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This plaster panel was rescued from Kitty Wells' house when it was demolished. The image captures the essence of the city's red light area. (Photo: Larry Widen)

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Looking at Edison Street today, it's hard to imagine the debauchery it hosted as River Street a century ago.

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The street was renamed Edison because there was a power plant there.

Quiet Edison Street was once a wild den of Brew City nightlife

It's perhaps no surprise that Water Street has provided a long stretch of taverns for thirsty Milwaukeeans for more than a century. In fact, there were times in the past where there were even more bars on the strip than there are now.

But what about tiny, parallel Edison Street, which, these days, runs about two blocks and can boast but a few drinking and eating establishments, along with some homes and parking lots?

If you could step back in time 100 years, you might be surprised to find that River Street – as Edison was then called – was lined with taverns, music halls, hotels and, yes, brothels. There was even a small guidebook to Brew City brothels published in the early years of the 20th century.

Back then, the street went as far south as Wells (or Oneida as it was then named). That was the case until the Milwaukee Center was built in the 1980s, although the construction of the Performing Arts Center interrupted Edison's continuity in the 1960s.

In fact, River Street was a wild den of good times and good old iniquity during the reign of Mayor David "All the time Rosy" Rose, known for his freewheeling approach to such unbridled fun, even when it was occurring right outside the windows of City Hall.

Rose was reelected mayor in 1902 despite – or maybe because of – his explicit policy of supporting a "wide open city" and opposing any limits on the River Street revelers.

Prostitutes were not new to Milwaukee, according to historian John Gurda, who wrote in his book, "The Making of Milwaukee," that they "had been plying their trade in Milwaukee since the frontier period, and the east bank of the river, in the morning shadow of the new City Hall, had brothels catering to a variety of tastes and clienteles."

Gurda points out that Miss Jack Hunter's house "piled racism on racism, running a 'colored' house that refused entry to 'colored gentlemen.'"

Some places were upscale wonders with lavish fountains in the lobby. Miss Kitty Williams' renowned house – which wasn't on River Street, but a block east on State Street (where Red Arrow Park is now) – even had rooms decorated in international themes for the, perhaps, more cosmopolitan customer.

Some of those customers came up from Chicago on one of three daily ferry trips. For $1.50, revelers could cruise up to Milwaukee, enjoy River Street and nurse their hangovers on the boat back home.

Believe it or not, in 1904 Rose was elected to yet another term – his fourth – despite 33 indictments against his appointees. But, as one might imagine, not everyone took such a favorable view of River Street.

In addition to the expected puritans and moralists, Milwaukee's burgeoning Socialist movement also took a dim view. Vowing to clean up Milwaukee, Socialist Emil Seidel was elected mayor in 1910.

Led by District Attorney Winfred C. Zabel – who would later prosecute John Schrank, the would-be assassin of Teddy Roosevelt, and a high-profile case against a group of Bay View Italians in 1917 – the Socialists set about making good on that promise, shutting Kitty's place down in 1911.

But at least the taverns were safe. According to a 1912 "Campaign Book," "The Social-Democratic party does not intend to curtail the few amusements and places of recreation that capitalism has left the working class. The saloon is still the proletarian's clubhouse."

First, Zabel produced a report showing Milwaukee was home to some 200 brothels with about 1,000 "residents." Each resident, the statistics showed, "entertained" about 15 visitors a day and each visitor spent at least $1. Some quick math showed that prostitution was a $5.5 million industry in Brew City.

He then took aim at Miss Kitty – who boasted the highest public profile – and, according to Gurda, "there was absolutely no public outcry." Apparently, visitors' wives weren't going to complain and which "visitor" would be the first to say, "hey, I miss the place?" Other than Police Chief John T. Janssen, that is, who was vocally opposed to the policy.

But Milwaukee must have missed the place – Kitty's place, that is – at least a little bit over the years, because it was selected for inclusion in the Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum, where even today you can see a representation of a River Street neighborhood brothel.

If that's not enough for you, Historic Milwaukee has, on occasion, run a tour, "The Naughty Ladies of Beer Town." Check, for details.


Otto | Aug. 18, 2013 at 2:55 p.m. (report)

Sounds like maybe they need to add another building to the streets of old MKE at the museum. Flash forward to today there isn't one good gentleman's club downtown... and they wonder why conventions go elsewhere.

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