During the Luther Burbank era, Santa Rosa was like an iceberg of secrets. Its public face was the pretty little City of Roses, “the chosen spot of all this earth,” as Burbank famously said, and which boosters endlessly repeated. After 1906 it also became known as the plucky little place that quickly arose phoenix-like after the Great Earthquake (it didn’t).

But beneath the placid surface, rarely mentioned in public meetings and only hinted at in the press, lurked serious crime and social problems. One of these big secrets was that Santa Rosa long had been a “wide-open town” when ponies were running at the fairground track, which drew the free-spending Bay Area gambling set. Most (all?) of the downtown saloons and hotels competed for their business by offering illegal gambling, with local police turned into something like casino floor managers, watching only for cheats.

With big-time gambling came big-time prostitution, and the town had an enormous red-light district, with no fewer than eleven whorehouses just a couple of blocks away from the downtown courthouse. And then in 1907, Santa Rosa took a brave or reckless step: The town legalized and licensed something very much like modern-day Nevada style prostitution.

The announcement hit the papers exactly one year after the 1906 quake, but the decision by the City Council and mayor had been made a week earlier, in secret session. Proprietors of the “boarding houses” would have to pay $45 per quarter; the “guests” who lived there would have to be examined by a medical doctor every two weeks, and forced to leave if found to have “any contagious or dangerous disease.”

As you might expect, the respectable citizens of Santa Rosa went nuts.

Religious leaders and outraged public figures queued up to denounce the Council’s decision from the Presbyterian church pulpit at a civic meeting the following Sunday. Besides the predictable cries of moral outrage, Attorney Rolfe Thompson also made the novel point that it was unfair to saloons, which had to pay $15 more every quarter.

But why did they consider legalization of prostitution at all? The first clue appears in the April 19 Press Democrat: “The payment of this license will do away with the much criticized practice in vogue here for many years of arresting the women proprietors of the houses each month and fining them for misdemeanor, to wit, selling liquor without a license.”

A few days later, PD editor Ernest Finley defended the decision – while condemning it at the same time (no mean feat, that). Finley wrote that “the new city charter expressly provides that such places as those complained of may be regulated or suppressed by the public authorities.” Before ending with a call to “not sanction the regulation of the social evil in any form,” he dropped this additional nugget:

For years the only supervision exercised over the district complained of has been exercised by the police. What has been done in that line has been done without legal warrant and purely through a process of intimidation. The city authorities, after carefully considering the matter for months, decided that there was but one way to handle the proposition, and that was as other public matters are handled, or in other words by duly delegated authority.

In other words, Santa Rosa had a long-standing policy that unofficially sanctioned prostitution, just as it was abetting illegal gaming in the saloons. But in this case, police became the enforcers in a monthly government shakedown. The City Council was only formalizing the setup by making the bordellos pay a tax instead of the charade of arresting the Madam to collect a montly fine.

The groundwork for the resolution came from the 1904 city charter, which was rewritten by a committee (technically, a 15-member “Board of Freeholders”) whose chairman was none other than our own anti-hero, James Wyatt Oates. In a Sept. 9, 1904 letter to the Republican newspaper, Oates defended the new charter which granted the Santa Rosa City Council greater powers to manage the city, and particularly more local control over public utilities. Under the new charter, Oates expressed hope that there would finally be a solution to the city’s long-running water problems. “There are more things in this charter to which I might refer,” Oates concluded, “but want of space forbids more at present.”

The resolution also established the tenderloin district as centered on the intersection of D and First streets, which would have broad impacts on surrounding property values, and which led to the ordinance being overturned – but that’s getting ahead of the story.

Important Action Taken at a very late Hour

At the close of the regular session of the council Tuesday evening, April 11th, City attorney Geary requested an executive session for a few minutes. The following resolution was adopted at the meeting that evening, but not while the public or newspaper representatives were in the room:

“A resolution licensing and regulating boarding and lodging houses, and bording or lodging houses on D and First streets, in the city of Santa Rosa:

“Resolved, by the council of the city of Santa Rosa: That all boarding and lodging houses and boarding or lodging houses located, conducted, doing business on or having entrance on that portion of D street between the southerly line of Second street, and Santa Rosa Creek, between D and E in the City of Santa Rosa, shall pay a quarterly license fee in advance of $45 per quarter, and it shall be unlawful to operate, conduct or maintain on the therinbefore described portions of D street, or First street in Santa Rosa, any boarding and lodging house, or any boarding and lodging house, or have any entrance to such house on either of said streets without first having obtained the license herein provided for.

