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‘Soiled Doves’

A downtown exhibit looks at the lives of the residents of Tucson’s red-light district



From the 1890s to the 1920s, Tucson had a clearly defined, police-approved “red-light district” – Gay Alley – that boasted a virtual smorgasbord of prostitutes from nearly a dozen countries.

Gay Alley, so-called because the property once was owned by a pioneer settler, Mervin G. Gay, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Arizona Historical Society’s Sosa-Carrillo-Frémont House Museum.

The exhibit, dubbed “Soiled Doves: Women of Business in Territorial Tucson,” was created by curator Julia Benites Arriola. It opened Friday at the museum, 151 S. Granada Ave., on the Tucson Convention Center grounds just west of the convention center.

One feature in the exhibit is a list of the local “soiled doves,” who came from as far away as France, Mexico, Germany, Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Hungary, Poland, Russia and Sweden.

The list of prostitutes included such nicknames as “French Carmen,” “Punk #1,” “Russian Jennie,” “Goldtooth” and “Drunk Ernestine.”

“I was looking at maps of this area and noticed how close it was to this (museum) house,” said Arriola. The 20-foot-wide street was midway between Meyer and Convent streets, extending east-west between Ochoa and McCormick streets. TCC today sits atop part of the old district.

Bordellos, “cribs” – tiny rooms with beds, where the women conducted business – and saloons lined both sides of the alley, according to Arriola. Liquor and revelry flowed throughout the night, Prohibition or not, she said. A longtime overseer of Gay Alley and the rest of “old Tucson” was Jesus Camacho, a Tucson police officer known as the “mayor of Meyer Street.”

Camacho saw to it that no one got too rowdy, drunk or boisterous. He also saw to it that the prostitutes obtained and paid for their $5 business permits. Among items displayed are health certificates they were required to obtain weekly after a doctor’s examination – cost, $1.

“What I really want to show is the humanness of these women,” said Arriola. “There are no moral issues or anything like that. We just want to show that they were human, that there were complex issues that they had to face.”

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, women who were not married or schoolteachers were relegated to menial jobs, she said. Those who couldn’t – or chose not to – do such jobs sometimes drifted into prostitution, earning $1 to $3 for a “session” with a client. Often entering the “world’s oldest profession” as young as 13 or 14, they tended to remain in prostitution until their late 20s. Then, they changed careers or occasionally married and tried to ease back into “proper” society.

A few, Arriola said, went on to become madams running bordellos. Some of them grew wealthy in the process and sometimes made generous donations to local charitable organizations – indirectly, as protocol demanded.

The exhibit includes background on a few of them – Anna Charleau, Eva Wiley and Eva Blanchard.

The late Roy Drachman, native Tucsonan and real estate broker who lived here 96 years, was a boy during the final years of Gay Alley’s existence. He once recalled that near the end of its existence, large gates were erected at both ends of the alley, preventing the curious from watching the goings-on and protecting “respectable” townspeople from being offended.

Several portraits of prostitutes are included in the exhibit.

“These were really small photos,” said Arriola. “I cropped them and had them blown up. I was really interested in their eyes and what their eyes show.”

Most of the women are dressed in stylish fashion. They stayed at hotels, sleeping during the day and occasionally venturing into the downtown area to shop. They were ostracized, Arriola said, and many had addictions. Few saved enough money to retire.

In the 1920s, polite Tucson society finally succeeded in closing down Gay Alley, dispersing the prostitutes and sending the profession “underground.”

The exhibit is expected to remain in place through next May.

If you go

- What: “Soiled Doves: Women of Business in Territorial Tucson,” an exhibit about early prostitution.

- Where: Arizona Historical Society’s Sosa-Carrillo-Frémont House Museum, 151 S. Granada Ave.

- When: Open through next May. Museum hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

- How much: Regular admission is $3 adults, $2 students and seniors 60 and older. Children 12 and younger admitted free.

- Details: 622-0956.

PHOTO CREDIT: Arizona Historical Society

CUTLINE: Territorial Tucson prostitutes who pleasured men in a downtown red-light district are revealed in an Arizona Historical Society exhibit. Clockwise from top left are: Molly, Carmen, Annie and an unknown woman.

Where working girls worked

CUTLINE: Prostitutes in territorial Tucson entertained clients in tiny rented rooms called “cribs,” similar to the one above in an Arizona Historical Society exhibit. The rooms, which were often no larger than small closets, lined the streets of Gay Alley in the then- red light district downtown. At right is a madam’s chair ornately adorned with horns.

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