San Diego prostitutes after the Stingaree shut down

Lyle Guthrie knew the 1930s tenderloin

Stingaree, 1924. The Stingaree flourished because it was the first U.S. port of call sailors reached after rounding Cape Horn.
  • Stingaree, 1924. The Stingaree flourished because it was the first U.S. port of call sailors reached after rounding Cape Horn.
  • Image by San Diego Historical Society

"Little lady,” the Chief [of Police] replied, ‘you’re going to find out that every town has got more than its share of Holy Joes — men and women who have nothing better to do than stew about the morals of other folks. Every once in a while some crusader comes along, starts preaching about sin. Before you know it, all the Holy Joes are screaming the cancer of vice destroying the town. They preach sermons, make speeches, write fiery letters to the editor, sign petitions, telephone the mayor, threatening to have his scalp at the next election. Pretty soon the politicians are scared, and I get a phone call suggesting that I close down Miss May’s house until the heat’s off. So, I raid the house, keep it closed for a few weeks, and the Holy Joes are happy again until the next time some crusader crawls out of the woodwork.”

About 1935, the era of the beat cop ended. “When they put us in patrol cars, that personal touch was lost."

About 1935, the era of the beat cop ended. “When they put us in patrol cars, that personal touch was lost."

Pauline Tabor, writing of the 1930s in Pauline’s: Memoirs of the Madam on Clay Street.

Once upon a time, San Diego was a sexual paradise (for men, anyway). “Cathouses” were clean, efficiently managed, and cheap. “Girls” were friendly, well adjusted, and respected.

Cops ensured that the technically illegal sexual traffic was conducted in an orderly manner. Was this during the celebrated, commercialized “Stingaree” days? No. This was around 1929, and Lyle Guthrie had just become a San Diego police officer. His beat was called “South Six”: from Second to Seventh, between F and Market. Before Guthrie was a cop he had spent four years as a Marine MP, so he knew the area he’d be flatfooting was the tenderloin.

What makes Guthrie’s contentions unusual is that in official San Diego history — the version one reads in old newspaper clippings and books of bawdy anecdotes — prostitution ceased to exist here after the great Stingaree raid of 1912.

The subsequent destruction of the waterfront red-light district — for the sake of the public health — was instigated by a plumbing inspector named Walter Bellon.

But San Diego was just following a national trend, which saw social reformers pressing for “red-light” districts to be shut down and eventually replaced with “tenderloin” areas.

The distinction between the two terms is important.

A “red-light” district is a segregated area where prostitution, and perhaps liquor and gambling, are officially tolerated. (Some claim the phrase comes from the practice of railroad workers leaving their red signal lamps on the porch of the brothel they were visiting.) The later “tenderloin” districts were not officially sanctioned but were allowed to exist, provided law enforcement was sufficiently recompensed. “Tenderloin” derives from the gourmet diet a cop working such a district could afford. “You had to know everybody, and everybody had to treat you like a king,” Lyle Guthrie recalls.

At 86, you can still see traces of a handsome devil in Lyle Desmond Guthrie’s ravaged face. When we meet, he is wearing short blue shorts and a maroon T-shirt with his name embroidered on the breast. One of his tapering fingers is encircled by a Marine Corps ring. The Clairemont tract house he shares with his second wife is littered with the accoutrements of advanced senior citizenship: walker, cane, jumbo television turned up too loud, pill bottles, and a musty, mentholated smell. Bare-breasted ladies painted on black velvet line the hallway.

When Guthrie joined the police force back in ’29, his superiors explained to him that sex was “nice and necessary” but needed to be kept quiet. “If you legalize prostitution,” Guthrie contends, “you open a whole Pandora’s box.” If it’s illegal, he reasons, you can hold the threat of jail over sex workers’ heads to keep them in line. You keep it discreet and low-key, you keep out pimps and organized crime, you keep the price reasonable, you control the spread of disease.

Thomas Faulconer, a former police reporter for the Union Tribune who died in 1984, left an oral history of his memories with the San Diego Historical Society. He tells the story of one Victoria Fabre, a Mexican girl working here. She was repeatedly detained for solicitation and often picked up on “drunk and disorderly” charges. Once arrested in the ’20s for ripping the pocket off a policeman’s pants, she was hauled before a Judge Anderson.

“Why do you persist in this behavior?” the judge demanded.