“Sec. 2. The city clerk shall issue said license…

“Sec. 3. The person owning or conducting such boarding and lodging house shall keep a register in which shall be entered the name, date of arrival and departure of each guest and such register shall always be open to the inspection of the Chief of Police.

“Sec. 4. It shall be the duty of the person conducting or owning any of the places herein to cause an examination to be immediately made by a qualified physician of Santa Rosa, of each guest arriving at such house, and again at intervals of not longer than two weeks, during the residence of such guest in the house. If any such inspection shows that any guest is afflicted with any contagious or dangerous disease, such guest shall immediately be removed from such boarding and lodging house and not permitted to return thereto until cured of such disease.

“Sec. 5. The physician making such inspection shall deliver to the person so inspected a certificate of the result of his inspection and the same shall be posted in a conspicuous place in the apartment occupied by such guest, and shall at all times be subject to the inspection of the chief of police.

“Sec. 6. All such houses shall at all times be kept in a clean and sanitary condition and shall be conducted in a quiet and orderly manner.

“Sec. 7. The person owning or conducting such houses shall be permitted to furnish and sell therein only to their guests and visitors to the same, spirituous, vinous and malt liquors to be used on the premises and the provisions of Secs. 9 and 10 of Ordinance No. 238, of the city of Santa Rosa, shall not apply to such houses.

“Sec. 8. For any violation of the provisions of this resolution…shall be sufficient cause for the revocation of the license herein provided for.

“Sec. 9. Any persons violating any of the provisions of this resolution shall be guilty of a misdemeanor…

Ayes–Burris, Donahue, Hall Johnson and Wallace.

“Finally approved this 11th day of April 1907.

“Approved J. P. OVERTON, Mayor of the City of Santa Rosa.”

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 18, 1907

Will Be no More Arresting and Fining of Women in the Tenderloin

The City Council has passed a resolution compelling the proprietors of the houses in the tenderloin district who furnish liquors to the frequenters of their resorts to pay a license of forty-five dollars per quarter.

The payment of this license will do away with the much criticized practice in vogue here for many years of arresting the women proprietors of the houses each month and fining them for misdemeanor, to wit, selling liquor withoit a license.

The resolution also provides for the maintenance of better sanitary regulations in the tenderloin, medical examinations, etc. It likewise provides that a register shall be kept at each house of the guests frequenting the place, such register to be open at all times for inspection by the police.

Prior to adopting the resolution the Council went into executive session to discuss the matter, whereupon, as is the usual custom, the newspaper men and spectators present took their departure. Later the Council temporarily convened in regular session and passed the resolution as above outlined. The resolution was adopted by unanimous vote of the Council, all members being present with the exception of Councilman Reynolds.

– Press Democrat, April 19, 1907
Strong Addresses–Laymen, Attorneys and Ministers Condemn Council

Never has there been such an outpouring of the respectable citizens of Santa Rosa to register their protest and condemnation of an unrighteous act as that witnessed at the Presbyterian church Sunday evening. The great edifice was filled to overflowing and many stood all the evening to hear and applaud the sentiments expressed by the various speakers, representing the churches, law and laymen.

Rev. William Martin presided and on the platform with him were… [religious leaders comment]

Judge R. F. Crawford followed and said he was ashamed of the condition which required such a gathering. He recalled the terrible and crushing blow which struck the fair City of Roses a year ago and blotted out its business interests and homes and wiping out scores of lives–a blow which was heard all over the broad land and which had created heartfelt sympathy, caused tens of thousands of dollars to be poured into our laps and tons of provisions to be hurried to us, all of which came from an unseen hand.

