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Dorsey, Ida (1866–1918)

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Image of Ida Dorsey’s bordello at 212 Eleventh Avenue South, Minneapolis. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user McGhiever, February 19, 2019. CC BY-SA 4.0

Ida Dorsey’s bordello at 212 Eleventh Avenue South, Minneapolis. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user McGhiever, February 19, 2019. CC BY-SA 4.0

Employing the racial prejudices and fantasies of elite male clients once used against her, Ida Dorsey established herself as one of the Twin Cities’ most notorious madams, running multiple brothels between the 1880s and the 1910s. As a woman of color in an industry dominated by white women, she demonstrated herself an adept businesswoman and real estate owner when most women had neither income nor property.

Ida Dorsey was born Ida Mary Callahan (alternatively ‘Ida Marie Callahand’) on March 7, 1866, in Woodford County, Kentucky. Little is known about her life prior to moving to the Twin Cities, though it is assumed that her mother had been enslaved and her father was white. She allegedly ran her first brothel (also referred to as a “bordello”) at the age of sixteen in Kentucky, though by 1886 she had changed her name and established herself in St. Paul at Fifth Street and Jackson Street.

Newspapers described Dorsey’s first establishment as “a very tough place” that catered to soldiers of color. Within the year she relocated to 125 Second Street North in Minneapolis, which served a more affluent and whiter clientele, allowing Dorsey a stake in the increasingly lucrative sex trade. Brothels were subject to segregation, and unlike others in the area that only employed white women, Dorsey employed seven to eight women of color.

Dorsey’s brothel was open only to white men, and she employed the racialized stereotypes projected onto her and her employees to corner a market for herself. Dorsey was selling her white clientele an “interracial sexual experience,” which was both exoticized and socially forbidden. Due to both Dorsey’s work as a madam and her race, she was targeted during raids, and in 1886 she was sentenced to ninety days in Stillwater State Penitentiary for running a house of prostitution and selling liquor without a license. Other madams were caught up in the raid with Dorsey, though the white madams were only fined. Dorsey was one of two madams jailed during the decade.

After being released, Dorsey moved her operation to 116 Second Avenue in the First Street Red Light District, which occupied the blocks between the Hennepin Avenue Bridge and what is today the Third Avenue bridge. Unlike her previous brothel, the First Street District catered to working-class men. The streets neighbored the train depot, and itinerant lumberjacks and laborers were the primary patrons. Her bordello was subject to relentless raids and fines over the next few years, though Dorsey and other madams used their infamous publicity to further market their businesses.

In November 1890, Dorsey built a new bordello on Eleventh Avenue South, allegedly costing her $12,000 to build and another $15,000 to furnish. She was one of the first to populate the new Eleventh Avenue Red Light District, a shift planned and established by the city’s madams themselves. The geographic containment of the red light districts demonstrated an agreement between city officials and the madams: vice was sequestered while the madams became some of the largest property owners in the area.

Due to the influence of Dorsey’s clients, her brothel was not subjected to frequent raids. She had a publicly acknowledged affair with Carleton Pillsbury, the nephew of flour miller Charles Alfred Pillsbury and the grandson of Minneapolis mayor George A. Pillsbury. After his death, Dorsey occasionally referred to herself as “Mrs. Ida Pillsbury.”

Tensions began to rise as early as 1907 against the toleration of prostitution in Minneapolis. Dorsey was subject to a vice raid and arrested in 1911. This brought her frustrations with the city to their peak, and on March 7, 1913, she relocated her brothel to 151 South Washington Street in St. Paul, a site previously owned by the madam Nina Clifford. Dorsey purchased the house from Clifford for $1,000 and paid a subsequent $3,000 to city officials to run her brothel without the previous hostilities she had faced. Nevertheless, the chief of police ordered all St. Paul brothels closed only months later, and Dorsey was forced to abandon her bordello. The pinnacle of her operations had passed. In her later life, she disregarded the sanctioned red light districts and laws and continued to operate smaller, clandestine brothels for a few years before her death in 1918.

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“19 Women Caught in ‘Old Line’ Raid by Sheriff Langun.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, December 13, 1911.

“Carleton C. Pillsbury Dies.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, August 27, 1910.

“Crimes and Criminals.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, March 22, 1886.

“‘Pay No Graft Money,’ Flanagan Told Woman.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, February 11, 1914.

Petersen, Penny A. Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

“ Protection Prices of Graft Ring Vary.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, January 31, 1914.

Related Images

Image of Ida Dorsey’s bordello at 212 Eleventh Avenue South, Minneapolis. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user McGhiever, February 19, 2019. CC BY-SA 4.0
Image of Ida Dorsey’s bordello at 212 Eleventh Avenue South, Minneapolis. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user McGhiever, February 19, 2019. CC BY-SA 4.0
A street scene of First Street South in Minneapolis, where the First Street Red Light District was. Photograph by C. J. Hibbard, ca. 1895.
A street scene of First Street South in Minneapolis, where the First Street Red Light District was. Photograph by C. J. Hibbard, ca. 1895.
Building at 220 Eleventh Avenue South, Minneapolis, close to Ida Dorsey’s Eleventh Avenue bordello. Photograph by Joseph Zalusky, ca. 1890s.
Building at 220 Eleventh Avenue South, Minneapolis, close to Ida Dorsey’s Eleventh Avenue bordello. Photograph by Joseph Zalusky, ca. 1890s.
A street scene at the intersection of Second Street North and Second Avenue North, Minneapolis, around the time that Ida Dorsey operated a brothel on Second Avenue. Photographer unknown, ca. 1912.
A street scene at the intersection of Second Street North and Second Avenue North, Minneapolis, around the time that Ida Dorsey operated a brothel on Second Avenue. Photographer unknown, ca. 1912.
Nina Clifford’s brothel at 147 South Washington Avenue in St. Paul, down the street from Ida Dorsey’s brothel at 151 South Washington Avenue. Photograph by A. F. Raymond, 1937.
Nina Clifford’s brothel at 147 South Washington Avenue in St. Paul, down the street from Ida Dorsey’s brothel at 151 South Washington Avenue. Photograph by A. F. Raymond, 1937.

Turning Point

In November 1890, Ida Dorsey becomes one of the first madams to build on Eleventh Avenue, establishing both the Eleventh Avenue Red Light District and herself as a businesswoman.

Chronology

March 7, 1866

Ida Mary Callahan is born in Woodford County, Kentucky.

1886

Dorsey opens her first Twin Cities brothel at Fifth Street and Jackson Street in St. Paul, catering to soldiers of color.

1886

Dorsey moves to Minneapolis, opening a brothel at 125 Second Street North.

July 1886

Dorsey is charged with running a house of prostitution and selling liquor without a license. She is sentenced to ninety days in Stillwater State Penitentiary; she is released after seventy-six days.

November 1890

Dorsey is one of the first madams to build a brothel in what is soon to become the Eleventh Avenue Red Light District of Minneapolis.

1910

Carleton C. Pillsbury dies. Ida Dorsey unsuccessfully attempts to make a claim on his estate.

April 10, 1911

Dorsey is arrested with other madams during an Eleventh Avenue vice raid, which ultimately led to the shutdown of the Eleventh Avenue District and the end of tolerated prostitution.

1913

Dorsey moves her business to St. Paul at 151 South Washington Street after much scandal in Minneapolis.

June 18, 1918

Dorsey dies of cancer at the age of fifty-two in Minneapolis.