I’ve heard about Pensacola’s old red-light district, but I’ve never heard specifics. Can you shed some light on it?
In the early part of the 20th century, the nation was undergoing an age of moral reform. Pensacola did not fully participate.
During this time, the port city experienced a wide range of transient visitors. Fishermen and servicemen from all over the world passed through the streets of downtown Pensacola. The influx of a male majority called for an interesting mix of supply and demand. The demand was for alcohol and prostitutes, and city officials allowed the supply of it.
Rather than allowing lawlessness and moral corruption to spread throughout the community, the city established a five-block area off Palafox Street for somewhat legalized prostitution. Thus, Pensacola’s red-light district was born. Although the activities within this district clearly violated the law, neither local authorities nor citizen groups made sustained efforts to eliminate the practices. The community found itself in the ironic position of condoning organized vice for its own benefit.
The area of lower Palafox Street had long been abandoned by respected society. Because of the proximity to the wharf and subsequent customers, houses in the area were converted into bordellos. The prostitution district came to be confined to Zaragoza Street from Palafox to Baylen, and on Baylen Street from Main to Government. With a citywide population of only 20,000 people, the district was easily regulated and policed.
The area was soon nicknamed “the line” because of the row of bordellos that lined the streets. Several of the houses along the line gained notoriety, but none more than the one at 15 W. Zaragoza St. belonging to Mollie McCoy. She dedicated herself to providing a first-class house of refined debauchery. McCoy ran a sophisticated operation while recruiting exotic women from all over the South. It was said that her bordello rivaled any one of New Orleans’ popular pleasure spots. Inside the 20-room brick house were walls papered in gold, gilt chairs and marble fireplaces. At its height, the McCoy house employed as many as fifteen girls. Each lady charged $3 to $5 for time spent.
Despite turning a blind eye to the lawlessness of the line, the city garnered substantial revenues by occasional crackdowns on the brothels. One raid resulted in fines totaling nearly $2,000. Police action in July 1917 led to the arrest of 150 women. Though Pensacola never officially licensed its brothels, the occasional fining of proprietors and residents placated the powers that be.
At the start of World War I, Florida governor Sidney J. Catts prompted city officials to close down the red light district for the duration of the war. The government was concerned for the health of its military personnel. Fearing that the military might discontinue some of its operations in Pensacola, the city complied. The brothels reopened following the war but were closed again at the start of World War II. In March 1941, at the request of the military during national emergency, the 15 houses of ill repute that remained on the line were closed for good.