From The Law and Politics Book Review

Vol. 9 No. 4 (April 1999) pp. 138-140.


CONTROLLING VICE: REGULATING BROTHEL PROSTITUTION IN ST. PAUL, 1865-1883 by Joel Best. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998. 175pp. Paper. ISBN 0-8142-5007-6.

 Reviewed by Mary W. Atwell, Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University. Email:


 Joel Bestís work on prostitution in St. Paul, Minnesota is the fourth volume in the History of Crime and Criminal Justice Series. As one who teaches courses in the history of criminal justice, I welcome these accessible works that can acquaint student with the past. Such sources are all too few, possibly because historians have not been especially interested in the operation of the institutions that form the criminal justice system.

With the choice of prostitution as a subject, Bestís book adds to the literature on gender and crime, and with the selection of St. Paul as a venue, he examines the experience of a typical middle sized city. St. Paul appears to be neither exceptionally corrupt nor exceptionally virtuous by late nineteenth century standards. Best is a sociologist by training, and this work reflects that disciplineís reliance on typologies. In this urban case study, he focuses on possible social control strategies for dealing with deviance, and analyzes St. Paulís preference for a particular form of regulation of the perennial problem of prostitution rather than prohibition or legalization.

If prostitution is the worldís oldest profession, the available responses to its practice are, according to Best, fairly limited. In the late nineteenth century, most jurisdictions (with few exceptions such as the St. Louis experiment with formal regulation) officially prohibited commercial vice. Nonetheless, the desire for illicit sex and the brothels that catered to this market remained in existence. To address the problem, a city might decide on aggressive campaigns to eradicate vice by strict implementation of prohibition laws. Other cities, such as New Orleans, followed a policy of containment, where brothels were confined to a certain neighborhood and tolerated there. Bestís essential thesis is that St. Paul adopted a type of unofficial regulation that allowed the houses of prostitution to remain in business but involved an informal supervision of their operation by the authorities.

In the first chapter, Best describes the system used by the government of St. Paul to regulate brothel prostitution. Each month, madams were summoned to police court where they were charged with keeping houses of ill fame, convicted, and ordered to pay a fine. The procedure, in effect, licensed the proprietress to operate her establishment for one month under the supervision of the authorities. The system was fairly open, duly reported in the newspapers each month, and relatively free from the corruption a clandestine system might have fostered. In exchange for allowing the vice establishments to remain in business for the next month, the city expected that the madams would keep their houses under control and minimize the social disorder so often associated with brothels. A house kept under control would be allowed to stay in business, one that became a site of crime and violence would be closed.

Best was able to trace the history of the St. Paul brothels during the late nineteenth century because of the openness of the informal regulation. Court records registered the monthly appearances of the prostitutes before judges. Police kept a log of the prostitutes they would charge regularly. Newspapers printed stories about prostitution and its practitioners, including interviews with the madams. For at least the twenty years covered in Bestís book, he was able to examine closely the workings of one attempt to control deviance through regulation.

The second chapter looks at the national debate over policies toward prostitution in the late nineteenth century. Physicians and many city officials argued from the practical position that for public health and safety reasons, if vice could not be eliminated, it should be regulated. Clergymen and other moral reformers, including many womenís groups, rejected any compromise with evil and advocated crusades to eliminate commercial sex. St. Paul had experience with the same conflicting positions, and resolved them by treating prostitution as a quasi-legitimate, regulated business, confined to certain parts of the city. The police were generally satisfied with this arrangement which both allowed them to protect respectable citizens and clients from crime incident to prostitution and enlisted the self-interest of the brothel management in maintaining social order.

In the third chapter, Best examines the career patterns of brothel prostitutes and challenges the notion that a life of vice was a steady downhill slide that frequently ended in a violent or miserable death. He argues that prostitutes were not pawns in a system over which they had no control, but were mostly women who shaped their own careers. They typically chose the life because it offered better economic opportunities than most jobs open to women. Many moved from place to place, some opened their own establishments, some eventually retired, and some even went on to a respectable life. The latter option, however, was limited by the stigma attached to commercial sex.

Chapter four provides a discussion of the culture of the brothel. In Bestís view, neither the view of prostitutes as helpless victims or "white slaves", nor the notion of prostitutes as sisters in a world of female solidarity is accurate. Using newspaper stories and arrest registers, Best develops a portrait of life in the house of prostitution. Madams had to be skillful managers to keep things running smoothly among the residents and in dealing with customers and the authorities. They also did business with regular "suppliers," such as milliners, seamstresses, food and liquor dealers, and abortionists. Though the available records provide few clues to friendships among the women in the houses, there is evidence that madams tended to look after their inmates. All residents of the brothels surely shared the dangers associated with their way of life, and all were surely aware of the double standard that condemned them while accepting their customers.

The fifth chapter examines periodic attempts to alter the informal regulation arrangement and replace it with a policy of strict enforcement of anti-prostitution laws. Opponents of the status quo argued that compromise with vice was immoral, that it subverted respect for the law, and that it discriminated against women by punishing the prostitutes but not punishing their clients. The press walked a careful line between the reformers and the supporters of the status quo by reporting on both sides but taking no editorial position. Several reform movements gathered support in the 1870s and 1880s, but none had a lasting impact. Like most politicians, the police tended to prefer the predictability of regulation to the recurrent crusades to abolish prostitution. Thus social control through informal regulation remained St. Paulís policy until the Progressive era of the early twentieth century.

Best devotes the last chapter to a discussion of alternative strategies of social control of deviant behavioróprohibition, prevention, and regulation. He also makes an argument for the importance of moral principles in public policy. One might argue that this chapter should have come at the beginning of the study where the typologies could provide the reader with a strong analytical framework.

Aside from the chapter organization of CONTROLLING VICE, a few other changes would have strengthened the work. Best might have made more use of scholarship in womenís history and social history both to offer a deeper context and to give a stronger sense of the texture of urban life in St. Paul in the late nineteenth century. The book is surprisingly dry, given the potential liveliness of the subject. Some topics are treated too briefly. Best gives the Progressive movement such short shrift that one is not persuaded why they were successful in ending the regulation of prostitution while others failed. On the other hand, he makes maximum use of the limited resources on brothel regulation. Sometimes it seems that the same information is being only slightly repackaged and repeated.

I found Bestís book a useful contribution to the history of urban criminal justice. It is perhaps not required reading for an undergraduate class, but it offers a provocative thesis that students would benefit from discussing.

Copyright 1995