How a Presbyterian minister won the battle over prostitution and police corruption in the late nineteenth century.
In the Gilded Age (1870s-1890s), prostitution was the most pressing social problem of the day, and nowhere was the battle between morality and licentiousness more pitched than in New York City. There, several organizations and individuals strove to ameliorate the pervasive sense of lawlessness and immorality that allowed prostitution to flourish. One man—Presbyterian minister Dr. Charles H. Parkurst—took on the fight and became, through determination and courage, the victorious leader of the anti-vice movement of the late nineteenth century.
Parkhurst’s Anti-Prostitution Passion
Upon first glance, Charles Parkhurst did not appear to be the fire-and-brimstone type like his contemporary, anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock. Classically educated, bookish, and even-tempered, Parkhurst seemed almost too intellectual to take on the vast, street-level prostitution and vice operations that surrounded his pulpit in Madison Square Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. But Parkhurst’s church lay in the middle of the notorious Tenderloin district—the red-light district of Gilded Age New York—and he witnessed the sexual transactions and commercialized vice from its front steps.
By 1892, Parkhurst had seen enough of the “fallen women,” their pimps and procuresses who held them in sexual bondage, and the police collusion which kept open the many houses of assignation in the Tenderloin. He launched a plan to expose the vice activity in his neighborhood and the corrupt police force that protected it.
The Famous Ruse
On March 11, 1892, Parkhurst and two associates disguised themselves as “sporting” chaps out on the town and visited the suspected house prostitution owned by Hattie Adams on West 27th Street. The men asked for the “circus” of the house, and were joined by seven women in a game of naked leapfrog. Parkhurst was stunned by the brazen sexuality on display, and hurried home to compose the next day’s sermon, revealing the sordid and depraved lives of prostitutes and police collusion necessary for their existence.
“To say that the police do not know what is going on and where it is going on, with all the brilliant symptoms of the character of the place distinctly in view, is rot,” Parkhurst said in his sermon. Parkhurst persuaded officers to raid Hattie Adams’ parlor and arrest the procuress. In the ensuing trial, Adams was found guilty of operating a house of assignation and sentenced to nine months in prison.
For Parkhurst, the Adams case was a twofold victory. Not only did he succeed in holding up Hattie Adams as an example of the wages of sin, but he also exposed—through later sermons and trial testimony—the awe-inspiring web of police corruption that had allowed Adams and others like her to operate brothels without fear. Parkhurst’s information was used as the basis for the 1894 New York State Senate commission’s investigation into NYPD corruption and policy dealers (a.k.a. gamblers who ran illegal lotteries). Known as the Lexow Commission, the investigation reached the lowest of street-level swindles to the highest offices of law enforcement. Many lower-ranking officers were dismissed as a result of the investigation, but some higher-ups were allowed to retire with full pensions.
After the Lexow Report
After the Lexow committee wrapped up the investigation, Parkhurst continued to pursue vice and corruption from his pulpit, and other anti-vice groups, such as the Committee of Fourteen, carried on his work. Parkhurst retired from his pastorate in 1918 at age 76, an eminent figure in the city’s war on immorality. In fact, one of his descriptions of the vice-ridden city is still used today—to Parkhurst, New York in the Gilded Age was like “hell with the lid off.”
- New York Times, “Dr. Parkhurst Speaks Out,” March 14, 1892.
- New York Times, “Dr. Parkhurst Dies of a Fall in Sleep,” September 9, 1933.