“Judge,” Fabre replied, “if you were hungry and you had a million dollars’ worth of something, wouldn’t you peddle a little of it now and then?”

The persistent question, “What should be done about prostitution?” is no longer understood as a moral dilemma. The public is now concerned with the spread of AIDS, as well as prostitution’s association with organized crime, violence, and the economic exploitation of women by male customers and pimps. Ironically, some social reforms were originally intended to protect women from exploitation.

After the Civil War, reform movements around the country agitated for an end to prostitution, pornography, and saloons and to raise the age of sexual consent (at the time it was as low as seven in Delaware). Attempts at regulation, rather than abolition, were fashionable in Europe, but they failed here, as the city of St. Louis discovered in 1870.

Congress began to legislate protections against sexual exploitation in 1874, as the result of public outcry over the selling of Chinese women. Addendums to the Congressional Act of 1874 in the first years of this century culminated in the now-infamous Mann Act, a passed in 1910, which added heavy penalties M for trans- | porting a woman across state lines “for immoral purposes.” In 1917, the Mann Act was extended to include noncommercial sex; thus promiscuity became legally equivalent to prostitution. By 1920, habitual fornication was a crime in 20 states, and in 16 of those, a single act was enough for a conviction.

But juries proved unwilling to convict for illegal fornication, so prostitutes continued to be punished while their customers went free. Lower-class prostitutes were often picked up and arrested, while the mistresses of the affluent were ignored. Statistics compiled from San Diego Police jail registers of the 1920s show that black women were more likely to be arrested on prostitution-related charges than white women. They were also charged $6 more in fines, on average, per arrest.

In 1944, the Mann Act conviction of two Nebraska brothel owners (who had taken a couple of prostitutes on vacation to Yellowstone National Park) was overturned. The Court held that the expedition had been a pleasure trip. But in 1946, the Mann Act was used to convict a polygamous Mormon, and the Supreme Court upheld the decision.

As Midwestern madam Pauline Tabor observed of the era: “Many of the gentlemen who snubbed me in public were patrons of my house.... Many of the public officials who cried out the loudest against vice were the first in line to accept supposedly ‘soiled money’ in return for closing their eyes to the vice against which they crusaded. In time I learned to ignore the barbs of a disapproving society, and I was able to laugh all the way to the bank.”

After the Stingaree was destroyed and before World War II changed everything, San Diego maintained an unwritten code regulating prostitution. All city authorities, Lyle Guthrie claims, were in agreement about these rules. Unfortunately, this claim cannot be documented. Police jail registers for the 1930s have been lost or destroyed.

However, romanticized accounts of the Stingaree days are still being written.

The Stingaree — a corruption of “stingray,” the poisonous sea creature then abundant in the bay—is depicted as a “colorful” and “naughty” place, filled with laughter and “painted ladies.” Within the district, bordered by First and Fifth Streets between H and K, were saloons like the Old Tub of Blood and the Seven Buckets of Blood; brothels known as the Cozy Cottage; and “cribs” called the Green Lantern. There were opium dens and gambling halls. The "sporting ladies” were known by randy sobriquets — French Liz, Tamale Fanny, Big Helen, Dutch Annie. Ida Bailey, now immortalized on the lounge windows of the Horton Grand Hotel, ran the Canary Cottage on Fourth between I and J. Mamie Goldstein ran the Turf on the northeast comer of Fifth and J. By covert agreement with law enforcement, denizens of the Stingaree “district” didn’t leave the area; bicycle messengers were sent out for food and clothing.

The Stingaree flourished because it was the first U.S. port of call sailors reached after rounding Cape Horn. During the periodic closures of Los Angeles’s red-light district, San Diego’s Stingaree gained even more popularity.

A joke about local brothels appears in several archival accounts. Nearing San Diego Bay, a sailor’s first sight was the onion-shaped dome of Katherine Tingley’s Theosophical Society, jutting from what was then the barren ridge of Point Loma. Aboard one Navy cruiser, a young swabbie asks another, “What’s that?”

His friend says, “That’s Madame Tingley’s place.”

“Wow!” says the first. “They really do it up in style in San Diego, don’t they!”

Plumbing inspector Bellon described the Stingaree’s buildings as rickety waterfront shacks infested with rats and vermin, without light or ventilation or indoor plumbing. Likewise, the “cribs” — low, one-story buildings divided into dozens of tiny bedrooms — were dark, unventilated, and without plumbing. (A few years later, Bellon saw that the buildings were destroyed. He retired a public hero.)

