A Progressive Era commission investigates vice, 1914

Prostitutes' testimony (Milwaukee, July 13-18, 1914)

In 1913, the Legislature established a committee to investigate the causes of prostitution and other vice in Wisconsin. Chaired by Sen. Howard Teasdale (1855-1936), it sent questionaires to officials throughout the state and held hearings in many cities. During those hearings it questioned working women about their lives, asked religious and civic leaders about vice in their communities, and consulted experts about how to reduce or eliminate the suffering caused by prostitution, alcoholism, and other social problems. It even sent undercover investigators into brothels and taverns around the state, before it issued its final report in 1914. Teasdale's investigation produced hundreds of pages of first-hand evidence about Wisconsin women whose lives otherwise went largely undocumented. Selected photographs from the commission's files are online at Wisconsin Historical Images.

In the July 1914 Milwaukee hearings linked below, committee staff questioned several madams and prostitutes about how they got into "the sporting life" and what caused men and women to engage in it. Although some of the exchanges are hostile and some witnesses uncooperative, most of these dialogues are marked by frank answers and unabashed honesty, and virtually all of them preserve the voices of women largely erased from Wisconsin history.  Note: this testimony contains no graphic descriptions or obscene language, though certain of the women justify their lifestyle in terms that  that may offend some readers' moral values.

Related Topics: The Progressive Era
The Birth of the Labor Movement
Creator: Wisconsin. Legislature. Committee on White Slave Traffic and Kindred Subjects.
Pub Data: Unpublished manuscript in the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives: Wisconsin. Legislature. Investigations, 1837-1945. Series 173, box 19, folder: "Exhibits... Milwaukee"
Citation: "Milwaukee Hearings, Pt. I (July 13-18, 1914).affic Wisconsin. Legislature. Investigations, 1837-1945. Series 173, box 19, folder: "Exhibits... Milwaukee." Online facsimile at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1568 Online facsimile at:  http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1568; Visited on: 4/13/2024