Coney Island

Ask a historian: What’s the story with Coney Island’s brothels of yore?

June 7, 2019 John Manbeck
Coney Island on May 15, 1947. AP Photo/Robert Kradin

David from Coney Island asks: What’s the story on bordellos in Coney Island?

That question sounds a little shady to me.

But considering that in the late 19th century, police counted 500 professional criminals in New York and 5,000 prostitutes — I see your point. More than 2,000 worked the streets, houses and cabarets of Brooklyn.

Brooklyn was a bit backward when it came to “sin.” Maybe it was all those churches and baby carriages that put the sex workers off. But when Coney Island blossomed in the 19th century, so did sex. The center of the “world’s oldest profession” was The Gut, just off Ocean Parkway, between West First Street and West Third, off Coney Island Creek — about where Trump Village stands today.

Some of the 21 million immigrants who entered the U.S. between 1885 and 1900 found seasonal work in Coney Island as waiters, bartenders, cooks, bathhouse attendants, musicians, domestic workers, ride operators, race track workers or prostitutes. Coney Island workers lived in The Gut’s shanties or slum houses among the boarding houses, gambling dens and dance halls hidden behind the “colossal elephant hotel” next to Bernstein’s Casino, Jack’s and Diamond Tony’s where cross-dressers frolicked.

The political boss of the Town of Gravesend, John Y. McKane, declared The Gut “the most wicked place in the globe.” He should know, because he was also Coney’s chief of the 150-strong police force. He was also responsible for Coney’s finances, water, electricity and sewage disposal. He boasted, “I don’t suppose there was ever a viler or more dangerous mixture of whites and blacks than you could find in The Gut.”

The 1870s was a hot time when you could buy “The Gentlemen’s Companion” or “The Gentlemen’s Pocket Directory” so you could be warned which houses of sin to stay away from. For instance, houses with the names Big Jumbo, Sans Souci, The Sea Shell Laundry, The Red Light House, The Cottage By the Sea and Big Laura’s became popular in Coney’s red light district.

Lillian Granger’s Albatross headlined Princess Zaza, who used “fish and cigars in a distinctive manner.”

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Over on Coney Island’s Bowery that ran behind Surf Avenue, the girls danced the “Zulu,” an “indecent dance,” at The Glass Pavilion.

Occasionally the madams who spread their “sex circuses” from The Gut to The Bowery were summoned in front of a judge, but none spent time behind bars. Most profited well: Rosie Waldman, Mother Mary Weyman, Mme. Korn, Mrs. Moore’s Franklin House. Having a title or married name was important for appearances.

While most houses were independent, the Shang Draper Gang, professional bank robbers, operated a prostitution ring in Coney Island. Draper’s fame stemmed from the “badger game” in which johns would be entrapped and charged high sums to escape.

Social lines crossed in The Gut with “fashionable swells taking a turn down there by way of a lark.” Most prostitutes were poverty-driven; some of the younger teenagers were runaways or orphans. “Charity girls” accepted no money for sex. “B girls” in “concert halls” lured men to buy drinks while they drank tea. The customer may get a Mickey Finn, morphine or knockout drops (30-40 grains of chloral hydrate) with laudanum that might make his heart stop.

But the professional prostitute could not compete with the street walkers. A reporter noted that the “professional prostitute cannot live in Brooklyn because the amateur gives her no chance.” Thomas Byrnes, New York’s police commissioner, claimed the “traffic in virtue is as much a regular business as the trade in boots and shoes,” according to Thomas Gilfoyle in “City of Eros.”

When Gravesend joined the City of Brooklyn, “Sodom by the sea” cleaned its act prompted by reformers such as Cary Nation, Anthony Comstock and street corner preachers but that didn’t mean sex left Brooklyn or even Coney Island. The “slatternly, reckless girls” moved on to other street corners: the Brooklyn Tenderloin by the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Adams Street, Hamilton Avenue, and Union Street, and even Brooklyn Heights.

In the Herman Behr house on the corner of Pierrepont and Henry streets, Polly Adler set up a residence where she wrote “A House is Not a Home.” Xavier Hollander, former call girl and author of “The Happy Hooker: My Own Story,” followed Adler but then the government deported her. After the Franciscan friars occupied the house, it was converted to today’s condos.

In more recent days, reports of prostitution erupted in Flatbush, Sunset Park, East New York, Bedford Stuyvesant, Gowanus, and even in Yuppie-dom at the Park Slope Brothel at 153 Lincoln Place.

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below.

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