Despite public pressure to close down the Stingaree, it survived for several decades. The late Elizabeth MacPhail, a San Diego historian and attorney, attributed this to the power of early landowners, who earned substantial income from their Stingaree properties. In September and October of 1912, San Diego papers were full of front-page articles recording the public call to close down the Stingaree. The impending Panama-California Exposition, which would bring thousands of tourists to San Diego, put additional pressure on police chief Keno Wilson. An advocate of regulation rather than abolition, Wilson eventually bowed to the will of an ad hoc Vice Suppression committee.

Raids were conducted on the morning of Sunday, November 10. Arrests numbered 138 women; 136 of them bought train tickets out of town (many of them round-trip, according to later reports), and two agreed to “reform.” In May 1913, sailors aboard several warships voted 797 to 17 to leave San Diego and make San Francisco their liberty port, despite assurances from a Dr. Charlotte Baker of the Purity League that public dances with young ladies and chaperones could be arranged. Many of the Stingaree’s remaining saloons closed for lack of business.

Sadly for the swabbies, San Francisco did not remain a pleasure trove for long. From 1913 to 1915, San Francisco attempted to regulate prostitution by creating a Municipal Clinic for the Prevention of VD. Prostitutes were examined every four days. The city became publicly identified with immorality. Petitions to end regulation triumphed; the clinic closed. In 1917, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and Los Angeles’s red-light district were both shut down.

Some prostitutes relocated to Tijuana and Mexicali after the Stingaree raids. Census records at the historical society indicate most prostitutes working in the border towns were Caucasian. Among those who did return to San Diego, some set up shop in unincorporated areas of the city, neighborhoods such as Mission Hills or at the end of the trolley line in what is now City Heights. The Japanese Tea Gardens, located on El Cajon Boulevard past College Avenue, was one such establishment.

“Prostitutes, Progressives, and Police: The Viability of Vice in San Diego, 1900-1930,” an article written by Clare V. McKanna, Jr., in the winter 1990 edition of the Journal of San Diego History, provides most of the available data on post-Stingaree prostitution. McKanna acknowledges the fallacy that prostitution was abolished in 1912, but he maintains that politicians, reformers, and police made attempts to control prostitution in San Diego as late as 1938. Lyle Guthrie believes the attempts to suppress prostitution were, in fact, willful failures.

Lyle Guthrie and I sit on bar stools in his kitchen. Guthrie traces the grid of downtown streets on the Formica countertop, a historical dot-to-dot of Vice. He sets the scene: San Diego, a sleepy town in the Depression. Streets lined with Packard sedans, maybe a Pierce-Arrow, a Dixie Flyer, a Durant, some Studebakers, Ford models “T” and “A.” Diners offered ham, eggs, fried potatoes, toast, and coffee for 35 cents. Thousands of young men, drifters, roamed the streets for work. (The cops would give them a free meal and pack them off to the Second Street jail on vagrancy charges for a warm night’s sleep. In the morning they’d get breakfast, a court appearance, and a “floater” — “Be out of town by 5 p.m.!”

An unnamed source quoted in a 1989 San Diego Union column estimates that about 40 brothels were operating in San Diego during the Depression. This is consistent with Lyle Guthrie’s memory. At Sixth and G was the meat market where the red-headed butcher “would trade a prime T-bone steak for a prime piece of ass.” At Fifth and F, George in the XX Loan Shop fenced hot jewelry on the side. The busiest whorehouse in town was the Minneapolis Hotel on Fifth. Three more small cathouses were located on F, another three on Fourth, two on Sixth — all with three girls. There were three more houses at Fourth and Market. The Regal Rooms, at Fourth and J, were popular because “the four or five girls working there were supposed to put out exceptionally nice pieces of tail.”

Raymond S. Hindman, whose memoirs were recorded by the historical society, worked a number of odd jobs at downtown businesses in the ’20s and ’30s. He recalls that the Douglas Hotel and Nightclub, at 206 Market Street, was owned by a black man named Al “Sunny” Ramsey. By 1924, it was the best-known black jazz and entertainment venue in town. Mr. Ramsey also ran the Yesmar Hotel (Ramsey spelled backwards) on Third. City directories from the ’30s list the two establishments alternately as hotels or “furnished rooms.” Mr. Hindman recalls that Mrs. Ramsey, “a redheaded negress,” ran two “sporting houses” at Third and Island, one of them known as the Rita Rooms. Sunny Ramsey was allegedly the “King of the Coke Fiends,” supplying “snow birds” from as far away as Los Angeles with cocaine, morphine, and opium. His residence at 15th and I Streets had several entrances, including one underground.

