Of the hundred or so “establishments” that composed Lemont’s Smokey Row between 1893 and 1897, some called themselves saloons, clubs, gambling halls, brothels, or dance halls. Typically, in addition to liquor and gambling, women were part of the “trade”, and entertainment such as nude dancing was readily available and advertised.
Although tolerated for the income these places brought, Smokey Row was obviously not a source of pride in the community, and Lemont had little interest in recording or preserving its history. For this reason, I have no photo to post with this article, and not a lot is known about the establishments nor the women who worked in them. The women, and the saloons, also changed their names as frequently as they changed their clothes; nonetheless, a few stories have trickled down from the past.
On payday, when the workday ended, the tops of the workers’ heads could be seen bobbing along as they approached Smokey Row, and the competition for patrons began. Women didn’t wait for the men to arrive, but rushed out clothed in exotic dress—and a range of undress—to entice and latch onto a “gentleman” for the evening. Often the “ladies of the evening” fell to battling each other over patrons, sometimes in the front yard of a resident. The fun began before the establishments were even entered!
Hattie Briggs was over six feet tall, weighed 250 pounds, and her trademark dress was a long red coat. The cost of a prostitute in the house of ill repute she ran was only 25 cents, but she made her fortune by grabbing the patron, taking his money, and throwing him out the door. She kept her business going by paying protection to town officials. She was so successful that her friends flocked to join her, setting up their own businesses, resulting in increased rents in vacant buildings, so that honest businessmen profited from her trade too.
A middle-aged woman who called herself “Sarah Bernhardt” could best be described as “ridden hard and put away wet”, but was so popular among the patrons of Smokey Row that when she was arrested in one of the town’s infrequent raids, a mob estimated to be over a hundred men fought each other to post her bail.
On one of the raids, seventy or so women were arrested and put on a train to Chicago. Viewing the incident as a minor setback, feeling they could easily get protection from the mayor, they discovered him riding in their car, as he had been arrested too. (That would be Mayor John McCarthy, for whom McCarthy Road is named.) As it turned out, their confidence was warranted.
When the raid began, women streamed out of the saloons, running down the canal towpath in various stages of undress. Townspeople flocked out of their homes to view the excitement, and a crowd boarded a second train to Chicago, which actually arrived before the prisoners, who exited the train waving to their fans. A wealthy Lemont resident stood bail for all the Smokey Row residents, and by 1 am everyone was back in town, and back in business as usual.
The raids had been held at the prompting of Reverend Clancy in a struggle against immorality. In an effort to entrap him, a plot was devised by saloon owners to lure Clancy to the bedside of a young woman on Smokey Row on the premise that she was dying and wanted to repent. The idea was to either do away with Clancy or compromise him, but the kind-hearted prostitute yelled out a warning to Clancy in time.
Sort of sounds like the Wild West, right here in historic downtown Lemont, doesn’t it? But with our own unique flavor.
If you missed my last blog that introduced Smokey Row, please visit my web site, www.PatCamalliereBooks.com.
Much of the information in today’s blog was obtained from Sonia Kallick’s book, Lemont and It’s People.
Sonia loved Lemont and wrote articles about it for years, resulting in this book which is available at the Lemont Historical Society. It is an excellent, and often delightful, reference.
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