‘Soiled Doves’ refused to fly the coup
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
Sheriff John Jones. shown here, tried his best to rid Madera of its Red-Light District, but it was just too well entrenched.
No one has ever pretended that Madera didn’t have its share of bawdy houses. Most assuredly it did. In the early part of the 20th century, its red-light district operated with impunity along F Street between Yosemite Avenue and 4th Street. However, it was always considered an eyesore and embarrassment by most members of Madera’s polite society. Therefore, local lawmen decided to do something about the problem. On May, 9, 1903, Sheriff John Jones put the denizens of the tenderloin district on notice that their days in Madera were numbered. After an interview with a Madera Mercury reporter, Jones’s warning came out in print.
“The hangers-on of the disreputable houses in the tenderloin district,” said Jones, “will have to shake the dust of Madera from their feet and seek new pastures.
Jones called them human parasites “who live off the earnings of women.”
The sheriff also gave notice that he wasn’t going to buy the story that they were merely bartenders and piano players. Anybody caught living in houses of ill-fame would go to jail.
“l am tired of hearing of disturbances in the tenderloin district” said Jones. “Several nights I have had to go over there to put an end to some fracas. Often these women are beaten by their consorts, and they call for protection. Then when we come and they are asked to file a complaint against their assailants, they invariably refuse.”
Jones announced that he was through wasting his time trying to keep the peace among people who didn’t want it and that he had made up his mind to “clean the town of the undesirable characters, which infest it.” He said work would begin shortly. In a few days, Jones showed that he was as good as his word.
A week later, early in the morning, Jones, Constable Murphy, Marshal Northern, Night Watchman Kingston, and Undersheriff Hensley struck pay dirt in the red-light district. Curiously, it wasn’t exactly a swat team operation. The officers didn’t knock down any doors or yell and scream. Instead, they knocked for admission, and the women inside gave the alarm before opening the door. This gave at least two of the hangers-on, Charles Turner and Fred Wilkins, time to find a place to hide.
When Turner heard the knock on the door, he jumped under a bed, but he was a little careless. He forgot to draw his feet in with him. Thus he revealed his presence to the officers.
For his part, Wilkins made his escape from the parlor, but Constable Murphy found him standing behind a door in the wine room. The poor fellow was stark naked except for a derby, which he had placed jauntily on his head.
The two men were charged with vagrancy and taken to jail where they both secured their release by posting a $100 cash bond.
After the arrest of Wilkins and Turner, the raiders went back again for Madera’s ne’er-do-wells and captured two more. Before the morning was out, warrants had been sworn for the arrest of Fred Williams and one S. Winfrey, both of whom were regular habitues of the red-light district. They were taken in, and they too were released on $100 cash bond each.
After this show of force from Sheriff Jones, trouble in the tenderloin abated for a spell. To show solidarity with law enforcement, the City Council passed an ordinance, which read: “Hereafter any saloon man who is not a sober or moral person or who conducts his place in an illegal manner or who permits any common drunks, loafers or persons who frequent houses of ill fame or who encourages them, or who associates with such persons, will be deprived of his license.” When a license was revoked, no saloon could be opened in the same place of business for a year. The ordinance made the trustees the sole judges of the facts, and that put some teeth in the law, but didn’t eliminate prostitution in Madera.
Sheriff Jones continued to conduct raids on Madera’s red-light district for the remainder of his time in office, and they continued under his successor, Sheriff S.W. Westfall, with the same result. Prostitution continued to prosper on the west side of the S.P. railroad tracks, raids or no raids. Not even the state could put an end to the “world’s oldest profession.
In 1914, California lawmakers passed the “Red-Light Abatement Act,” but it was just as ineffective as the local police raids into the Tenderloin district. Madera’s “soiled doves” would never fly the coup as long as there were customers who would pay for their services and men who would give them room and board.