New book sheds light on history of city’s red light districts

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June 6, 2013 // UPDATED 9:54 am - July 2, 2013
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Penny Petersen was out for a bike ride and came across a building in the Mill District that seemed out of place.

The unique architectural style of the building struck her as unusual for the neighborhood. Her curiosity led her to the city’s inspections department to check building records for the property. She discovered it was a bordello — the only one that has been spared from demolition in the city, according to Petersen’s research.

The discovery sparked 13 years of research into the city’s old red light districts — a largely forgotten slice of Minneapolis' history. Petersen, a local historian and researcher for a historical consulting company, is out with a new book, “Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront.”

The book focuses on the madams who ran their brothels essentially out in the open. They were regularly fined by the city, but largely left alone to run their prostitution operations and amass substantial fortunes for women of their time. She examined real estate records and other legal documents left behind by the women.

“We deserve a complex civic history that gives voice to a class of women who engaged in a morally problematic lifestyle and an account that does not hide the stark economic choices faced by women in the nineteenth century,” Petersen wrote in her book.

The madam who owned the building at 212 11th Ave. S. — the sole surviving structure in the city that once housed a brothel — went by the name Ida Dorsey, an African American who was tied to one of the city’s most elite families. Today the building is home to apartments.  

She was the first madam to open a brothel along the 11th Avenue red light district, which allowed regulated prostitution from 1890 to 1910, according to Petersen’s book.

Dorsey was described as a beautiful woman with impressive business savvy.

“If Ida Dorsey was alive today, she might have been running a Fortune 500 company,” Petersen said in a recent interview. “She was clearly very smart.”

The city had two other main red light districts that sprung up before the one on 11th Avenue. The Main Street district on the river’s east bank had brothels along Main Street near East Hennepin from the 1870s to 1905, and the 1st Street District had bordellos along 1st Street between 2nd and 3rd avenues. One of the most high-end brothels was located where the Post Office is today.

City leaders were often hypocritical when it came to dealing with prostitution. On the one hand they disliked the idea of having a system of open prostitution in Minneapolis, and on the other hand, they didn’t want to lose business to other major cities that had brothels.

“Like many other 19th century cities of any size, they both wanted this trade here, and they didn’t want it,” Petersen said.

It was more difficult to find stories about the women who worked in the brothels since they didn’t leave behind paper trails like the madams. Women had few rights and virtually no economic power at the turn of the century.

The madams, however, were a rare exception. The most powerful ones left behind rather large estates for their family members.

The men who frequented the brothels came from all walks of life.

“It [wasn’t] just lonely lumber jacks,” Petersen said. “It was all sorts of guys, and they weren’t all single — in fact, a lot of them weren’t.”

Petersen is making an illustrated presentation about her new book June 27, 7 p.m., at the Mill City Museum. She’s also hosting a biking tour to visit the city’s old red light districts on July 21 for the nonprofit Preserve Minneapolis.