MendoHistory

A History of Ukiah’s Infamous Tribute to the ‘Ladies of the Night’

MendoFever was graciously provided the following article and photographs by Alyssa Ballard, the archivist, and historian at the Historical Society of Mendocino County.

The history of the Ladies of the Night plaque:

In August 2021, Ukiahans celebrated the return of a well-loved plaque that has been an object of curiosity in Ukiah’s downtown for decades. The plaque reads, “To the Ladies of the Night Who Plied Their Trade upon This Site” and its new home is on the southwest corner of Church and State Streets. Last December, the owner of the building had the plaque removed from its original location a few yards west on Church Street. With the return of the plaque, many are still left wondering how the plaque got there in the first place and who were the ladies it commemorates?

The plaque was placed by Ted Feibusch in the late 1970s. Feibusch was a local contractor, city councilman, and Ukiah’s mayor for a brief period. Some even jokingly called him “Ukiah’s one-man redevelopment agency”. Throughout the 1970s Feibusch renovated several historic buildings in Ukiah’s downtown including, the Republican Press building (104-106 N. School Street), 111 W. Perkins St. (now Schat’s Bakery & Café), the McKinley building (200-202 S. State Street), and the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph building (189-199 S. School Street). At some point during the renovation of the McKinley building in 1976, Feibusch was researching the building at the Held-Poage Research Library (now called the Historical Society of Mendocino County) and discovered a notorious brothel known as Irene’s place was once located just west of his building. He decided to have a plaque made to commemorate those “ladies of the night” and mounted it to a rock that sat just outside the entrance of the McKinley building on the Church Street side. The brothel was originally located just west of the rock.

Following California’s gold rush in the mid-1800s, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the newly formed state, the majority of which were men. It took little time before members of the world’s oldest profession followed. Mendocino County was no different. As logging camps and towns sprung up, so did bordellos, bawdy houses, houses of ill-repute and ill-fame, chippy houses, and brothels. For some women in the trade, it was a choice, but for many economically and socially oppressed women, it was a necessity. Prostitution was one of the few professions open to women at the time, and for many, it was their only means of survival. Many women, especially women of color, were forced into the trade through kidnapping, trafficking, enslavement, and indentured servitude.

Prostitution was no secret and there were few attempts to hide it, but as towns became further established, and more women made their way out west, the social hierarchy and strict moral codes of Victorian society followed. Additionally, the Temperance Movement, which aimed to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol, was becoming a mass movement. Supporters of the movement saw alcohol as the root of numerous social problems plaguing the nation, particularly the decay of the home and family which Victorians cherished as their foundation. Thus brothels that offered alcohol, gambling, and sex went against everything Victorian society valued (chastity, modesty, prudence) and became targets for eradication.

By the turn of the century, groups of local citizens and politicians concerned about what they saw as moral decay in society began to make some attempts to control the trade in Mendocino County. Fort Bragg passed an ordinance in 1889 that made it a misdemeanor to operate a “house for ill-fame” within the city limits. Years later the city’s Board of Trustees instructed the Marshal to notify the “inmates” of the houses of ill-fame that they needed to keep their curtains down and doors closed so as to not expose themselves to view. In 1891, a petition circulated in Ukiah demanding the Board of Trustees do something to remove the houses of ill-fame or at least crack down on men that hang around to drink and gamble in said houses.
One of the most popular ways to control brothels was to attempt to prevent their proprietors from renewing their liquor licenses or to deny them a license altogether. This was a common inconvenience for two of Ukiah’s most notorious madams Hattie Rivington and Irene Dale as their renewals were often contested. Neither Irene nor Hattie participated in the women’s social circle of Ukiah. This was quite normal because madams and their “ladies” were simply not welcome. It has been said that it was quite ordinary to see Hattie or Irene’s ladies ride around town in elegant horse-drawn carriages dressed to the nines.

The best photograph we have of the building, c. 1917. It was likely a private dwelling at this point and the photograph was taken from Perkins Street looking south through a building (now Schat’s) that was nearly destroyed in the 1917 fire.

There were multiple brothels in Ukiah but Irene’s place was well-known and located on Church Street right behind the City Hall and fire department, located on the SE corner of Church and School Streets at that time. There are plenty of rumors about the operation; many are about various tunnels that connected several downtown buildings to the brothel. What we do know is the building was owned by Dan Gobbi and was labeled as a “female boarding house” on the fire insurance maps. Allegedly, the building was already being used as a female boarding house when Gobbi purchased the lot from E. W. King in 1896. When a destructive fire ripped through Ukiah’s downtown in 1899 the Ukiah Republican Press reported the “maison de joie” owned by Dan Gobbi was destroyed; so it was no secret. Gobbi built a new brick building almost immediately. Dan Gobbi died in 1905 and the property was passed to his daughter Katherine. The brothel likely closed at that location sometime between 1905 and 1911 when the building was listed as “Sample Rooms” on fire insurance maps. The building was converted into a private dwelling and briefly occupied by the Vallette family before it was sold to the Magulas in 1923. The Magulas tore the building down and built the three-store building we see today.

An 1898 Sanborn fire insurance map shows the original wood structure located mid-block on Church Street.

In many rumors and stories, the McKinley building is often linked to Irene’s place because the second floor was originally used as a boarding house. However, the McKinley building was not built until 1908 so there was only a year or two where they existed at the same time. It cannot be ruled out, but the frequency in which the upstairs was used for said activities was likely no different from any other boarding house or hotel in town and I have yet to find any reliable historical evidence of it being used in this way.

The Historical Society of Mendocino County, located in Ukiah, California, is a non-profit that collects, preserves, and shares the diverse history of Mendocino County. On-site is the Toney Archive, where the collection is stored, and the Held-Poage Memorial Home, which will soon be a historic house museum. Email: mchs@pacifc.net, Phone: (707) 462 – 6969 Address: 100 S. Dora St. Ukiah, CA 95482.” We are also fundraising to digitize our collection. This is the link to our fundraiser: https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/historical-society-of-mendocino-county-digitization-project

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