Love shacks in the Stingaree

San Diego's Chinatown and Stingaree District

Third and K, downtown, c. 1910
  • Third and K, downtown, c. 1910
  • San Diego Historical Society photo

No one knows who named the nine-block area, around San Diego’s original harbor, the Stingaree. But the name, from a raylike fish with stinging barbs, fit. The district evolved outside the law. Around the docks, wharves, and shanties built by itinerant fishermen, saloons sprung up, and houses of prostitution (often with “cribs, stables,” and “bullpens,” collections of small cottages in the rear), opium dens, and everything that comes with them: police raids, arson, and murder.

Some of the saloons and brothels were world famous, especially the Pacific Squadron, on the corner of Second and J, and the Dewey and Little Casino, at Third and I(sland). San Diego was also known, internationally, as a drug capital. Police gathered evidence that “numerous persons were coming from Los Angeles and elsewhere to obtain cocaine, morphine, and opium.” In the jargon of the time, visiting addicts were called “snow birds.”

The first raid on local “hell holes” came in 1885. Mayor Carlson visited the Casino Theatre, on Sixth below H, and the Weeping Willow, between Third and Fourth on I(sland). He found them “crowded with whites, blacks, Chinamen. Half-dressed and blowzy women…passed through the crowd and asked Tom, Dick, and Harry to set up the drinks.”

On February 9, 1885, the police raided and closed the Casino and Weeping Willow. In 1893, they closed the Silver Moon, corner of Third and I — “probably the worst corner of the Stingaree” — and re-closed the Casino and Weeping Willow in 1895. In spite of civic projects to reclaim it from corruption, by 1912, the district thrived: “Over 100 gilded palaces of sin were occupied by the demi-monde flaunting their vice.”

According to historian Elizabeth MacPhail, the Stingaree became “an area in a city where vice was allowed to be carried on openly, as long as the ‘sinner’ kept within the bounds of the restricted area.” By 1912 the Stingaree was “expanding, to the dismay of many citizens.”

Most police were reluctant to close the Stingaree. Their unstated reason: many were on the take. Their stated reason, the “Scatteration Theory”: prostitutes would scatter throughout the town, “merely decentralizing the problem.”

A second, unstated reason: “The Stingaree represented business, lucrative business, especially for those owning the land. Among the absentee landlords were some of San Diego’s most influential citizens.”

Reform movements — the Civic Purity League, in particular — urged to have all painted windows and screen doors removed from saloons. The Stingaree became besieged: “the fortress-like gambling rooms” reinforced their walls with two-inch planks that even 1000-pound bars of railroad iron couldn’t batter down.

Arguments raged on both sides. Mrs. Carleton M. Winslow, president of the College Women’s Club: “The proper instruction of our children in matters of sex hygiene is the only sane way to get at this problem…. The women themselves, or most of them, are beyond our help.”

Others suggested housing, in University Heights and City Heights, for the women, even employment. One idea, the Door of Hope facility, took a barrage of criticism because it would shelter “women of all races.”

On November 11, 1912, after giving ample warning of a raid (but no preparation for its consequences), the police stormed through the Stingaree at 6:00 a.m. They hit the Oasis, at 416 Fourth Avenue, then made wholesale assaults on 11 other establishments. They arrested 138 women. “All men caught in the raid were set free.”

The San Diego Sun questioned the effect of waking up 138 women and giving them 24 hours to leave town. “As a result of the move, San Diego women would probably be permitted to carry revolvers to protect themselves from insult from men on the streets.”

To enforce the purge, the City Inspector condemned all saloons and shacks that didn’t come up to code. On December 6, 1912, the wrecking ball razed much of the Stingaree. No one expected what they found.

“The structures were literally mazes of rooms. At Fourth and J, from the Pacific Squadron to Third and J, the Yankee Doodle Hall, narrow passages ran to a big inner court [with] one-story shacks cut up by devious alleyways so that each room had a window and a door. On many of the doors were name plates bearing Christian names of their former inhabitants: Sadie, Gertie, Virgie, Gwendolen, and Ethelryda. Not less than 50 rooms were found in the building on three lots.

“On one wall of one of the innermost rooms was hung a big illuminated copy of the Lord’s Prayer and in another a good photograph of Reynolds’ ‘The Angels.’ ”

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