City once tried to regulate and tax world's oldest profession

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ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - If large numbers of people are doing it already, why not legalize it, tax it and make it safer? It sounds like a present day argument for legalizing marijuana, but it was actually the thinking behind decriminalizing prostitution in St. Louis in the 19th century.

"You've heard the expression, 'if you can't beat them join them?'" said Andrew Wanko at the Missouri History Museum. "Well this was, 'if you can't beat them, tax and regulate them'! The decision was made to make prostitution legal as a source of tax revenue. And as a way, to prove to the country, that St. Louis had finally solved the problem of what they called the 'social evil.'

City leaders approved the "Social Evil Ordinance" in 1870. It called for all prostitutes to register and obtain a license at City Hall. Initially, 800 women registered for a license to legally practice the "world's oldest profession."

The city even took the extraordinary step of building a hospital to make sure the city's licensed prostitutes were healthy.

The Social Evil Hospital

"Prostitutes were required to have monthly medical check ups," Wanko said. "If they failed the check up, they were required to report to the Social Evil hospital within 24 hours. And they couldn't leave until a physician allowed them to go back and ply their trade."

As many as eight to 12 women were put in each room, in bunk beds, at the Social Evil Hospital, and doctors used mercury to treat many of the ailments.

"It sounds like the whole experience was an awful time," Wanko said.

City leaders imagined a new source of revenue for St. Louis, but also envisioned adding to the profile of the Gateway City, which was one of the largest U.S. cities at this time.

"St. Louis really wanted to be seen as a cutting edge city at the time," Wanko said. "We were one of the largest cities in the United States, and we wanted to be the next big thing, to prove to everyone that we figured out what no other city could do: make prostitution a source economic gain for the city."

Legalizing prostitution did not provide the tax revenue or a safer alternative to a societal problem as old as civilization. With prostitution legal, very few bothered to register with the city, after a while. Brothels and prostitution exploded across the city, which contributed to other types of crime.

The Social Evil Hospital stood where Sublette Park is today, near Arsenal Street and Hampton Avenue, not far from the State Psychiatric Hospital.

The Social Evil Ordinance, and legalized prostitution, went away in 1874. One of the loudest voices in opposition to making prostitution legal was William Greenleaf Eliot, the founder of Washington University, the St. Louis Art Museum and several St. Louis institutions.

You can learn more about this and other odd chapters in St. Louis history at the Missouri History Museum's free exhibit "250 in 250: A Yearlong Exhibit Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Founding of St. Louis."

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