David Kirkpatrick

January 15, 2009

Dallas’ Frogtown — a true tale of prostitution

This article was written a number of years ago and by chance never ended up published to the best of my knowledge. I was paid my kill fee and moved on.

I thought it might be of interest to my blog readers — imagine a city-sanctioned red light district in Dallas, Texas …

“Frogtown”
By David Kirkpatrick
“The City of Dallas approves ordinance to OK prostitution” — a headline you expect never to read? It probably didn’t make the papers of the day, but in 1910 that headline would be correct.
 
Dallas was a bustling city in the early 20th century with many similarities to the Dallas of today. The earlier burg was full of commerce and civic activity, and was a transportation hub. Darwin Payne, professor emeritus, SMU, and author of several books on Dallas, opens “Big D: Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century,” with a quote that could apply today. Payne writes, “In 1907 a local businessman rendered this thumbnail portrait of Dallas: ‘A city of skyscrapers, resounding with the roar of trade.'” But the Dallas of 100 years ago had one thing today’s city does not — Frogtown, a red light district that operated within shouting distance of the Old Red Courthouse, Dallas’ civic center at the time, with the full blessing of the city’s leadership.

(head below the fold for the rest of the story)

Payne says Dallas was a town that suddenly emerged without a great deal of planning and quickly grew from its pioneer town status when the railroads arrived in the 1870s. He states, “In 1890 it’s the biggest city in Texas and yet there had never been a city plan.” He goes on to explain the city had strict social and racial classes with businessmen playing prominent roles in leadership. Once the Old Red Courthouse opened in 1893, the courthouse square became the center of town. Although government, civic and moral leaders never spoke publicly of the issue, prostitution was a visible part of Dallas once the railroads and growth came to the city.

In an effort to corral the world’s oldest profession and keep it from spreading across the entire city, an area called “South End” had been set aside by a 1907 charter that tacitly approved of the area as a red light district, but specified that no saloons could operate in the area. South End was probably located just south of current downtown Dallas in an area where a number of railroad tracks converge, although its definite location is most likely lost to the sands of time. As the railroads began taking over the South End area, prostitutes began relocating to various parts of the city.

A 1910 city ordinance adopted by Dallas city commissioners designated new boundaries for the prostitutes in an area just north of the Old Red Courthouse. Three of the commissioners wrote a report rationalizing the ordinance and in “Big D” Payne quotes the report, “We find that under the existing conditions bawdy houses and bawds are promiscuously scattered throughout the City, greatly menacing the decent neighborhoods and offending decent and respectable communities and parts of the City … We feel that the measure hereby suggested by us will entirely eliminate such objectionable characters from the decent neighborhoods of the City.”

Payne writes about the location, “This was immediately east of Lamar Street, from Cochran Avenue on the south to the MK&T railroad tracks on the north, and bounded on the east by a small stream known as Dallas Branch.” Payne points out three areas of particular interest in the district, “The 2100 block of Wesley Avenue, the 1000 through 1300 blocks of Broom (recently changed from Audrey), and the 2100-2300 blocks of Griffin Street.” The designated area was known as “Frogtown,” likely because of the calls of frogs that came up the stream from the Trinity River. Once the area became a designated red light district it was also referred to as “the reservation.”

Frogtown’s location relative to the downtown Dallas of today is an area straddling Woodall Rogers Freeway, beginning just east of the West End historic district and running north toward the home of the Mavericks and Stars, the American Airlines Center. One feature of early 1900s Dallas faded away and was resurrected in 1989, the McKinney Avenue Trolley. Payne points out that streetcars would pass by Frogtown and passengers would rubberneck to look down the streets of the reservation with curiosity.

During the time of the reservation, Frogtown consisted of mostly small residences with the occasional larger structure. After its dissolution, the area became a warehouse district and all the buildings dating to the days of Frogtown were likely destroyed and replaced by warehouses. Payne, in “Big D,” writes that the population of the reservation was estimated to range from 240 to 400, with the larger figure most commonly accepted as fact. He writes most of the women worked out of “cribs” consisting of two small rooms, one opening to the sidewalk where the women would advertise their wares from the window or door. Parlor houses were a higher class of establishment and the employees were required to be properly dressed, in the parlor by eight in the evening, and working until midnight, or later if customers remained.

