A 1917 ad for the Green Mill. Committee of Fifteen investigators found the dancing at the club to be “highly suggestive,” noting “many women were smoking.” Credit: Uptownhistory.compassrose.org

In the late evening of July 10, 1919, two men walked into a saloon at 3156 W. Lake, asking the bartender if there were “any ‘skirts’ around.” The bartender replied that they should come back in 30 minutes. Upon their return, two women at a table in a rear room beckoned them with the greeting, “Hello, kids.” After a round of drinks, the women introduced themselves as Loraine and Marge, who “solicited both of us to prostitution for the sum of $5″—an amount that, when adjusted to inflation, comes to about $127 today. “They said that they had to be careful where they ‘jazzed,’ and for that reason they would jazz us in Garfield Park or a taxicab.”

As it happens, the two men weren’t looking for a good time in Garfield Park. They were undercover investigators reporting to the Committee of Fifteen, a private anti-prostitution organization. Founded in 1908, the group came into prominence during the debate whether to close the Levee, Chicago’s notorious red-light district north of Cermak, between Clark and Wabash. Surrendering to public opinion, Mayor Carter Harrison ordered in November 1912 that the Levee, with its wide-open houses of prostitution, be shut down. The Committee of Fifteen was determined to make sure that commercialized vice did not return to the Levee or spread to other neighborhoods.

On the board of the Committee of Fifteen were the heads of Chicago companies such as Sears, First Bank of Chicago, and Quaker Oats. Samuel P. Thrasher, a publicity-savvy New Englander with a background in combating vice, was hired as superintendent. The committee didn’t concentrate its efforts on instituting a state minimum wage as a means of discouraging women from sex work, as other anti-prostitution activists had advocated. Rather, the committee “directed its efforts chiefly to the work of destroying marketplaces for traffic in women,” forwarding evidence to prosecutors and publicizing the worst offenders to pressure politicians.

The committee didn’t partner with the police. Instead, Thrasher sent investigators to hunt for “houses of ill-fame” throughout the city. These were not churchy sleuths writing down the addresses of houses that looked dodgy. “She wore a pink silk kimono, exposing her entire body to us,” an investigator wrote of a resident at 4021 S. Calumet.

Their field notes record the asking price for sex acts (often using slang terms such as “jazz” or “French”), the names and descriptions of “inmates” (sex workers) and “keepers” (madams or pimps), and other details that might aid in future prosecutions, such as the sale of alcohol or the presence of children. They also kept notes on cops. “A policeman stepped in this place for a minute and then the woman in charge told us not to fear him because she pays him and he would protect us,” one investigator wrote about a house in South Chicago.

Though mostly straightforward and repetitive, their field notes on occasion allow glimpses into the backgrounds of sex workers in Chicago. An investigator reporting at 644 N. LaSalle on September 7, 1918, wrote that the keeper “tells me that her home is in Saint Louis; that her dead sister was a nun.” An inmate named Dolly “works in the basement of Marshall Field & Co . . . Dolly’s husband has gone off to war.”

At the Empress Hotel in Englewood, investigators checked in and told the proprietor they wanted to bring up two women who weren’t their wives, asking “how to work it so we would not get in bad if the police came in.” She replied that she would put them in two rooms connected by a door.

In addition to visiting “disorderly” saloons like the one at 3156 W. Lake, Thrasher’s men ran up tabs at cafes, cabarets, and dance halls. Investigators wrote up night spots visited by unaccompanied women drinking, smoking, dancing suggestively, or using vulgar language.

Freiberg’s—a dance hall owned by Ike Bloom, a vice lord during the Levee’s heyday—set patrons up with dancers, who would order drinks. “Between each dance girls would walk around [the] dance floor singing, the people sitting around at tables would toss coins to them,” one investigator wrote in August 1917. The shoulder strap of one dancer “slipped down exposing her right breast, the man she was dancing with held her tightly against himself.” An entertainer at Freiberg’s offered to have sex with another investigator for $5. She explained she wasn’t allowed to solicit at work, but she could do as she pleased away from her job, which paid $15 a week.

Though typically working in the safety of pairs, investigators sometimes felt threatened. One enforcer told investigators, “[I] know who you—are, you are Thrasher’s men, and I am going to kill you both.” They escaped with a warning not to be caught investigating the south side.

The buddy system also afforded some protection against temptation. The field notes on occasion show that working in pairs helped investigators find excuses for leaving when they were pressured to sleep with sex workers. One investigator resigned after catching his superior making out with a woman who was not his wife during work hours. Of the five men who can be identified as investigators between 1915 to 1920, all were married.

The First World War was a boon to the Committee of Fifteen. The federal concern of keeping soldiers and sailors sober and free of venereal disease resulted in a five-mile vice-free zone radiating from the Federal Building at Dearborn and Adams. Within this zone, brothel keepers faced harsh penalties. Throughout the city, the sorts of hotels and clubs that antivice advocates despised came under significant pressure.

But by 1923, the committee had suffered a number of humiliating setbacks, undone by the sort of corruption it felt it was above. Thrasher’s extravagant praise of chief of police Charles Fitzmorris alienated antivice critics of police inaction. The discovery that Thrasher had concealed large donations from Fitzmorris triggered a run of resignations from his board. The operator of one south-side brothel testified that Thrasher’s chief investigator had tried to shake her down for protection. Another investigator on his rounds in the Black Belt intruded in a domestic dispute involving a woman he erroneously presumed to be white. He shot a Black man who asked to see his badge. Although the killer had been a recent hire, investigators had, in their secret notes, long expressed contempt for racial mixing on the south side.

By the time of Thrasher’s death in 1925, the committee had lost much of its power. It finally closed shop in 1951, claiming vice was at an all-time low. v

The records of the Committee of Fifteen can be found at the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.