Blanche Moulton served a rowdy, pleasure-seeking crowd. Her brothel flourished on Hamilton Avenue, three blocks from the Hollenden, Penney’s saloon, and Bullock’s American Theater. In the booming, anonymous and money-driven city of transient residents, what could not be bought, traded, owned, or displayed? Dozens of “disorderly houses,” side-by-side with gambling dens and all-night bars, operated openly in Cleveland’s “tenderloin.” At the turn of the century, almost every American city had a comparable district of semi-lawless exploitation and indulgence. Politicians and police departments all but promoted such “restricted” or “segregated” zones, claiming that the concentration of vice stopped debauchery from scattering throughout the city. The flagrant sexual commerce of the tenderloin, the theory held, allowed men to dissipate irrepressible appetites, making the streets safer for respectable women everywhere else. Payoffs and favors from the brothels further persuaded authorities of their benefits.
In Cleveland as in other cities, only a porous border separated “legitimate” entertainment districts from a neighboring tenderloin. Patrons passed freely from Superior to Hamilton Avenue Black ellipses added to this 1912 plat map locate the Hollenden, the American, the Colonial Theater, and Penney’s saloon on Superior. The red ellipse at the top marks the location of Moulton’s brothel on Hamilton Ave. For two blocks to the East of Moulton’s, brothels operated in almost every house. Newspaper offices, other theaters, and retail outlets are also circled. Smaller stores and saloons lining the street go unnamed. and back again, enjoying the pleasures of both the Hollenden Hotel and the less rigorously policed excitement, violence, and exploitation of the vice district’s “resorts.” Drunkenness at respectable saloons, dancing at the Hollenden, and gazing at provocatively posed women on the Vaudeville stage differed from consorting with prostitutes three blocks to the North, but the activities also merged with one another in ways that critics of urban consumerism and changing sexual mores vehemently condemned. In pedestrians’ easy travel from Superior to Hamilton Avenue and in the imagination of outraged Christian reformers, the saloons, theaters, and hotels of one area interlocked with the almost complete moral chaos of the other. Both zones thrived on the commodification of appetites, on creating and satisfying fantasies of indulgence. They commercialized all social interaction and desire, whether in casual conversation over purchased drinks, the shared gazing at figures on stage, or the rawest forms of impersonal sexual activity. Whether on Hamilton or Superior Avenue, the long familiarities, intimacies, and civilities of town or village life had small hope of survival.
Blanche Moulton, dubbed “Queen of the Tenderloin” by local newspapers, gave life to the wildest visions of lawlessness and laxity in the booming city. Much of Moulton’s life remains unrecoverable, but episodes endure: in 1891, police arrested her for running a “house of ill repute” on Johnson Street. She was twenty-one at the time. By 1893, Moulton had moved to Hamilton Avenue, allowing her to operate more freely. That year, she filed a criminal complaint against a “well-known man in a good business position.” He had stolen her diamonds while the two were “drinking wine together in an all-night saloon and restaurant.” In 1898, police arrested Moulton and a visiting businessman from Buffalo for public drunkennessPlain Dealer, June 2, 1910. In another of the many scandals attached to Blanche Moulton, the political enemies of Cleveland’s Police Chief, Fred Kohler, accused him in 1910 of frequent visits to her brothel. Though Trixie Valentine, a woman employed at Moulton’s, testified against Kohler, the police disciplinary board dismissed the charges as purely the pursuit of a political vendetta. after they fell out of a fast moving carriage. Moulton dislocated her shoulder in the accident. In November of 1901, Dolly Anderson, a “colored woman” burst into Moulton’s resort carrying a club. Anderson planned to attack Moulton for stealing the affections of John Powell, a “colored man.” Moulton shot Anderson in the face. She married Powell, a potentially scandalous inter-racial union, and in June of 1902, Moulton killed him. According to her account, Powell returned to their apartment at 4am, drunk and violent after a night on Superior Avenue. He threw Moulton on a bed, beat her brutally, and pulled a gun. In a struggle for the weapon, she shot him three times. The Cleveland Leader suggested that Moulton’s jealous rage—not self-defense—drove the killing, but a grand jury, convinced by bruises and other injuries, refused to indict her. Police may have been protecting Moulton, and the Cleveland Gazette, a black newspaper, expressed fury: “This is a damnable outrage upon law and order and public decency. . . . Here is a notoriously low woman who kills a man ‘in cold blood’ and because the latter is a negro is allowed to go ‘scott free.’”
The American Theater was not, of course, a brothel, and William Bullock lived no life of constant exploitation, carnal intrigue, and violence, but intensifying objections to sexual Ernest A. Bell, Fighting the Traffic in Young Women, 1910. Bell condemned all “shallow, cheap amusements” as paths to prostitution. Here, an innocent, young white woman is beguiled with ice cream by one swarthy “foreigner” while another looks on from behind the counter.commerce, drunkenness, and gambling in the vice district extended readily to almost everything that happened on Superior Avenue. Disgust with the well-established tenderloin was, in essence, disgust with a world of increasingly visible and commercial desire and indulgence. In the booming, anonymous and money-driven city of transient residents, what could not be bought, traded, owned, or displayed? To ministers and others who saw sexual, personal, and religious restraint passing into quasi-lawless self-gratification, the night-life of the theater district was just a different, lesser form of moral corruption. The same Evangelicals decrying the barbarities of the tenderloin as the rebirth of Sodom also sought to sanitize vaudeville performances, close saloons, and restrict the goings on in suspiciously dark motion picture houses.
In November of 1908, the clash of values between Cleveland’s downtown demi-monde and Christian reformers broke into violence. Gypsy Smith, a renowned British Evangelist, came to lead a midnight crusade down Hamilton Avenue. More than 10,000 people marched behind him, a file stretching backward for almost a mile, singing psalms and praying aloud for the lost souls of Cleveland’s tenderloin. For long stretches, the reivival’s path paralleled Superior Avenue, travelling the invisible border between the entertainment and vice districts. At the crusade’s endpoint, an onslaught of eggs flew from somewhere in the crowd toward preaching clergymen and bawdy songs drowned out their efforts to sermonize. “Wild Rioting Ends Red Light March,” read the Cleveland Leader’s front page. “Ministers are Hooted and Bombarded by Maudlin Ribald Crowd. . . . Orators’ drunken orations, gospel hymns from the Salvation Army, and a boisterous chorus of ‘Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here’ made wild disorder of the ministers’ attempt to [preach].”
Such contests between evangelical moralists and those who saw self-serving, petty sanctimony in anti-vice crusades mattered intimately to William Bullock as he struggled to nurture his fledgling business. How, Bullock had to ask himself continually, could his cinema attract sensation-seeking customers without drawing the wrath of the city’s increasingly strident and self-appointed moral watchdogs? The Collinwood fire would give him a powerful lesson in the impossibility of navigating the difficulty.