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A group of people, including minors, in a saloon dance hall at 2 a.m. in Milwaukee, May 3, 1914. This image was used as exhibit 71 in the Teasdale Vice Committee Investigation. WHS Image ID 64974
A Group, Including Minors, in a Saloon Dance Hall, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1914. WHI 64974

The 1913 Teasdale Vice Committee Investigation

About the Collection

The Teasdale Vice Committee collection displayed in this gallery includes some of the photographs used as exhibits in its 1913 vice investigation, including images of dance halls, saloons and wine rooms. Some of these photographs were taken by Homell Hart. The Milwaukee City Club Committee of Public Recreation and Public Parks collected the other images while documenting recreational facilities, recreational opportunities and potential undesirable conditions for children from 1913 through 1917. Images include views of dance halls, carnivals, children playing in the street, swimming pools, penny arcade machines and recreational outings, including hiking and Boy Scout activities. These images supported part of the Committee's final report, which cited improved social and recreation centers for youth as an indirect means of eliminating vice in the state.

A Crusade Against "Social Evil"

The crusade against "social evil" that was part of the Progressive Era's reforming impulse inspired investigations like the Teasdale Vice Committee Investigation of 1913 in Wisconsin. Between 1910 and 1915 no fewer than 30 cities in the United States conducted full-scale vice investigations and published reports. At the center of the Progressive ferment, Wisconsin's Linley Law, combined with agitation for reform, resulted in the creation of a special joint legislative committee for the investigation of "white slave traffic and kindred subjects" in the spring of 1913. The Legislature allotted the committee $10,000 and appointed Senator Howard Teasdale, a resident of Sparta, as chairman.

The other members of the committee took a less active role in the investigation compared to Teasdale, and the press began to refer to it as the Teasdale Committee. Teasdale began the investigation by writing to nationally known vice investigators asking for advice about methods to use and studying the reports and publications of the other vice commissions. The committee sent questionnaires to 71 Wisconsin district attorneys inquiring about "moral conditions, the problems of enforcement and prosecution, the relation of drink and dancing to sin, and like matters," with similar questionnaires sent to each mayor in the state. In addition, Teasdale hired private detectives to act as undercover agents to investigate vice in 35 towns and cities in Wisconsin during the winter of 1913-1914. At least five detectives were supposed to "compile a comprehensive report on white slavery, prostitution, gambling, and miscellaneous sin in virtually every municipality in the state."

Discovering "Infernos of Sin"

The investigation discovered 48 brothels (21 of those in Superior) and 440 other places of assignation such as parlor houses, roadhouses and saloons. The committee held public hearings in January 1914. Most of the witnesses denied that commercialized vice existed or even stated that it was a necessary evil, but Teasdale wanted to learn more about the problem and "legislate it out of existence." The investigation focused on the forces that drove young women into a life of "debauchery and sin." Reports described dance halls and palm gardens as "infernos of sin," however they also showed that low wages and alcohol were the real contributing influences, as many young shop and factory girls lived on the edge of poverty and the profitability that a life of vice could offer created a powerful temptation.

The reports compiled by the investigation also shed light on wages and working conditions, municipal corruption, venereal disease and conditions in saloons, wine rooms and palm gardens throughout the state. The Report and Recommendations of the Wisconsin Legislative Committee to Investigate the White Slave Traffic and Kindred Subjects, published in late 1914, recommended the establishment of a juvenile morals court in Milwaukee and a state department of police, the appointment of policewomen to look after women and minors, the founding of an industrial home in which to rehabilitate prostitutes, and the creation of better parks and recreation facilities for the young.

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