The Red Light District

The city of Hartford has had a well-documented problem with prostitution and sex trafficking. Prostitution and sex trafficking included homicides of sex workers and infants who became endangered during prostitution transaction.(HPP) Hartford historians have documented a thriving “red light” district in the 1800s and into the early 1900s.(HPP) It was tolerated and was the connection to a variety of crimes and other problems within the city’s walls.(HPP) This is because there was a time in American history where prostitution was a tolerated trade of work. Therefore laws against selling sex are fairly new, no more than about 100 years old, “and came onto the books long after the sex trade took root in American cities.” (Grant)

“The “red-light district,” or the place in a city where commercial sex is isolated or encouraged (or both), might be a concept now most associated with Europe and Asia, but it’s an American invention.” (Grant) The phrase was first documented in 1894, in an Ohio newspaper, The Sandusky Register. (Grant)  The term referenced to a group of Salvation Army volunteers who had set up show in town to minister to presumed prostitutes. The origin of the term comes from the customers of prostitutes, and not of prostitutes themselves. Rail workers would leave a red lantern outside the doors and windows of the houses where they met prostitutes between their work shifts. “At the time Storyville, may have been the most fully realized red-light district in the United States, centralizing brothels and cribs into one neighborhood.” (Grant) In 1832, Connecticut chartered its first railroads, and from 1872 to 1968 the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, which is commonly known as the New Haven, was operated in New England. This was the mail source of rail traffics, and was located six miles away from Ada’s home. When visiting bars and saloons, rail workers were able to purchase brothel directories, also known as “blue books,” which gave the workers a detailed list of specials available within each house.




“Brothels were reportedly “very numerous” in Hartford in the 1880’s, but no careful study of prostitution appears to have been conducted until 1892” (Baldwin 66). George B. Thayer, superintendent of the Charity Organization Society, was the first to cultivate a report on prostitution in the city. He named about twelve different houses of prostitution in his report, “all but two [located] on the east side, the riverfront neighborhoods of poor immigrants and squalid tenements just east of Main Street” (Baldwin 66). Thayer made note of one location in particular, the River House, located on Ferry Street, overlooking the Connecticut River. The River House was a four-story building overlooking the water. Reportedly, prostitutes “lived and worked on the upper floors [of the building] while boats were stored on the ground floor” (Baldwin 66). Other notable brothels “like Kate Pratt’s, Hub Smith’s, and Hunter’s place existed…in the Front Street neighborhood” (Thornton). In addition to the River House on Ferry Street, many individual women were reported to prostitute themselves from their own lodging houses in an attempt to supplement their low wage incomes. Many of these women lived in rooming houses downtown, or on Main Street, Chapel Street, and Asylum Street, though they were likely spread out into other areas of the city as well. Much to Thayer’s dismay, these women were seldom bothered by the police, as “it [was] only the noisy [houses]” that were raided (Baldwin 66). The red line on the map indicated Sheldon Street; Ada’s house would have been somewhere in the middle but the writing was too small to see. The blue lines indicate streets known to have been highly populated with both houses of prostitution, as well as the women, mentioned above, who prostituted themselves individually. (Specifically, the streets highlighted in blue include Main Street (horizontal line), Asylum Street (bisecting Main St.), Front Street (lower horizontal line) and Ferry Street- located in the lower right side of the map). I was unable to locate Chapel Street on this specific map, but by referencing other maps, I was able to narrow down the area in which it most likely was located- somewhere inside the dotted blue box).

The lack of police intervention allowed prostitution to remain relatively unchecked in areas outside of the Hartford’s red-light district (as well as inside it). “The only prostitutes likely to be arrested were streetwalkers” of which Thayer estimated there were hundreds. We can assume that while prostitution was a recognized issue in the city of Hartford, it was extremely difficult to track or regulate due to it’s inherently secretive nature. Based on Ada’s location and questionable/uncertain relations with both Gregory and Harrison it is possible that Ada may have been involved in prostitution. It is my guess that she would have most likely worked individually, as opposed to having been involved with any known brothels, due to the fact that she had a child as well as was said to have been a painter according to census records. Because prostitutes were infrequently arrested, it is unlikely Ada, in the event she was a prostitute, was ever picked up by law enforcement or ever had a criminal record.


Works Cited

Baldwin, Peter C. Domesticating the Street: The Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850-1930. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1999. Print.

Melissa Gira Grant / AlterNet. (n.d.). When Prostitution Wasn’t a Crime: The Fascinating History of Sex Work in America. Retrieved November 20, 2016, from

Thornton, Steve. “Hartford’s Sex Trade: Prostitutes and Politics.” Web


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