Mr. Hindman’s transcript also claims that prostitution existed here within a controlled district, that there were very few street-walking hookers, that prostitution was virtually invisible to the general public, and that the girls “never bothered anybody.”

There were two or three brothels on B Street, a couple on State, a few on India. Logan Heights had one- and two-girl shops on National Avenue and Main catering to sailors from the 32nd Street Naval Repair Station. Black-and-White cabs shuttled between them; drivers knew where the whorehouses were. When prohibition was passed in 1920, brothels gained the added attraction of being sources for bootleg whiskey and “Dago Red” — Italian red wine. A cabbie named Pete could put his hands on a quart of Gordon’s dry gin for you, too.

The prostitutes had wholesome names: Marge or Mabel. City directories for the ’30s list professional “massage” by women with names like Betty, Velma, Sadie, Hazel, and Lottie. (By the mid-’40s, women advertising massage or “furnished rooms” in the city directory had more suggestive handles like Madeline LaRue.) According to Guthrie, the johns were sexual rubes, who took the straight missionary at a flat rate of $3 ($2 if there was no madam around to demand a cut) and accomplished their objective in 15 minutes. “The girls — we didn’t call them prostitutes or whores — were not like prostitutes as we know them today. They were psychologically sound. They dressed and talked like everyone else. You’d take ’em out fishing with you, out to do things on the weekends. See, in those days we liked our girls to be virginal and chaste. Those were the days of ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls.’ So young men would go see prostitutes instead of putting pressure on nice girls.

“Back then, if an unmarried girl got pregnant, her life was ruined. There was no birth control to speak of. Everyone knew who to contact to ‘take care’ of the problem, but it was coat hangers in back alleyways, or Tijuana. Usually, if a girl got pregnant, she’d be packed off to the aunt in Iowa. The baby would be put up for adoption.”

Lyle Guthrie recalls some tricky situations in his attempts to arrest girls for solicitation. He would loiter about on a likely street. A girl would approach him. In those days, the girl would ask, “Wanna have a good time?” He’d ask her how much and if she had a room. She’d take him to her room. Once inside, she’d lock the door. He’d surreptitiously reach his hand behind himself to unlock it, so his partner could burst in and make the arrest. Then he’d have to stall until his partner arrived. “I’d say, ‘Well, I’m not ready yet I like to talk a little first.’ So we’d talk a little. Then she’d try to unbutton my fly. I’d say, ‘I like it when a girl takes her clothes off first’ So she’d take her clothes off. If my backup still didn’t come, I’d say, ‘Thank you, but I’ve changed my mind,’ and bolt out the door!” He laughs in a quavery old-man’s voice.

Prostitutes in 1930s’ San Diego were required to submit to a medical examination every 60 days. If a woman was infected with a venereal disease, she was placed in an isolation ward run by the health department in Mission Valley, near where the Department of Animal Control is today.

Citizens didn’t balk at the expense, Guthrie claims, because the prostitutes paid for most of it out of their own pockets. “We’d stage raids,” Guthrie says. “All our raids were staged. We’d notify the papers in advance, have them at a convenient hour in the afternoon before the Tribune and the Sun went to press. And to be fair to the morning paper, the Union, we’d have evening raids sometimes, too. We’d run the girls in, charge ’em under the local ordinances, rather than the federal law, take a bail of $50 from each one. That $50 went straight to the health department for them.” San Diego Police jail registers record most prostitution arrests under vagrancy charges, with the keeping of a disorderly house and illegal fornication ranked second and third.

“It was my job to get to know everyone on my beat,” Lyle Guthrie recalls, “that way I’d know everything that was happening.

So I’d talk to everyone. I’d go in and have a cup of coffee, sit for a while, and one of the girls would come in and sit with me. We talked about current events, football, baseball. We didn’t talk about prostitution. First thing, though, I’d ask to see her certificate, make sure it was valid.”