But this was nothing, he continued, to be compared to the blow struck on April 11, so startling, shocking and unexpected as came from the hand, voice, and vote of those who had been entrusted to protect and guide the destinies of the city and to work for its welfare and interests.

“Why quietly and secretly adopt such a law?

“Why regulate such houses under the guise of boarding or lodging houses?

“By such a resolution you have eliminated all evil from your fair city, but it is there under a new name, just the same. There are no inmates any longer. They are simply guests. It is a downright insult to every respectable boarding house in the city. Hereafter you may expect to find in the cities surrounding us any number of ‘Santa Rosa Boarding and Lodging Houses.'”

The speaker concluded with the statement that he did not believe it possible that the council had considered the resolution sufficiently, or in conference with the public and when the members know the sentiment of public opinion, they will rescind the objectionable resolution.

Frank A. Sullivan spoke for the Catholic church…

Dr. D. P. Anderson represented the residents south of the creek, who had long been silent sufferers, hoping that the day would come when the evil could be forced to remove from the gateway of the city. Like Professor McMeans, being a member of the city government [ed. note: he was just a trustee on the library board], he hesitated to criticise, as he knew from personal experience how easily an official’s act are often misconstrued, misunderstood and condemned, when they were not fully responsible, when in acting they had used their best judgment and ability, but had been misled.

If through legal quibbles and technicalities there was no other method left open for the authorities to handle such vice, he did not hesitate to declare that our vaunted civilization and Christianity are a total and absolute failure. He did not believe, however, that the facts in the case demanded such radical action. There should not be any vice legalized by a city and on this principle, believed it was wrong to license saloons to debase and make drunkards of boys for the sake of the revenue obtained to run the schools and make streets or furnish water.

He said he expressed the sentiment of every virtuous woman and decent man south of the creek when he protested against the action of the council. The location granted for the use of the vice was where it had to be passed four times a day by those who were required to come up town and the children who went to school. He was glad to know the council had the power to regulate the business, for now the residents would organize and force the removal of the houses from their doors. (Applause.)

Attorney Rolfe L. Thompson said he had never seen such a magnificent outpouring of the citizens of the city in his fourteen years residence to protest against a pretended law. The protest, he presumed, would be of about as much avail as had the petition of the respectable people regarding the regulating of the saloon. Santa Rosa had been declared a wide open town now, had repudiated the sanctity of the Sabbath, slot machines were running openly, and bawdy houses had been licensed. But with all this, the meeting was a sign that there was some respectability left.

He said he referred to the pretended law advisedly and then quoted the recently enacted statute which says that the general reputation of such places is sufficient for a conviction. “What a farce, then,” he continued, “that you and I should enact a resolution authorizing such house to run, and invite the women to come to our city to be our neighbors. I say you and I, for the citizens are responsible for the laws enacted by our representatives to the extent that he or she does not do all in their power to enforce the laws and select men who will carry out desires.”

The resolution, he declared, was in the direct conflict with the state law and of no [illegible microfilm], as it provided that while saloons were taxed $60 a quarter, the boarding houses were taxed $45.


The meeting closed with a standing vote of protest, first by the men present, then by the ladies, followed by men and ladies together.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 22, 1907

The action of the city council in attempting to place certain forms of vice under direct public control, where it can be properly regulated and restricted, has aroused a storm of public indignation, and among the arguments advanced against it is the claim that nothing of the kind can be done under the law. The new city charter expressly provides that such places as those complained of may be regulated or suppressed by the public authorities, and represents the last public expression of the people of this city upon the subject. But if the evil cannot be restricted, and restricted properly under the law, then there is but one other thing that can be done, and that is to try and do away with it altogether. It is claimed by many that the social evil is something that cannot be suppressed, that experience has shown that if it does not exist in one form it will in another. Santa Rosa has a good opportunity of demonstrating the truth or falsity of this statement right now. For years the only supervision exercised over the district complained of has been exercised by the police. What has been done in that line has been done without legal warrant and purely through a process of intimidation. The city authorities, after carefully considering the matter for months, decided that there was but one way to handle the proposition, and that was as other public matters are handled, or in other words by duly delegated authority. The vote on the proposition was unanimous. For attempting to do this they have been criticized and maligned, as people generally are who try to harmonize the theories of the world with its true conditions. But that the authorities have honestly and sincerely tried to meet the situation is not the point. Public sentiment does not sanction the regulation of the social evil in any form, and such being the case the people responsible for its existence should be run out of town and made to keep out. No half-way measures will do. Let us cleanse the stables, and do it without further delay.

