Once Santa Rosa’s municipal elections of 1908 were over, it came time to make good on the big campaign pledge: To shutter the town’s infamous red light district. The new government was soon to find this was far easier said than done.

Santa Rosa voters that year had to choose between two radically different slates. On one side was a “fusion” ticket created jointly by the Democratic and Republican parties that represented the old guard that had long held a political grip over the town. Running against them was a new grassroots coalition of progressives and prohibitionists, led in part by Luther Burbank. To steal the election, the powers-that-be pulled dirty political tricks; polling places were moved a few days before the election; out-of-towners were allegedly registered as city voters; and on the very morning of election day, it was announced that the fusion candidate for mayor had a trick up his sleeve to transform the blighted tenderloin into Santa Rosa’s first public park. (Election results and final analysis can be found here.)

Prostitution was the bellweather issue for that election because the outgoing City Council had legalized full Nevada-style prostitution the year before, and although the large tenderloin district centered on First and D streets had existed since the 1870s, church groups erupted in outrage. A few months later, Miss Lou Farmer – who actually lived a block away from the red light district – won a suit against the nearest brothel on the judge’s decision that the city ordinance did not explicitly authorize “the occupation of prostitution.”

With that court ruling and the continuing angry winds howling from the pulpits, it was only a matter of time before the law was changed and the red lights were ordered extinguished. And that became yet another cynical trick of the election of 1908; the lame duck City Council, with no member facing voters that year, had the chance to revoke the controversial ordinance – but chose not to. Outlawing prostitution before the election would have undermined the primary campaign plank from the Good Ol’ Boy fusion ticket. “After the voting had been completed,” reported one newspaper, an outgoing councilman remarked, “he would not take from the incoming council the pleasure of repealing the ordinance for anything. This caused a smile to again animate the features of the councilmen and spectators.”

As expected, the fusion candidates swept the election, and the new City Council repealed the prostitution ordinance at their first meeting. Points for courage go to dissenting Councilman Luther Burris, one of two members who had not been up for reelection, and the only member who voted nay. “In his opinion it was a impossible to eradicate the ‘social evil’ and the best thing was to regulate it,” according to the newspaper. Burris was referring to a provision in the now-voided law that was little mentioned; besides licensing the bordellos and their liquor sales, the ordinance had required that the prostitutes submit to regular medical exams for venereal disease.

The Council declared that the brothels would lose their liquor licenses at the end of June, and arrests for illegally selling hootch began just a few days later. Through newspaper items on these arrests we glimpse something of the colorful denizens of the tenderloin; fined $30 was the dramatically-named May Tempest, and the next day, the same fine was given to Kittie Gallagher, alias Kittie Hermann, alias Kittie Hatcher. Then there was Fred Yoder, “a flashy barber [who] practically made his home at one of the houses of prostitution.” Yoder and his consort celebrated with a champagne supper when one of the policemen was relieved from duty, and loudly boasted that night he would see to it that the entire police force would be replaced. After being arrested on vagrancy, Yoder apparently was run out of town – and I’ll wager he left the jail with more than a few fresh scrapes and bruises.

With prostitution again unregulated and unlicensed and a steady income coming from liquor violations, Santa Rosa turned its attention to closing the red light district itself. This plan failed for a variety of reasons (mostly, the lack of any plan whatsoever), but along the way, racism surfaced that was rarely exposed in public. The story of this effort continues in the following essay.

“Boarding Houses” May Still Flourish Here

Councilman Robert L Johnson, chairman of the ordinance committee, introduced a resolution Tuesday evening providing for the repeal of the “boarding house” ordinance of the council, passed about one year ago. The resolution was promptly laid on the table by the vote of four members. Mayor Overton casting the deciding ballot on the question.

The reading of the resolution handed to Clerk Clawson by Councilman Johnston caused many smiles to pass around the council chambers. It came as a distinct surprise and was almost the last thing to be presented to the council.

At the conclusion of the reading, Councilman Burris moved that the resolution be laid on the table. The motion was seconded by Councilman Donahue. Councilman Wallace moved that resolution be adopted and his motion was seconded by Councilman Reynolds. The motion to lay the matter on the table, having been made and seconded first, it was voted on.

Councilman Burris, Donahue and Hall, the first three members to vote, cast their votes in the affirmative, to lay the resolution on the table. Councilman Johnston, Reynolds and Wallace voted against the tabling of the resolution and this passed the matter up to Mayor Overton. The latter voted “aye” on the proposition.