By the ’30s, the few “cribs” remaining from the Stingaree days were residences for low-income Chinese. Most brothels were unadorned rooming houses. Guthrie recalls that it was so common to find prostitution in rooming houses that those where sex was not sold posted signs reading “No Girls Work Here.”

Some of the downtown brothels were second-floor hotels. As a client mounted the stairs, an electrical switch hidden beneath the lower step would ring in the madam’s rooms upstairs, indicating a visitor. Girls generally worked in rotation. When a girl was up, she greeted her client at the top of the stairs, wearing a wrapper. She led him to her room, examined his penis for signs of disease, opened her wrapper and lay back on the bed. Afterward, the girl washed the client with warm germicide-laced water and soap, dried him, saw him out the door and prepared for her next client.

She gave a dollar of her fee to the madam. Call girls sometimes gave cabbies or bell captains a dollar if they referred customers, although the vice squad considered this pimping. Guthrie says vice cops would “convince” any man they caught receiving a whore’s take not to persist If each girl kept $2 of every trick, paying the police $50 a month was a considerable share of her earnings. In return for this fee, she received “protection” — or at least she was not harassed.

Lyle Guthrie contends that “if a girl ever stole a buck from a guy, she’d never stick around. We’d throw her in jail. We’d hound her until the court either threw her in county jail for six months, or we gave her a ‘floater’ out of town. Very rarely did we have problems with johns. The madam and the other girls would be right there. We had a few calls when a john got drunk. We’d throw his butt in jail.

Just for being contrary. He hadn’t done anything I could charge him with.” If some kind of assault had taken place, it would be up to the madam to press charges or not as she saw fit.

Guthrie says the vice squad required laundries to report the number of towels used by each cathouse in a week. Since the girls used one towel for each customer, this enabled police to estimate the volume of business per house. Madams had to obtain vice squad approval before hiring more girls; the towel count gave police an idea of how “legitimate” the request was.

Competition between bordellos was fierce, Guthrie claims, and girls who weren’t good in bed didn’t last long.

As a quality control measure, or perhaps to curry favor, madams would occasionally ask non-paying male friends to “test out the merchandise.” Municipal Court Judge Phil Smith, Guthrie says, was particularly fond of providing this service.

Some bordellos served a specialized clientele. On India Street, one house served men in the automobile trade, which was centered in that area. Girls worked from eight to six on weekdays, had evenings and weekends off. A girl named Marge ran the place, Guthrie recalls. She was a 28-year-old Mormon from Salt Lake. Her dream was to own a beauty parlor. Renting her body was a way to make the money quickly. Unwilling to scandalize her Mormon friends, she’d| come to San Diego to profit off the military.

“I thought all I’d have to do,” Guthrie recounts Marge telling him, “was to fuck men, and I knew and liked doing that. I never imagined for a moment I would have to do all the things men want me to do, or I wouldn’t have been so anxious to be a whore.”

To build up business. Marge offered new customers a free trick for every referral they sent her. She had to hire two girls to manage the volume of business this generated. After two years she sold the establishment to her colleagues and returned to Salt Lake.

San Diego never really had famous madams who ran houses that became social clubs. Prominent local men did, however, use madams’ rooms for private poker games. Girls would hang around and serve drinks in high heels and teddies, always ready to slip next door with players between hands. Other than Judge Smith, Lyle Guthrie won’t name names, for fear of wounding these men’s descendants.

About 1935, the era of the beat cop ended. “When they put us in patrol cars, that personal touch was lost, which was tragic. I was on the police downtown. Car 21. I was right in the middle of things. Sometimes you’d arrest as many as 25 drunks before your shift ended. The only slow time was between two and five in the morning.

The same year, police headquarters moved from Second between F and G to 14th and Pacific Highway. Bail bondsman Johnny Allen maintained an office across the street. “He always had girls around to entertain his customers,” Guthrie chuckles. “They’d sit in the front office. If Johnny had a good friend or a potential customer come in, he’d ask her to show the fellow ‘the new furniture’ in the back office.”

The “Portuguese White House,” a two-story single-family residence on Columbia near Beech, was reserved for Italian and Portuguese fishermen and businessmen who lived in the neighborhood. Lyle Guthrie recalls that the madam was gorgeous, in the style of Marlene Dietrich. She didn’t rent out her own body. She had three “very pretty and shapely” regular girls at all times. Three more filled in when business was brisk or the regulars couldn’t work. “We never forced her to abide by the $3 price tag for nookie,” Guthrie admits. “I never really knew what she charged.”

