Yesterday's News

Red-light district

Early 1900s found lawsuits, alleged bribes over Henderson's most famous 'bawdy house' located in the area known as Pea Ridge

By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
October 9, 2005

When Sallie Smithhart died 75 years ago this week her death certificate listed her occupation as house keeper.

Well, yeah, that's sort of right. She did keep house -- but not in the sense most people use the term. For the first three decades of the 1900s she operated Henderson's most notorious house of prostitution at 534 Fagan St. You might say she inherited the mantle of Moses Rhodes -- the fellow who founded the red-light districts and built a prostitution empire here in the 1880s and 1890s -- because she was one of his protégés early in her career and bought the house on Fagan Street from him in 1902.

That house was a sizable brick structure in the midst of what were mostly wood-frame shotgun houses in the Pea Ridge red-light district. If you have any doubt about what its primary use was, you need only look at the inventory of her estate in 1930. She owned 12 beds, a player piano and a Victrola worth $116 -- the equivalent of a modern expensive stereo system. There were also two pistols. One was kept with the safe, the other hidden in the bathroom, presumably for the use of shady ladies who found themselves dealing with an unruly client.

But there's really no doubt about what she was. She admitted it a number of times by pleading guilty to operating what was then called a "bawdy house."

It's also documented in a pair of lawsuits filed in 1913 by Amelia Gabe and her daughter Annie, who complained about what had been going on at 534 Fagan St. -- which was practically in front of the Gabe home. Amelia Gabe said in her suit that for more than 10 years she had had to put up with the "lewd and lascivious conduct" and the "boisterous, profane, vulgar and obscene language" of people coming and going from Smithhart's business.

"Drunken and disorderly persons" frequently stopped at her house, the old lady complained, "and demand admittance, and curse and abuse this plaintiff and other members of her family." The Gabe suits were settled out of court.

Smithhart also frankly admitted operating a bawdy house in a lawsuit she filed in 1918 against William F. Wolf, a city councilman who had a grocery store nearby at the corner of Gabe and Madison streets. In that suit she was trying to recoup $120 rent that she maintained had really been a bribe, since she never occupied the rooms rented in Wolf's store. She wanted her money back, claiming she didn't get what she paid for with the bribe. The monthly rent was "hush money extorted from her by the said William F. Wolf, who used his official position to menace and threaten her."

That unsuccessful lawsuit appeared to bring to a boil a dispute between Smithhart and city authorities, who were trying to shut her down during World War I and the period immediately after. Her business suffered a serious fire in mid-January 1917, when the front of the building was destroyed, and in a lawsuit filed a few months later Smithhart maintained the city was trying to put her out of business.

Shortly after the fire, she said in that suit, Police Chief C.E. "Doc" Graves warned her "that if she again attempted to run or conduct a bawdy house in said city he would close her up and arrest her every day if it was necessary to do so to make her close out said business."

Criminal charges were filed, followed by three civil suits brought by the state between 1919 and 1921, which tried to shut down her brothel as a public nuisance. The state eventually dropped those cases, indicating they had been settled out of court.

Apparently the bribe -- er, I mean, settlement -- was effective because Smithhart experienced very little trouble with the law throughout the rest of the 1920s. She died of kidney problems at age 58 on Oct. 11, 1930.

Her will, which had been written in 1912, named E.L. Starling Jr. as administrator, but he declined to serve, so Farmers Bank was appointed. The bulk of her $2,000 estate went to two nieces -- Helen Lilly and Willie Wise -- despite the fact she had an older brother named Charlie Thompson living in Evansville. But she was definitely estranged from Charlie, according to a deposition Thompson gave in 1909.

"I ain't got any use for her," her brother said. "She is not living a life a woman ought to live. I would not let her come into the house when my mother died."

100 years ago

The drug store of Melton & Allen was charged with selling an alcohol-laced patent medicine called Peruna in the dry town of Sebree, according to a 1905 article in The Gleaner.

The popular Peruna, which was 28 percent alcohol, had been sold to J.W. Porter. The defendants were acquitted; they had earlier prohibited their employees from selling Peruna to Porter.

50 years ago

The old iron bridge that spanned Canoe Creek at Fifth Street tumbled into the drink shortly after an unidentified heavy truck had crossed, according to a 1955 article in The Gleaner.

Stephen S. Soaper was approaching the bridge as it went down, and skidded to a stop at the very brink.

"This was my charmed day," he told The Gleaner. "I just sat there two or three minutes and tried to get over the shock."

25 years ago

James R. Rash, president of Transylvania Distilleries Inc., announced plans to build a $27.8 million gasohol plant at Geneva, according to 1980 articles in The Gleaner.

The proposed plant, which never materialized, was to annually produce 20 million gallons of anhydrous alcohol to be mixed with unleaded gas to produce gasohol. The plant was expected to use 20,000 bushels of local corn per day.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS