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Sinners and Saints - Part 06

Vice and Reform in Kansas


"Houses of prostitution are advertising themselves, by open doors in some of the most public streets of our city, prostitutes in half nude forms take their morning airings under the eyes of many of our most respectable citizens and flaunt the indicia of their 'trade' in all public places and gatherings."
-- W. E. Stanley, Sedgwick County Attorney, 1877

Prostitutes in a Junction City brothel.

Many American citizens were concerned about prostitution in their towns. As early as the 1820s, moral reform societies began targeting prostitution in eastern states.

Although often an uncomfortable subject, prostitution is a part of Kansas history. Women hovered around military forts, trading posts, mining camps, and cattle towns to sleep with men in exchange for money. Prostitution allowed women to escape what they saw as more undesirable and underpaid work as laundresses, maids, and factory workers.

In Kansas cattle towns, where there were few families and many men were just passing through, prostitution was more tolerated because of its role in the local economy. City governments profited from prostitution by fining the women and the brothel owners or operators. The "sporting woman" also was seen as a necessary evil since she attracted potential business.

No doubt some military men from Fort Riley visited prostitutes in nearby Junction City. The photo above depicts two young women enjoying drinks in an unknown sporting house in Junction City.

A Kansas  prostitute.

Depositions from Prostitutes

The following short excerpts were taken from testimony given by Wichita prostitutes in a 1887-1888 grand jury investigation. These depositions were taken to determine if prostitution was taking place at the Richey House and Riverview Hotel, among others.

Myrtle Rapp

I have been at the Richey House one night, about three weeks ago. I staid there over night with a man. Was shown to a room by a hack driver and an old man. Staid all night. The old man saw me. Do not know the name of the man who slept with me. When I came into the room, he was sitting on the edge of the bed. The old man and the hack driver went to the room with me. Man paid hack driver $5.00 to bring me there.

Millie Wright

Have been at the Richey with men. Staid over night. Paid the money to [clerk] Smith. He is pimping for the House. Paid $1.50 per day and gave one-third of what I made to the House. I am satisfied that Richey knew the character of our business.

The Social Purity Movement

Tolerance of prostitutes waned after the 1880s and 1890s as families began to settle in and domesticate frontier towns. Reformers were particularly concerned about keeping families together and safe from the evils of society. Purity leagues were formed around the country to discuss (among other things) what to do about prostitutes and other "fallen" women. These leagues attempted to close brothels and rescue "fallen" women. They also used a number of tactics, ranging from prayer to the threat of public exposure, to persuade men to lead pure lives and avoid prostitutes.

Dairy barn at State Industrial Farm for Women, Lansing, where women with venereal disease were imprisoned.

By the turn of the 20th century, prostitutes were seen less as an economic necessity and more as a threat to the moral fabric of society. Prostitution threatened the health and hygiene of the state, particularly through servicemen who were contracting venereal diseases at an alarming rate.

During World War I venereal disease among servicemen was a serious problem. Women flocked to the military camps to be near husbands or to secure employment. Others came to work as prostitutes. Syphilis and gonorrhea became widespread, costing the army in terms of lost time and medical treatment.

To help deal with this problem, the Kansas legislature passed Section 205, a 1917 law legalizing the quarantine of thousands of men and women with venereal diseases. More women were isolated than men; many, but certainly not all, were prostitutes.

The 1917 state quarantine law authorized the imprisonment of women with venereal disease (V.D.) along with other female criminals at the State Industrial Farm for Women in Lansing. Far fewer men were isolated at the men's prison, indicating that the government believed V.D. was largely a female problem. These women were kept busy learning and performing household chores, such as running the farm, dairy, laundry, and kitchen. The photo above shows women outside the Farm's dairy barn.

Officials believed the skills and discipline learned would benefit these women when released. However, few willingly sought low-paying jobs in domestic service or farm labor if they could find anything better. Some returned to prostitution. Despite only moderate success, the quarantine law remained in effect until 1956.

View a timeline on prostitution in Kansas.


Sinners & Saints is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History.

  1. A Moral and Pure Society - Creating better communities was the goal.
  2. Alcohol - The politics behind alcohol reform.
  3. Agitate, Educate, Organize! - Women's role in prohibition laws.
  4. Gambling - Betting men took money away from their families.
  5. Gambling Timeline - Kansas issues.
  6. Prostitution - Seen as threatening the moral fabric of society.
  7. Prostitution Timeline - Kansas issues.
  8. Smoking - Cigarettes were believed to corrupt youth.
  9. Smoking Timeline - Kansas and U.S. issues.
  10. Vice in the 20th and 21st Centuries - They're still vices, but now the issue is health.
  11. Kansas Reformed? - The definition of "vice" has shifted over time.

Contact us at kshs.kansasmuseum@ks.gov