The madam’s refusal to “put out,” as Guthrie calls it, caused a great deal of rancor among her clients. She resisted every offer. “In desperation, they solicited the police lieutenant in charge of the vice squad to threaten her with closure if she [continued to resist).”

The Italian and Portuguese wives of the fishermen hated the madam, says Guthrie. If she left her house during daylight hours, the women would run out to shove her and pull her hair. To avoid confrontations, she walked her dalmatian early in the morning. Sometimes Guthrie would visit with her during these strolls. He told her about the customers complaining to the vice squad.

Hearing this, the madam imposed a moratorium on sex at her establishment. The clients could visit, drink moonshine or “Dago Red,” play cards, gamble, even talk about sex, but the girls were off limits. After two months the fishermen surrendered.

In addition to madams and girls in brothels, Guthrie remembers a number of call girls. Guthrie claims every night clerk at every hotel — from the Maryland to the St. James to the U.S. Grant to the El Cortez — knew girls a guest could shtup for a price. There were also “private” girls, who owned or rented single-family residences close to downtown, where they maintained prestigious clienteles. These girls usually took one customer between 9 a.m. and noon, another between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Organized crime tried to move in in the late ’30s, says Guthrie. “It had to be somewhere around ’37 — 1936 or ’37. We had a mayor elected, Councilman Dougherty, who put a police chief in. The vice squads told the madams that they were going to take instructions from so-and-so, and a guy would come and try to buy her lease. She’d say no, and so — I’m ashamed to say this — but the vice squads would be at her place every night, and every man who went into her place would be arrested, and every girl who went in would be arrested for entering a house of prostitution. Several madams just refused. Others sold their leases to these people.

“Mayor Austin — he was a furniture dealer and a very fine gentleman. He and some other gentlemen businessmen decided we would recapture control. We elected Mayor Austin, and Harley Knox, I think. After that, things went back to normal.” According to police records, a series of raids were conducted in 1938. A hundred thirty-two men and women were arrested on morals charges.

The war effort brought renewed pressure on local law enforcement to abolish prostitution. The Marines built Camp Elliot in Kearny Mesa, the Army took over Torrey Pines and built Camp Callan. New recruits were everywhere. Consolidated Aircraft (later Convair) and Ryan Aircraft boomed. San Diego’s rapid expansion brought housing shortages, the need for new road construction, traffic lights, street lights.

In 1941, the Interdepartmental Committee for VD Controls set up programs to coordinate efforts against prostitution. Guthrie — by this time a police detective inspector — sat in on Wartime Commission meetings. “Those jerks told us the federal government would not give any money to this immoral city. They told other cities the same thing. The primary complaint was that prostitution was flourishing right under our noses.

We were to close down all houses of prostitution within 24 hours. We were to arrest any girl caught soliciting on the street. We were to tell each prostitute individually to quit wasting her energy on fornication and to present herself to Convair or Ryan and get a job.” According to a 1984 San Diego Union article, the federal government ordered brothels closed to protect GIs from disease.

The police did as they were told. According to Lyle Guthrie, “All hell broke loose.” The prostitutes sought rental housing in remote residential neighborhoods or took their trade to the cabs. Also, the city was blacked out, which didn’t help. Cabs would cruise for military men along C Street, past night spots like the Haffbrau at State and C. When a likely customer was spotted, the prostitute, who was sitting in the front seat, would open the cab door and lift her dress to show her wares. The sailor or Marine or soldier or aircraft worker would hop in the back and she’d join him there. The cabbie would cruise around in the darkness until the transaction was concluded.

Other prostitutes worked Balboa Park.

This was before Interstate 5 cut through it. The end of the park nearest downtown was around Cedar Street at Sixth or Seventh. Cabbies would pick up a carload of johns downtown and take them there, where the prostitute would be waiting, with a blanket.

Under the blackout, with thousands of military personnel on the loose and the police force seriously undermanned, the police department’s careful controls decayed. “San Diego was now an open city,” Guthrie says. “New girls came in from all over. We couldn’t keep up. If you gave a girl a floater, there was another to take her place.” When a brothel was shut down, another would spring up a few blocks away. Cabbies became pimps. The price of a lay was unstable and inflated — to as much as $20 for “a few minutes on a wet deck.”

