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Closing downtown's red-light line

The end of legalized prostitution in Juneau

Posted: November 20, 2011 - 1:00am
Alaska State Historical Library A headline from The Daily Alaska Empire shows the Line as top news.  Alaska State Historical Library
Alaska State Historical Library
Alaska State Historical Library A headline from The Daily Alaska Empire shows the Line as top news.

Mike Blackwell had an early introduction to Juneau’s dark side. As a 14-year-old in 1952, he used a hand truck to make deliveries of prescribed medications, cigarettes, candy and magazines for Professional Pharmacy. The drug store was located at the present day site of the Lucky Lady, a bar on South Franklin Street. Just around the corner, on Ferry Way, was Juneau’s largest, and city regulated, whorehouse.

When Blackwell made deliveries to this house of “ill-fame,” he was often invited into the lounge for a minute of chitchat with the girls.

“I usually went by around 4 p.m., which was probably slack time for them because I never saw any business transactions. The decor was early 20th century, the wallpaper red and the upholstery velvet. It was just like the whorehouses you see in the movies,” said Blackwell, 73, a retired geologist.

In 1954, territorial officials in Washington, D.C. ordered an end to legalized prostitution in Alaska and the string of brothels on South Franklin Street, known as “The Line,” closed down. However, a question lingered as to whether The Line had ever really closed. Two years later, in August 1956, that question exploded like a fake cigar in Juneau’s political face when Juneau Police Chief Bernie Hulk resigned his position, accusing the mayor and city council of condoning prostitution.

Mayor M.L. “Molly” MacSpadden called Hulk’s accusations baseless and sensational and the city council refused Hulk’s resignation, ordering him to explain his charges before the council in a public hearing. The controversy rocked Juneau and provided the city’s two newspapers, The Daily Alaska Empire and The Juneau Independent, a weekly, with 10 days of front-page headlines.

A large crowd packed the council chambers and overflowed into hallways for the hearing. In an effort to capture the drama and tension of the moment, the Juneau Independent used a style of writing unusual for newspapers, the present tense. “A reporter strides in and starts taking flash pictures, this way, that way, pop, pop.” read the story.

The testimony during the hearing was described by an Empire reporter as a “dizzy, meandering ride through several tunnels of confusion.” An account of what was going on behind the scenes will clear up some of the confusion, but first a look at the story as it unfolded before the citizens of Juneau.

Standing before the boisterous audience in city hall, Hulk recounted a visit he and MacSpadden made to what Hulk called a “former” house of prostitution. “Two women were present. The mayor said the City Council is going to open up The Line and we would have from two to four girls operating in the city of Juneau.”

Hulk then added that he objected when the mayor told the girls they would not pay protection to the police. “[MacSpadden] made it look as if protection might have been paid before,” said Hulk, who had been chief of police since 1948.

After making his statement and without taking questions from the city attorney, Hulk strode out of the meeting to “frenzied and prolonged applause,” said the Juneau Independent. MacSpadden made several attempts to call Hulk back but “Bernie [Hulk] keeps right on going out the door,” said the Independent.

MacSpadden now turned to the audience and said Hulk had not told the whole story. MacSpadden said he had explained to the women that although prostitution might solve some of Juneau’s social problems it would be impossible for city council to open up the red light district because it was against territorial law. “I told her, ‘You’ll not report to any policeman or pay any police protection. If it comes to someone making a complaint we’d have to close you up,’” stated MacSpadden.

A woman in the audience, Edna Polly, stood up and said, “Seriously, is there any member of the council who didn’t know that when The Line was closed that these women stayed here? I am just an old lady and I knew,” she said. Polly then addressed the mayor saying, “I quite agree with Mr. Hulk. If you don’t do something about it, you condone it.”

The hearing appropriately ended on a final note of a subterfuge. One of Juneau’s more colorful political activists, Lloyd “Kinky” Bayers, stood up and said, “I don’t think this prostitution thing is the big issue; there is another trouble here: that’s influence.” Bayers then outlined a series of incidents in which politicians used political influence to fix traffic tickets and drop charges for a favored few, often businessmen.