After the voting had been completed, Councilman Hall remarked that he would not take from the incoming council the pleasure of repealing the ordinance for anything. This caused a smile to again animate the features of the councilmen and spectators.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 4, 1908
Action Taken by the New City Council Last Night

True to the obligation of the platforms of the Democratic and Republican conventions, which stood for the repeal of the “boarding house resolution” licensing the sale of liquor in the red light district, the above resolution was introduced at the first meeting of the new city council last night by Councilman Fred Forgett and was passed. On June 30 the license for the current quarter will expire.

After Councilman Forgett had offered though rescinding motion Councilman L. W. Burris mentioned that the resolution had been passed by the former council after much deliberation and investigation of existing conditions, believing that it was the best way to handle the matter. In his opinion it was a impossible to eradicate the “social evil” and the best thing was to regulate it. He instanced the old custom of arresting and fining the landladies and urged that the requirements of the “boarding house resolution” were far ahead of such a course. If Mr. Forgett or anyone else had a better solution the problem to offer then he was willing to vote for a rescinding of the resolution. If not then he would not vote for it. He went fully into the situation as it presented itself to him.

Councilman Forgett said his reason for offering his motion was because both the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties upon which he and the other councilmen had been elected were pledged to repeal the license as many people were opposed to it. He said he desired to do what the people wanted.

After a little more discussion the question was called for and when City Clerk Clawson called the roll the resolution stood: For repealing–Councilman Forgett, Johnston, Barham, Bronson and Steiner. Against–Councilman Burris.

Councilman Forgett said the future handling of the matter was a problem that the mayor and council would have to deal with.

– Press Democrat, April 22, 1908

The licenses for the sale of intoxicating liquor in the redlight district expired at midnight Tuesday night and they will not be renewed. The people in that locality have been notified that on their premises they cannot sell or give away liquor. They also have been notified that they must vacate that part of the city by August 1. Chief of police Rushmore states that the ordinance will be strictly enforced.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 1, 1908


Two women of the redlight district were arrested by Officer I. N. Lindley a few days ago and the same are held to appear before Judge Bagley Wednesday for violation of the city ordinances. The order for stopping the dispensing of the liquor in that district went into effect on July 1st.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 6, 1908

May Tempest, a woman of the redlight section, who was arrested by Policeman John Boyes, charged with selling liquor without a license entered a plea of guilty before City Recorder Bagley yesterday evening and was fined $30. She was informed that a second offense meant a fine of $150, and was told to notify all the women of the street that it was the intention to strictly enforce the laws regarding the sale of liquor in that district.

– Press Democrat, August 19, 1908
Officers Determined to Have Law Enforced

The police officers of this city are determined that they will break up the practice of women of the tenderloin of selling liquor without a license. Wednesday May Tempest was find $30 for the offense, but other landladies of that section of the city do not seem to have profited by the experience of this woman.

Last night officer boys caught Kittie Gallagher, alias Kittie Hermann, alias Kittie Hatcher, selling liquor. He promptly filed a complaint against her and $30 bail money was deposited with Recorder William P. Bagley to insure that much surnamed Kittie’s appearance when she is wanted.

In police circles, where the evidence against Kittie is best known, it is not believed she will appear for trial, but will forfeit the bail. The trial is set for Friday afternoon.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 20, 1908

Officer John Boyes caught Kitty Gallagher of No. 1 D street selling liquor at an early hour Thursday morning. A complaint was filed against the woman and she put up $30 cash bail in the afternoon with City Recorder Bagley. She announced that she will not appear for trial at 2 o’clock Friday, and the bill will be forfeited. This is the fourth case from the neighborhood, and all have paid similar fines.

– Press Democrat, August 21, 1908
Flashy Barber Changes His Plea to Charge

Fred Yoder, a flashy barber, has left town. Before leaving he was arrested on a charge of vagrancy by Officer Lindley, the specific charges against him being that he practically made his home at one of the houses of prostitution. This he indignantly denied when taken before Justice A. J. Atchinson. Later, through his attorney, he changed his original plea of not guilty to one of guilty.

Yoder and the woman with whom he consorted celebrated the departure of Officer Ed Skaggs with a champagne supper the night the officer was relieved from duty. They did not like the strict enforcement of the law which Officer Skaggs compelled in the district, and his removal was gladsome news to the denizens and habitues of that section. No better evidence could be obtained that the officer was doing his duty than the fact that he was unpopular there.

Following the champagne supper in the tenderloin, Yoder and the woman went about town the same night bragging that one of the “bulls” had lost his job. Yoder loudly proclaimed that he would see that the other policemen lost their positions also and that he would secure an entirely new force in Santa Rosa before he ceased his activities.

Justice Atchinson find Yoder $25 of the bail bond he put up to secure his liberty after his arrest.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 5, 1908

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