The various brothels in the reservation made a great deal of money, and not surprisingly some were owned by some of the established businessmen of the day. An early writer-researcher visiting Dallas, Henry Bruere, learned one landlord invested under $10,000 in several small structures and land, and earned $50,000 a year on the initial outlay. J.T. Upchurch, a preacher who crusaded against prostitution and built a home for fallen women in Arlington known as the Barachah Industrial Home for Girls also published The Purity Journal, a religious monthly. Upchurch ran photographs of brothels in The Purity Journal, and in the October 1912 issue named some of the owners — a list including W.W. Samuell, a doctor whose name graces a park and recreation center in Dallas.

In the pre-Frogtown February 1905 issue of The Purity Journal, “J.H.Woodroof & wife” wrote, “We visited one of the large houses in the slum district a few days ago. The Madam was very kind to wife and myself. She told us she had banked $1000 during the last five months and that her expenses are $700 per month. Adding her expenses to the amount she cleared gave us … an average of $900 per month. This is only one house, there are many others. We asked: ‘Where did all this money come from?’ She answered: ‘From the doctors down.'”

Upchurch rallied against the 1910 ordinance creating Frogtown, saying the city authorized an area for the “despoiling of virtue, defaming of character, debauching of manhood, and the prostitution of girlhood.” Upchurch’s efforts led to the Dallas Council of Churches’ 1913 decision to no longer rationalize the red light district and to press city leaders to shut it down. In October the council passed a resolution that urged the dissolution of Frogtown, and against the judgement of Police Commissioner Louis Blaylock and Police Chief John W. Ryan, County Attorney Currie McCutcheon announced he would serve notice on the women in Frogtown that they must move out by 6 p.m., November 3, 1913 or face arrest.

On that date the women left the reservation to parts unknown (scattered around the city is one good guess) ending Dallas’ days of city sanctioned prostitution.

(Author’s note: This story could not have been written without the input of Darwin Payne and his book, “Big D” and the archives of the Dallas Historical Society. Many thanks to both for preserving the history of Dallas.)

Update 5/2/09: I came across a photo of Frogtown dating back to 1913. Hit this link for the pic.

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17 Comments »

  1. I am finalizing my Masters Thesis which covers the era of the bordello in Dallas (1874-1913) Something that has me going in circles is WHEN a concentrated area that could be defined as a “red-light district” developed in Frogtown. The defined area that would be sanctioned in 1910 was mainly made up of men as heads of households and/or families. VERY few single/unattached women in the houses until around 1905. I believe the prostitutes were there-but scattered.

    Comment by Gwinnetta Crowell — October 7, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    • I like to read your Master’s Thesis

      Comment by Bruce Horton — October 26, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

  2. […] — davidkirkpatrick @ 7:50 pm Today has been something of blog stat anomaly because this post is getting some traffic. The reason it’s unusual is the linked post is an article I wrote […]

    Pingback by Lookin’ for hookers « David Kirkpatrick — October 21, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

  3. Sorry for the delayed reply but you might want, if you have not, to check out the excellent Jim Wheat’s Dallas County Archives website, particularly these reprints of the life of Lizzie Handley, which shows the original cribs closer to the current seat of the DMN along Austin Street and Mill Creek, ‘across town’ from Dallas Branch, although other contemporary accounts (including Ted Dealey’s reminiscences) include cribs ‘along the creekside bluff’ approximately in view down San Jacinto from First Baptist. Church! The story in three parts starts at: http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~jwheat/biographies/lizzie1.html

    Comment by Lee Chevalier — January 2, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    • I completed “To Keep the Red Lights Burning.” What a fascinating study. Jim Wheat’s website was a fascinating source. The “cribs” you refer to were actually very nice bordellos (photos of them are in McDonald’s book–they were on Emma Street. I presented a paper, “Not in My Backyard: Legalizing Prostitution in Dallas 1910-1913” last Sat. I found the old Frogtown Reservation. Ironically, 3 businesses set on the western border today–House of Blues, Dick’s Last Resort and Hooters.

      Comment by Gwinnetta Crowell — February 4, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

  4. David you can contact me under alexander Troup at face book, I have some more intresting things to share with you on the Frog town area when I had done much Historical study down there for some 17 years, alexandertroup@yahoo.com

    Comment by alexandertroup — May 26, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

  5. I wrote an article, “Not in My Backyard” that was published in this past Fall’s Legacies Journal, which covers the legalization of prostitution in 1910 (and the 5-6 years’ controversy over the issue).