An officer at the East San Diego substation named “Red” Armitage started a brothel. Some of Guthrie’s friends on the force, Charlie Dibbs and Clyde Freed, got wind of it. Armitage watched his own operation closely to prevent anyone from obtaining evidence against him. Guthrie enlisted a friend who drove the Old Town bus route to visit the establishment as a john. In front of Armitage, the man paid $5, then had his fun. With this evidence, Guthrie, Dibbs, and Freed went to chief of police George Sears. The next morning, the Chief gave Armitage the choice of either signing a letter of resignation and a complaint form charging him with running a house of prostitution, or jail. Armitage signed the letter.

The wartime explosion in population and industry changed San Diego forever. The police department’s covert regulation of prostitution was over.

Lyle Guthrie, who resigned from the police force shortly after the war ended, advocates a return to Depression-era reglementation. He deplores today’s “pornography, the cheap street hookers, the junkies, the homosexual love-spots in the park.” He blames it all on the absence of religion. “In those days, people were ten times more decent. We were ethical. We didn’t start locking our doors here until the ’50s! Even the hobo who came to your door you could trust!”


In his tract American Sexuality and the Ten Commandments of Prostitution, self-published in 1993, former San Diego Police detective-inspector Lyle D. Guthrie advocates a return to the regulations, outlined below, which he says governed prostitution in the 1930s. “We weren’t any smarter in those days,” Guthrie writes. “We were just more mature.”

  1. No working prostitute shall ever solicit sex and/or commit a sexual act on any public street or at any public location other than at her bona fide place of employment. Any prostitute shall have the right to refuse service to any man.

This prevented street solicitation and gave prostitutes recourse to the police.

  1. No prostitute shall ever commit or engage in sexual activity... at any location other than at her authorized place of employment...

This restricted prostitutes from setting up shop on their own, or moonlighting.

  1. No prostitute shall ever appear in public dressed, or act, or speak, in a manner which would clearly indicate her profession.

This regulation was further insurance against street solicitation.

  1. No male person may ever rent or own the premises, own the lease, or own any of the property or furnishings at any location which is authorized to operate and is used as an operating house of prostitution. Only females are authorized to rent, own, lease, and/or manage businesses which merchandise sex in any form. No individual madam or girl shall rent, own, lease, or control or manage more than one house of prostitution at any one time.

This prevented organized crime from getting a foothold in San Diego. It also prevented pimping and the creation of monopolies that might challenge police department authority.

  1. No house of prostitution shall be allowed to operate at any location which has not been approved by the police department.

This kept prostitution away from any location that might cause offense to the public such as military or naval installations, schools, churches, and residential neighborhoods.

  1. No house of prostitution... shall be allowed to operate on the street level of any building, nor shall any house of prostitution...use distinguishing lights, signs or gaudy decoration to indicate {its purpose).

This kept prostitution out of the public eye.

  1. No prostitute working in a house...which services [walk-in] customers without prior appointment shall ever charge more than $3, but may charge less, for sexual service. Call girls...may charge no more than $5 for each hour’s service, with a $10 ceiling on charges irrespective of the hours of number of services performed.

This ensured an affordable price and prevented prostitutes from taking financial advantage of any client.

  1. Every prostitute shall maintain for display, if requested, a certificate of health from an authorized doctor or health clinic or department which certifies her...to be free of any venereal or other contagious disease. Certification must be issued every 60 days. An invalid or expired health certificate shall be cause for immediate arrest...and justification for her detention for a health department examination.

This kept venereal disease “practically nonexistent” in San Diego, Guthrie notes. In the event of infection, a girl was removed to the County's venereal isolation ward in Mission Valley for 60 or 90 days.

  1. Every prostitute shall volunteer for arrest every ninety days as being an “inmate of a house of prostitution.” Every prostitute so arrested shall post a $50 bail bond which she shall forfeit without complaint. Madams shall similarly volunteer for arrest as “an operator of a known house of prostitution" without complaint and shall forfeit a $150 bond.

Thus prostitutes contributed to the medical cost of curing themselves of venereal diseases. Since prostitutes paid no tax or license fee to operate a brothel, this was the city’s method If of collecting taxes.

  1. No Madam or operating prostitute shall employ, service, or allow on her premises any person who is a pimp or is known to have ever been a pimp.

Guthrie writes, “A pimp who lives off the earnings of a woman’s vagina is about the lowest charactered person on the face of the earth.”

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