The red lights of Lewiston: Historians explore a sinful century


click to enlarge The red lights of Lewiston: Historians explore a sinful century
Louise (Lou) Beevers opened the Beevers Hotel in Lewiston in the early 1900s. It was a brothel and she was its madam.

LEWISTON — Among the tales of tremendous success and terrible despair in the American West are the unrecorded stories of women who found a living as prostitutes and madams.

There was a time when most of downtown Lewiston was a red-light district. Women arrived in 1862 on the heels of the men seeking gold and the profession boomed until an abrupt end in 1949.

It’s an era that has attracted the research expertise of Lewiston historians Garry Bush and Steven Branting. The men will present the talk “A Town of Negotiable Virtue” Tuesday, March 24 at the Lewiston City Library.

Branting and Bush have combed through newspaper stories, city directories, tax rolls, census records and police blotters to piece together a picture of the period.

At a time when most women were banned from jobs and wives had no legal right to property, some women turned to prostitution as a way to survive when no social services existed. Truth be told, madams could make more money than nearly any other American woman.

The 1870 federal census recorded the occupations of Carlotta Felis and Anna Ream as “prostitute” in Lewiston. More interestingly, the census noted the net worth of each, $5,000 for Felis (nearly $100,000 today) and twice that amount for Ream. By comparison, John Vollmer, lauded as Idaho’s first millionaire, was worth $2,500 ($50,000), Branting writes in a chapter from his forthcoming book tentatively titled “Wicked Lewiston, Idaho: A Sinful Century.”

Official city records list brothels as “female boarding houses.” At one point Bush counted 40 or more listed downtown.

Over the years the businesses moved from wooden street side shacks to the upper stories of buildings. They were operated by women while “legitimate” hotels were run by men, Bush says. One of these women was Louise (Lou) Beevers, owner of the Beevers Hotel. Beevers made her fortune in San Francisco and came to Lewiston in 1907 to further it. She lived on Normal Hill in a house that still stands and is buried in Normal Hill Cemetery.

“You can track the women, the madams, as they move from different hotel to different hotel,” Bush says.

“When the city council made (prostitution) illegal those hotels disappear from the directory.”

Bush found more details in police blotters, names like Chicago Red and descriptions like “kinky, curly hair and crossed eyes.”

“I documented when raids were happening,” Bush says. “They raided specific houses. My thought was they were raiding them because they weren’t paying back. They weren’t giving money into what was accepted norms of kickbacks, acceptable payments to law enforcement. I can track how much money they were fined, which was a lot more than the common criminal. We’re starting to get a database on this.”

Branting has studied how the city of Lewiston handled prostitution. As late as 1972, Idaho Code had no statute forbidding prostitution, only activities associated with it, he writes. In 1949, Frank Jacobs, Lewiston’s chief of police, told the press that for three years the city council had permitted prostitution with operations supervised by the police department. Prostitutes were given weekly medical exams and fingerprinted. However, an influx of “streetwalkers” had made the situation difficult to control, he said.

“It is difficult to arrest these stray women. They follow no health rules and are generally filthy,” Jacobs said.

In the wake of this revelation, the city council ordered all houses of prostitution closed. It also asked for Jacobs resignation, Branting writes.

If You Go

What: “A Town of Negotiable Virtue:” Garry Bush and Steven Branting on the history of prostitution in Lewiston When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 24 Where: Lewiston City Library Cost: Free Of Note: Seating is limited and people are advised to come early.