provides an

intriguing opportunity for the historian, or in this case, the

historically-oriented sociologist. The public nature of the strategy (police

officers, public officials, and the press openly acknowledged that regulation,

rather than prohibition, was their aim) made St. Paul prostitution in these

years relatively visible. Best’s extensive survey of local records, arrest

ledgers, prostitute registrations, extensive local newspaper accounts, court

documents, jury lists, and the records of homes for “fallen women” allows him

to trace the relationship between prostitutes, police, and the public, and to

explore the lives of the prostitutes themselves. Arrest ledgers and

prostitution registration lists, in particular, provide a wealth of details

about the role played by brothels in the St. Paul community. Moreover,

publicly acknowledged regulation ensured that prostitutes themselves felt

little compunction about speaking to the press or calling in the authorities

when confronted with unruly or dishonest customers.

Their visibility in the public record allows Best to devote considerable

attention to the lives of the madams and prostitutes themselves.He argues that

the relative stability of this “illicit marketplace” in St. Paul allows

historians a unique opportunity to view prostitution as a profession, complete

with opportunities for advancement, geographic mobility, economic success, and

ultimately, retirement. He explores the factors leading up to the women’s

selection of prostitution as a profession, their lives within the brothels,

their relationships with each other, with their madams, with customers and

with the police, and their lives after prostitution.

Best places his study in the larger context of similar informal regulation

schemes in place across the country. As he points out, studies of

prostitution and vice control have tended to focus on large or frontier cities

and towns, ignoring more “typical,” relatively stable communities such as St.

Paul. In the late nineteenth century, Best argues, the relative stability of

these communities made the control of vice more paramount, placing more

pressure on social control agents to keep deviant behaviors such as

prostitution under wraps. Officials faced with the mandate to maintain order

found that regulation, rather than straightforward prohibition, better suited

their purposes. By the beginning of the Twentieth century, however, regulation

strategies had lost ground to prohibition as Progressive reformers succeeded

in tightening restrictions against prostitution and other vices. New concerns

about urban poverty and crime, political reform, and newly strengthened moral

reform campaigns led to the decline in regulation systems across the United


Best devotes considerable energy to situating himself in the historiography of

the sociology of deviance and social control. He intends for his work to

respond to gaps in both the history of prostitution and the sociology of

deviance and social control. His main beef is with sociological studies that,

he claims, tend to oversimplify the motivations of social control agents,

assuming “that social control agents always adopt a strategy of prohibition”

(p. 10) rather than regulation. Such an approach, he argues, “distorts” the

goals and practices of social control agents; informal regulation is

interpreted as a failed prohibition effort or, worse, the manifestation of a

corrupt system. Best suggests that examining regulation systems allows

historians and sociologists to see how the twin aims of social control agents,

controlling crime and maintaining public order, can intersect in important

ways. Attention to such alternative strategies, Best claims, provides a more

nuanced understanding of deviance and social control.

Best also seeks to engage several of the debates about the gender dynamics of

prostitution, regulation, and social control. He situates himself in the

gender debate early on and periodically throughout the book, both in his

initial, tantalizing claim that “Studying gender requires examining men as

well as women” (p. viii) and in his challenge of feminist interpretations of

prostitution. Best succeeds, in part, in demonstrating the complexity of the

relationships between male social control agents and female prostitutes, and

between prostitutes themselves (he rightly points out, for example, that

feminist interpretations of prostitution should not overstate the degree of

female solidarity present among prostitutes; on the other hand he tends to

oversimplify the arguments of the aforesaid feminist studies). Scholars

interested in examinations of crime and gender may nonetheless find his

analysis a little too pat. He seems unwilling to commit to a full-on

examination of the gender dynamics of not only the St. Paul regulation scheme,

but of the interplay of vice, morality, and reform in general; nor does he

fully engage the feminist analyses he is implicitly critiquing. The lack of

more complicated attention to the gendered undertones of vice and reform

undermines his discussion in several areas, such as his analysis of the

“double-standard” inherent in St. Paul’s prosecution of female prostitutes but

not of male gamblers, andhis examination of why de facto regulation schemes

were ultimately overpowered by prohibitionist policies and practices across

the United States by 1920. Though he alludes to the increased political

success of moral reform movements, he neglects a more thorough discussion of

the increased political power of women in effecting reforms in vice arenas —

such as prostitution — considered to morally infringe upon the domestic


A second aspect of Best’s study that may be frustrating, particularly for

historians, is the limited nature of his study. His time frame is narrow,

covering only an 18 year period, and he abruptly ends his examination in 1883,

claiming succinctly — and unsatisfactorily — that a two-year reform in the

system “created a gap in the court records, making it nearly impossible to

trace individual madams and prostitutes” (p. 97). Also, although he briefly

discusses the general social and political changes that contributed to the

decline of informal regulation, a discussion of the changing political and

social context in St. Paul and in the Midwest into the early 1900s could have

enriched his analysis. Best seems too ready to paint St. Paul as a “typical”

example of informal regulation, neglecting a more thorough examination of why

St. Paul may in fact have been unique, or at least unusual. Those familiar

with St. Paul’s similarly practical stance toward gangsters in the early

1900s, for example, may wonder if something about that city’s political and

social climate made its officials more receptive to such strategies.

One of the most important contributions here lies in Best’s insistence that

the relationship between morality and deviance has been under-examined in

analyses of deviance and social control. He makes a convincing case for

reexploring the role played by morality in the debates over illicit practices

such as prostitution. He suggests that the ultimate failure of informal

regulation strategies such as that used in St. Paul can be found in

regulators’ inability to make a “convincing moral rationale” (p. 137) for such

practices. Best positions his morality argument as a counterpoint to

“interests” interpretations that see deviance and social control as defined by

groups who gain economically or politically by doing so. However, some

readers may feel that he tends to downplay the ways in which particular groups

have investments in particular definitions of what constitutes moral or

respectable behavior. Put another way, he stops short of exploring the more

complex ways in which morality and “deviance” intersect. While historians and

sociologists will find Best’s examination of the relationship between

prostitutes, police, and “respectable” citizens both fascinating and useful

for thinking about social control and the social construction of

respectability, they may be frustrated by his unwillingness to engage the

larger questions about power that his discussion inevitably raises.

Despite these shortcomings, Best’s study is both readable and rigorous, and

the interdisciplinary nature of the work should make it accessible to scholars

from a wide range of disciplines: sociology, women’s history, business

history, criminology, political history and regional history. Readers

unfamiliar with the literature on deviance will especially appreciate his

comprehensive and clear (though at times bit repetitive) explication of the

historiography of deviance and social control. He succeeds in demonstrating

why such a case study of regulation is a necessary addition to the field.

Best’s study is especially bolstered by its investigation of the complex

realities of the lives of St. Paul’s prostitutes and their role in the larger

community. His social historical bent is enriched by his sociological

attention to detail, and he demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity for teasing

a complex portrait of madams and prostitutes, and of brothel life in general,

from his data. He is also able, with limited data, to develop an intriguing

yet carefully reasoned argument about the general public’s often ambiguous

stance toward vice and social control. All in all, Controlling Vice

provides a fascinating and detailed account of the complex intersections of

deviance and respectability in an “average” nineteenth-century city.

Robin Hemenway is on the doctoral program at the University of Minnesota. Her

main research interests are the Progressive Era and the social and cultural

history of the family. She has already published a chapter on this subject,

The Family in America, ABC-CLIO Press, and has further publications


Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century