On Purity Sunday 1917, 300 sex workers marched to the Central Methodist Episcopal Church in O’Farrell and Leavenworth. When a curious crowd gathered, they requested a meeting with the man who had made it his life’s work to drive them out of San Francisco: Rev. Paul Smith.
For months, the 41-year-old pastor has been giving lectures at sold-out places with 7,000 or more people and railing against female “entertainers”. In his pulpit he was bold and accusatory. But he was visibly shivering at the hundreds of working women.
“I don’t know your purpose in coming here,” he said. “I am ready to hear you, but I have to limit the meeting to 20 minutes.”
Smith asked two tenderloin policemen to guard the doors, perhaps for the safety of the women or rather for his own. Then he gave the floor to a woman named Mrs. Gamble.
What followed was the worst half hour of his life.
By 1917, San Francisco’s infamous Barbary Coast was in its death spiral.
The anti-vice campaigns by preachers like Smith swept the city and found widespread popular support. Along with the moderation movement (which was only two years away from a statewide alcohol ban), they aimed to clean up the streets of San Francisco and eradicate its harsh reputation.
“San Francisco has a very bad reputation abroad,” complained California Methodist Bishop Adna W. Leonard in 1917. “It is known as modern Babylon.”
A frequent target of anti-vice sermons was the city’s many sex workers. It is likely that thousands of women have participated in some form of sex work, from sex for money to a “cafe entertainer,” essentially a woman who drank and danced with men in nightspots.
A 1917 synopsis from the San Francisco Examiner described a reporter’s cafe-hopping adventure. “[Our] An independent research that showed the downtown cafe is the slimy center of all the radiant evils discovered by Church investigators, ”the newspaper wrote breathlessly.
The slimy evils included: 42 unaccompanied women who drank gin fizzes, whiskey highballs and fancy cocktails in the peacock room, sold alcohol without meals, and women danced with strangers. A horrified headline read: “WOMEN FREE WITH SMILES.”
That same day, Rev. Smith gave a speech to a large crowd at the San Francisco YMCA in which he rebelled against any woman who had an afternoon sip.
“If there are women who insist on afternoon drinking in public, I would seriously suggest that we set up bars for them that don’t have curtains or stained glass windows but are open to where the whole world can see them and them blame them for the moral standard of their behavior, ”he said.
That weekend, Smith and a number of other local pastors announced that they would be holding “Purity Sunday” to further pressure city officials to arrest or otherwise displace those they considered undesirable . When Reggie Gamble and Maude Spencer, owners of a Mason Street brothel, got wind of the opportunity, they decided to plan their own event. Together, the two women gathered over 300 sex workers who had pledged to march to Smith’s Tenderloin Church and tell their side of the story for the first time.
San Francisco’s quiet, ecclesiastical crowd was thrilled to see hundreds of white and black women march through the city streets. They wore their Sunday best: fox skins, neatly cut coats, and hats trimmed with flowers. When they arrived at Smith’s Church, Gamble stepped forward as the group’s designated spokesperson. After Smith nervously told them they had 20 minutes, Gamble took his pulpit.
“I want to ask first,” she began. “How many women in your church would take us into their homes, even to work? They would drive us out – where to? There is not one of us here who does not give up this life for decent work. “
“Every woman here has at least one child,” she said, and ran her hand to the benches filled with women. “We are against walking on the streets and the life we lead, just as you are. But what are you going to do about it? “
Smith, who had complained about sex workers for years without ever bothering to speak to one, shivered.
“This is the saddest moment in my life,” he stammered. He asked how many women did sex work because they couldn’t survive on the wages of another job that was available to them. Each woman raised her hand. He asked how many would be willing to work for $ 10 a week, which is $ 200 today. The women laughed at him.
Gamble told him that she knew about a teenage girl who was making $ 25 a month from her hotel job. “How long will this little girl stay clean with a mother and little sister to support them?” she asked for thunderous applause.
Some of San Francisco’s infamous Ladies of the Barbary Coast, sex workers who lived and worked in the city’s many brothels. This photo was taken in the 1890s.
Caught flat-footed, Smith tried a new tactic: diverting the blame. “There are a lot of things I would like to solve,” he simulated, “but I’m just a poor person.” He suggested that perhaps his church could help provide basic needs and protection for women.
“Yes, but your parishioners wouldn’t let us stay with their daughters,” replied one woman.
Gamble took back the floor. There was a mother of four at her home, she said, who recently fell ill. The woman wrote to her brother, a Methodist preacher, asking for his help. He refused and wrote back to her: “Trust in the Lord.”
“You say, ‘I don’t want these women in my church. My church needs to be clean, ”said Gamble. “Christ did not say that to the Magdalena.”
“You and your people say, ‘Our boys need to sow their wild oats. ‘All right, you see the oatmeal harvest in front of you. “
If Smith’s flock were true Christians, they would teach their boys and husbands to respect women. “It is the men who preach morality and contribute to churches who receive support from women who are paid wages that drive these women here into the life they lead,” she said.
Then the women in the pews began to share their testimonies with Smith. They talked about sick children, horrific living conditions and brutal work that they constantly feared for their safety.
“I know, I know, I know,” he muttered to everyone as they spoke. “I feel for you.”
Reporters noticed the frustrated women visibly rolling their eyes and shaking their heads. They got up and left, one at a time. Eventually, Gamble seemed to give up too. Before leaving, she turned back to Smith, who was now almost alone again in his temple of hypocrisy.
“Before you go to the vice meeting tonight,” she said, “try to figure out what will become of us.”
If Smith thought at all, he decided against taking care of her. At the vice-meeting he was raging against women again, and soon the Barbary Coast would be gone.
Thanks to the pressure exerted by the religious and social elites in San Francisco, the police took action against the “vice” districts. They carried out night raids and increased patrols on the streets. “We can’t chloroform all prostitutes or keep them in jail all the time,” said Police Commissioner Theodore Roche at a community meeting, but they tried their best. With the Red Light Fighting Act, the city closed its brothels and sex workers scattered on the streets, making their lives even more dangerous and unstable than before. Rev. Smith won.
As for the women who marched to his church, their fate remains a mystery. Only Gamble was cited by name, and it is not clear what became of her after the brothels were closed. Some say she became a traveling preacher, which, given her strong testimony that day, would have been a fitting linchpin of her career.
We know more about Smith. In 1918 he made the leap to Hollywood and served as the inspiration and creative advisor for a dramatization of his fight against the Barbary Coast. “The Finger of Justice” was a modest success, but Smith’s Hollywood career was not. Soon after, he fled the industry and went into construction.
Smith died in Los Angeles in 1936 at the age of 60. Every obituary mentioned his war against the San Francisco sex workers. His Los Angeles Times obituary entitled “Crusader’s Career Ends” summed up his struggle as follows:
“The campaign peaked when 400 women from the Barbary Coast marched into his church while he preached and said, ‘What about us? We have to make a living.’
“As he looked down over the Magdalenes Congregation, he whispered hoarsely, ‘God knows!'”
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