Hats were a disguise for many women in the 1930s, creating a protective shield around her feminine innocence while at the same time allowing for curious–if not blatant–flirtation. In Fayetteville, at least for one madam who operated a house of prostitution three blocks from the town square, hats provided a useful cover. Advertising as “Cookingham Millinery,” Birdie Hickey set up residence at 115 West Spring where she housed several girls as well as a slightly older couple, the husband of which probably served as her bouncer/protector.
“In the 1930 census, she named her occupation as “manager.” One of the lodgers was her 33-year-old sister Norma Bigger. Other tenants included Robert Gholson, a restaurant manager, and his wife Rosa. Of particular interest are the other four other tenants: Pat Roberts age 24, Pat’s sister Laverne age 21, Nannie Morrison 23, and her sister Loretta age 19. Pat, Laverne, and Loretta claimed work as seamstresses while Nannie told the census collector that she worked as a telephone operator.”
There was nothing unusual about ‘public women’ then or at any time of human history. What was unusual is that Fayetteville’s newspapers, courts, and police pretended such unsavory activities did not exist within the boundaries of their lovely town. More to the point, parents sending their sons to attend college there must not be worried that their darling boys might be tempted into illicit bed sport. At least, that was the idea, an unofficial policy probably promulgated in private between town fathers, university leaders, and local law enforcement from the earliest days of the institution.
Meanwhile, Arkansas towns as near to Fayetteville as Eureka Springs and as far as Little Rock openly admitted the presence of prostitutes.
“Allegedly hosting as many as nineteen bawdy houses at one time, Little Rock passed its first ordinances regulating its prostitution industry in 1841. In 1875, the state granted local governments jurisdiction to deal with such thorny problems in A.C.A. §14-54-103, giving cities the right to “suppress bawdy or disorderly houses, houses of ill-fame, or houses of assignation.” By the turn of the 20th century, Fort Smith’s red light district hosted up to seven bordellos alongside gambling halls and saloons including a brothel owned by Belle Starr’s daughter Pearl which featured a “talented piano player, good whiskey, and ‘the most beautiful girls west of the Mississippi.’” Hot Springs, long known for its gambling and underworld associations, tolerated extensive prostitution; as late as the mid-20th century, the infamous Maxine’s Brothel operated in full view of the world. Even in the quirky village of Eureka Springs, the sex trade flourished through the late 19th and early 20th century. Today one of the town’s top tourist attractions is the 1901 Palace Hotel with a sign whose shape clearly announces the nature of its business.”
Evidence shows that Fayetteville’s police force routinely harassed, arrested, and jailed women for trading their bodies for money, but these transactions mysteriously failed mention in the news. Town folk were shocked, then, in 1935 when the police chief’s statement regarding such unsavory activities appeared on the front page of the Fayetteville Democrat. Under duress and the threatened loss of his job, Chief Neal Cruse rebutted accusations that he had failed to eradicate such practices from the town by citing four separate locations where he had ‘shut down’ the operations in question, among them Birdie’s “millinery shop.” Only one of the named ‘houses’ remains standing today, at 9 North West.
The circumstances leading up to this revelation involved illegal alcohol, a car theft ring, and the downfall of Fayetteville’s city attorney, among other things, all of it stirred with a big stick by reformers led by none other than the newspaper’s publisher and local society scion, Roberta Fulbright.
Details of this scandal are explored in depth in “Fayetteville’s Immoral Houses,” one of nine articles about local history in the recently released Second Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past.
To obtain your copy of this fascinating collection, visit Amazon. Only $11.95