    Comment by Gwinnetta Crowell — May 26, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    • You know….Culture is about sharing,and knowing people we love to share with…..pass the hat, torch and create trust…..that is what i have done….and will continue….a shame some people cant….

      Comment by alexandertroup — October 30, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

  6. Orgins and Originality, Life is an adventure, if you leave the living room as we enter the 19th Century as I did, and my story is also your story, but …the 1st hand story is by far….. Oral History…then written, then history, I dont have to say..Darwin Payne, I did go there with others and had the real exsperience….what is a rounder, My Great Grand Father…H.P.Hall, who lived and worked near Hells Half Acres in Ft Worth,…..1900 for the railroad..and that is how boys are told about what men did…Dan Stuart, now there is a story……A/T. 2012…Legends and real stories….

    Comment by Alexander Troup — November 22, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

  7. […] is even more interesting than a pillow or cracker factory.  Back then the area was known as “Frog’s Town.” Not because of a large population of Frenchmen, but because the area was prone to flooding and […]

    Pingback by How the West End died… | The Dallas Whisperer — August 15, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

  8. […] is even more interesting than a pillow or cracker factory.  Back then the area was known as “Frog’s Town.” Not because of a large population of Frenchmen, but because the area was prone to flooding and […]

    Pingback by How Dallas’s West End died… | The Dallas Whisperer — August 15, 2014 @ 4:08 pm

    • Well it is an on going problem, I feel very frustrated, there is an academic and there is a grass roots of individuals not too mention too, the bottle hunters, treasure hunters,the likes of people who are involved in myth, folklore and treasure…I am upset with the author here because he wont surface and fill in the blank as was my comment yesterday….and I had thought about what I had said, then again..

      .I WAS THERE when the E.P.A removed the dirt from the various lots in 1999 too 2003 this was most of Griffin street and in the Laws street area and the Observer did a story on Fannie Howard who had owned those lots on that block, that was recorded in her probate will for Dallas County record when I had worked there, and this has nothing to Do with Darwin Payne story that is an original life line to such a history, but the way I say adult district…. which is as original as you can get but still where is the depth of the well here, in terms of the whole story,and yet Darwin did paved the way to realizing Dallas is a closed society even today on these kinds of area in history ,

      And he did get in trouble with that Morning News folks or families through them gave them a hard time I recall hearing, which was a great story when it came out and yet it exposed the family a park is named after and their kids are still around today, and they are still quite wealthy and concerned with image and how they are and how the legacy of their grandparents has flaws, while Fannie Howard has not next of kin, all of her people are dead….then again…..she was the lady who Ran Frog Town one can assume and gave the french men a ride too….ok…I feel much better about this today and after reading several years of comments I have left top know I am still on the story….have dug up some recent leads….

      .I guess that is the complex problem with the story anyways…..thos bones cant be scattered far enough…my apology for yesterday comment David….

      Comment by alexandertroup — October 17, 2014 @ 11:42 am

      • This statement was done at a time when I felt is there any future in these kinds of sites or stories that come up on a History of a city and the need to connect to someone or some group who may or may not be aware the evidence was there in the early 1990’s and then it was lost….while the people and the evidence are long gone I am still here today,,,odd and working on another map of the area again….2016 Alexander M, Troup.

        Comment by altroup — August 8, 2016 @ 7:05 am

  9. […] all about Dallas, the city fathers thought it more sensible to crowd them into a single spot.) This proverbial red-lit district was known as “Frog Town,” because of the propensity of noisy amphibians to wander up from the Trinity along a nearby […]

    Pingback by Ask John Neely Bryan: When Did Parts of Oak Lawn Become Uptown? | FrontBurner | D Magazine — March 31, 2016 @ 11:30 am

  10. I always come back to this site like the many in the field in and around this area, which is now parking lots and new buildings to see if any one have made any recent discoveries, and few have while the Cedar Grove Addition is really the Frog Town by 1889, as one should note in the 1884/84 Dallas Directory….then into the 1889 era, while the time table of that era was about vice it was also about character……and that era may be coming back very soon since High Rises in the area are empty, how else to start a whole new era, that may bail them out …..Alexander M Troup….2016.

    Comment by altroup — August 8, 2016 @ 7:00 am


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