Bayers, a born rabble rouser, was there to defend Hulk and to stir the pot; he knew his audience that night. His comments on political favors for businessmen touched a nerve, reminding the gathering of their own sense of social status. For most of the audience, Hulk represented the common man and they loudly applauded Bayers.

Although the testimony recounted here only mentions a fraction of what was said, the tunnels of confusion have been many. First, there was MacSpadden’s and Hulk’s visit with prostitutes which begs explanation in a number of ways. Then there are references to what are best described as subplots: the mayor’s hint that the police are taking bribes and Bayers’ comments on prostitution not being the real issue.

Obviously there was more going on here than just ineptness, and to make some sense of it all, it’s necessary to look at the history of prostitution in Juneau and Alaska.

Historically, prostitution had long been an important part of Juneau’s social and economic fabric. “Prostitutes were great about investing in the community,” said Leal Morgan, author of “Good Time Girls,” a history of prostitution in Alaska. They spent their money locally, took up collections to support families in need, and staked a lot of businesses said Morgan in an interview with January Magazine. In small towns, prostitutes were an economic force and politicians didn’t mess with them, continued Morgan.

Well into the 1950s, red light districts in Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg and Wrangell competed to bring in miners, loggers and fishermen to their respective communities. And “girls” is a misnomer. As Morgan pointed out, most prostitutes in Alaska at this time were between the ages of 45 and 55.

MacSpadden gave a frank explanation of the politics behind prostitution in Juneau to the editor of the Independent, George Sundborg. “Quite a few businessmen in town — and businesswomen too — felt that a regulated Line would be good for business. They blamed the difficult business conditions last winter on the absence of a regulated line,” MacSpadden told Sundborg.

This in part explains why MacSpadden was speaking out of both sides of his mouth during his testimony. To the business community he was, in effect, saying, ‘I was willing to look the other way until Hulk mucked things up.’ For the U.S. Marshall, who was threatening consequences for city officials not in compliance with the law, MacSpadden was saying, ‘I told the girls prostitution was now illegal and we would not condone it.”

The City Council, MacSpadden said, was unanimous in feeling that an open Line would take the pressure off young teenage girls who were now being plied with liquor by men seeking their favors.

But the key twist in this story was something MacSpadden only hinted at in his conversation with Sundborg. Earlier in the year, the council told Hulk it wanted more police on the streets at night. Hulk ignored this and other recommendations. By spring the dispute had evolved into a full-blown power struggle. Rumors reached MacSpadden that Hulk had collected voluntary letters of resignation from most of his police officers meaning that if Hulk was fired or quit he could take the whole department with him. MacSpadden countered by hiring two officers with qualification to take Hulk’s place as police chief. Hulk, who was not talking with reporters, likely decided to go out on his own terms and resigned, accusing the administration of condoning prostitution. If Hulk actually had his officers’ resignations in hand he didn’t play that card.

Bayers was right, prostitution wasn’t the big issue, it was a ploy in an internal power struggle and a scandal only in that the mayor, city council, police chief, not to mention much of the town had been caught looking the other way. An Empire editorial summing up the hearing said the real issue was neither prostitution nor influence but who controlled the police department, Hulk or the administration. In this case Hulk would not prevail. Councilman John Callahan brought the hearing to a close by saying, “Let’s get to the business at hand. I move to accept the resignation of Chief Hulk, effective immediately.” The motion passed 3-2 with councilmen Callahan, Harold DeRoux and Howard Simmons voting yes and Dave Reischl and Robert Stutte voting no. John Graf was absent.

As for MacSpadden’s hint that the police were on the take: that appears to have been one more ploy. Nothing was said at the hearing or in the newspapers about police corruption. Doug Boddy, 83, who had joined the Juneau Police Department a few months prior to Hulk’s resignation, said, “I know that Bernie Hulk was friendly with a lot of those gals but as far as taking bribes, I have no knowledge of that and never heard that.” According to both newspapers Hulk served Juneau honorably.

• Endnote: My father, Vern Metcalfe, periodically worked for the Juneau Independent in various capacities during the 1950s. As far as I can determine he was not writing regular news stories or editorials during the hearing.

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