– Press Democrat editorial, April 23, 1907

There was a lively time before the council Tuesday evening when a motion was made by Councilman Wallace to rescind the resolution licensing “boarding houses.” The motion was seconded by Councilman Johnston each of these men declaring he was not satisfied with the legislation.

City Attorney Geary announced that the council was not able to rescind any existing rights conferred where the license had been granted and said the matter could not be accomplished until after the expiration of three months, the time to which the license fees have been paid, unless it be for cause. It was reported that all the “boarding houses” had taken out license.

Councilman Hall declared he did not favor such action, and said he could not be bluffed out. If the council was not able to do business without backing down, he announced, it was not able to do business at all.

Councilman Wallace averred that he was in favor of controlling these places, but it looked to him like the council was granting a privilege under a different name.

City Attorney Geary said he was getting tired of certain people trying to run the town, and that it was time to speak right out in meeting. He declared that in a recent mass meeting when speakers stated there was a state law against such things, they knew their statements were untrue, because they had been so informed previous to their making the statements. He said the preachers of this city had no right to condemn the action of the council, and that he was opposed to this sort of class legislation demanded, where men were continually coming to the council and protesting against certain things. The attorney said the preachers should not go into politics and that it was the protest against such actions and class legislation that had driven the emigrants to the New England shores and caused the settlement at Plymouth Rock. “Let the preachers come here as men and our equals,” he said. “This reminds me of the popes and preachers holding up the cross and saying, “you must bow down.” There is nothing new in the matter except the ignorance of these preachers. The charter is paramount, and the whole question is withdrawn from legislation.”

Councilman Reynolds wanted to know what the license was issued to these “boarding houses” for, and was informed it was for selling liquors. He declared that the council had decided not to permit a woman to have a license for selling liquor and had turned down an applicant for such a permit. City Attorney Geary corrected the matter by saying these places were licensed as “boarding houses.”

Mayor Overton said he would have to rule that no resolution could be rescinded except bt resolution, and no action was taken.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 8, 1907
Question of Controlling Questionable Houses Brought Up–“Charter Paramount,” Says Attorney Geary

“The charter is paramount to any action of the state legislature. Its power as regards the municipality is absolute. No general law can disturb the charter of a municipality.”

This was the gist of an opinion given by City Attorney Geary at the meeting of the Council last night, following a remark that the state law overruled the authority given the Council by the charter to regulate the questionable houses on D and First streets.

Just before the meeting adjourned at midnight Councilman Wallace made a motion to rescind the resolution passed at a previous meeting licensing “boarding and lodging houses” on the streets named. He said after consideration he was not satisfied with the provisions of the resolution.

City Attorney Geary called attention to the fact that the rights granted by the licensses already issued could not be abolished except for cause and could not be revoked with a hearing, until the date of their expiration.

Councilman Hall said he for one did not like the idea of being coerced or bluffed, and that he believed the Council to be fully capable for handling any matter coming up for consideration.

Councilman Wallace said he was not “scared,” but while he believed in controlling the resorts mentioned he now thought it had better be done in some different way. Councilman Johnson said he was not fully satisfied with the licensing plan adopted in the resolution, and was willing to second Mr. Wallace’s motion. Both voted for the passage of the resolution it will be remembered.

Reference was made to the mass meeting held recently in the Presbyterian Church, and Councilman Burris characterized it as a “disgrace” to publicly flaunt the matters under discussion in the faces and ears of women and children. Councilman Wallace said he did not approve of the meeting either.

Councilman Reynolds, who was not present at the time of the passing of the resolution, asked what the license was for, and was referred to the resolution itself for his information. Mayor Overton ruled that a resolution was necessary to rescind a resolution.

After some further discussion the Council adjourned. The matter did not come to a vote.

– Press Democrat, May 8, 1907

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