Social Evil in the Holy City: Prostitution in Charleston, SC, 1900-1920
Poole, W. Scott
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At the turn of the century, moral reformers in America targeted prostitution as the "Great Social Evil." Some portrayed prostitutes as sympathetic young victims of white slavery, while others viewed them as diseased bodies that infected America's soldiers and young men. In Charleston, SC, however, the middle and upper classes voiced little concern over the city's red light district, which was located near the central business district. When the federal government launched a nationwide investigation into forced prostitution in 1912, they sent agents to Charleston. Although the federal agents made their findings public, Charlestonians made no effective efforts to reform or shut down the vice district. The local citizenry, police and politicians quietly tolerated prostitution while police collected fines from madams in the vice district. Most of Charleston's prostitutes fit the typical profile of an American prostitution, a young woman far from home who became a prostitute for economic reasons. Without much oversight, some madams gained a large degree of autonomy and control over their own lives. In 1918 the federal government closed Charleston's vice district, and prostitutes' lives became materially worse. Madams shut down their brothels, and prostitutes began to work on the streets. A 1920 federal public health investigation reveals prostitutes' increased dependence on pimps and male taxicab drivers, and prostitution began to emerge in its modern form.