Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Nashville Experiment: Prostitution is Legalized

By  William Moss Wilson

Emaline Cameron was among the thousands of refugees who poured into occupied Nashville, Tenn., in 1863. While the strains of war may have contributed to her flight from her native Smithville, about 50 miles to the east, Emaline crossed Union lines to distance herself from an imploded marriage. James Hayes, known as Toy, had divorced her on the grounds that he was not the father of their eldest child. She admitted as much in court: while growing up Emaline had worked as a chambermaid at the Smithville Hotel, which was run by her parents. After a boarder left the 15-year-old pregnant, they quickly married her off to the naïve Toy.

When Emaline came to Nashville, where there were many opportunities to clothe, feed and entertain the garrison of Union soldiers, a demand for labor that far outstripped the city’s prewar population. Family history reports that Emaline chose the last sector: sometime after her arrival, she “operated a house of prostitution.” If true, my great-grandfather’s great-grandmother participated in the first licensed and regulated sex trade in the United States.

Like other radical developments during the war, Nashville’s experiment with legalized prostitution evolved as a practical solution to a military problem. Nearly one in 10 Union soldiers were reported to have contracted gonorrhea or syphilis during the war; rates were even higher for troops garrisoned in and around cities.

While these sexually transmitted diseases were hardly fatal, they increased demands on an already strained medical system. In Nashville, schools, hotels, storefronts and even factories had been refashioned into hospitals to accommodate the thousands of wounded soldiers returning from the front. After the Battle of Stones River, federal hospitals were so overwhelmed that Brig. Gen. Robert Mitchell allowed wounded Confederate prisoners to be treated in the homes of known secessionists. Men with sexually transmitted diseases were an unnecessary added burden.

By June 1863, the large numbers of soldiers hospitalized in Nashville for venereal diseases led surgeons and regimental commanders to “daily and almost hourly” petition Brig. Gen. R.S. Granger, a local commander, “to save the army from a fate worse than… to perish on the battlefield.” The first solution was to rid the city of its prostitutes. Deportation would prove no easy task; nearly every structure along the four blocks between Capitol Hill in downtown Nashville and the river wharves, known as “Smokey Row,” was a house of prostitution, and other brothels were scattered about town.

In early July, the case was assigned to Provost Marshal Lt. Col. George Spalding, who led soldiers and police officers on a raid of the city’s brothels, “heaping furniture out of the various dens, and then tumbling their disconsolate owners after.” Under military escort, several hundred women were dragged onto requisitioned steamboats. Capt. John Newcomb of the Idahoe received his passengers only after vigorous protest. Newcomb feared for the reputation of his vessel, and correctly so — the Idahoe soon become known as the “Floating Whorehouse.”

The following weeks revealed the limitations of the eviction policy. Armed guards in Louisville and later at Cincinnati refused to allow the female passengers of the Idahoe to disembark, and after the same scene was repeated at smaller ports, Newcomb had no choice but to return to Nashville. Moreover, the day after the Idahoe departed for Louisville, The Nashville Daily Press complained that the only immediate effect of the removal was that black prostitutes had filled the void left by their white colleagues:

Unless the aggravated curse of lechery as it exists among the negresses of this town is destroyed by rigid military or civil mandates, or the indiscriminate expulsion of the guilty sex, the ejectment of the white class will turn out to have been productive of the sin it was intended to eradicate … No city … has been more shamefully abused by the conduct of its unchaste female population, white or black, than has Nashville…for the past eighteen months … We trust that, while in the humor of ridding our town of libidinous white women, General Granger will dispose of the hundreds of black ones who are making our fair city a Gomorrah.

Once deportation proved a failure, Granger and Spalding initiated a second, more radical solution. On Aug. 20, 1863, the Spalding released orders that required all of Nashville’s prostitutes to register with the military government, which would in turn issue each woman a license to practice her trade. In exchange for a weekly fee of 50 cents, these women would receive a regular medical checkup, and if healthy, issued a certificate. Infected prostitutes would be hospitalized and treated at no additional charge. Failure to register would be penalized with a 30-day sentence in a workhouse.

Shockingly, legalization did not draw the same vitriol from the press that had accompanied deportation. The City Council delivered de facto endorsement of military regulation on Aug. 24, when Nashville’s aldermen voted to “postpone indefinitely” legislation banning prostitutes “from riding in hacks with soldiers.”

Nashville’s prostitutes embraced the new scheme. More than 300 licenses were issued in the first six months. By August 1864, Spalding had included black prostitutes in the program; of the 500-plus licensed prostitutes in Nashville, 50 were black women. Women took pride as they flashed their credentials and prominently displayed their health certificates. Observers also noted a decrease in street walking in favor of less-risky brothel work. Part of the licensing surge was attributed to an influx of prostitutes from Northern cities who perceived the increased safety and better working conditions provided by regulation.

Two hospitals were dedicated to treating sexual infections in Nashville: Hospital 11, for soldiers, and Hospital 15, also known as the Pest House, for prostitutes. The head surgeon, Robert Fletcher, claimed that after the first six months of regulation, when 92 women had been diagnosed with S.T.D.’s, only 13 of the nearly 31,000 soldiers admitted to Hospital 15 had contracted their infections in Nashville. Dr. William Chambers, charged with medical inspections of the women, noted that regulations led to improvements in hygiene in addition to the decrease in new infections.

Chambers’s work led him to a discovery that challenged the conventional wisdom of the day, which held prostitutes solely to blame for spreading sexual infection. In February 1864, a substantial spike in new visits to Hospital 15 accompanied the thousands of re-enlisted soldiers returning from furlough. The following days brought a surge of new female patients to the Pest House. Chambers concluded that the returning soldiers must have brought the S.T.D.s with them and then infected his female patients.

Chambers’s insight proved as fleeting as the wartime program, which did not survive his resignation in May 1865. Though the Union command at Memphis had borrowed from the Nashville experiment for a similar program in his city, civilian government in both cities quickly abandoned regulation of the sex trade at the close of hostilities.

While the Nashville experiment may not have had lasting social repercussions, it is possible that improved conditions in the dangerous profession delivered women like Emaline through the hardships of war. Emaline survived her time in Nashville to return to Smithville, where she lived out her days in the home of her son.

William Moss Wilson teaches history at the University School of Nashville.



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