The Deadly Saloon of 1905

Reading this piece of journalism from 1905 at face value gives a grim view of vice in Milwaukee. Looking back at the view the writer paints from today’s more permissive perspective makes his picture seem misrepresented. Some of the things “seen” at the saloon are obvious urban legends and symbols instead of real eye-witness accounts. It’s hard to believe anyone would seriously think children’s marbles would lead to a life of gambling or that coin-operated player pianos playing rag-time music were emblematic of the road to sin. The article continues to use almost every logical fallacy that exists in its argument to sway the reader.

Vice and crime had been a well-known part of downtown and the near south side for many decades prior to this. Areas of the fifth ward were written of as a “tenderloin district” in late 19th century news articles where even police would never go alone.

There are a few interesting things in the article that may need some explanation. The mention of the “arc light” refers to a short period after gas street lights were being replaced by electric lights. One experimental light source that was being tried around the country was the “arc light”. Milwaukee installed a few of these downtown and they were hung above the middle of an intersection by wires. The light was very bright, almost as strong as daylight. The down side was that the carbon filaments would have to be changed often. Once incandescent lights became more available and bright enough, they swiftly replaced arc lights.

The streets mentioned at the beginning of the article may be unfamiliar to some. Johnson Street is now East Highland Avenue and Oneida Street is now East Wells Street. Today’s popular Water Street bar area is a direct descendent of the old red light district.

The quote,”Milwaukeeans reluctantly accept the word of their worthy executive when he assures them that the district must be preserved to decrease crime,” refers to Mayor David Rose, whom some may have heard was soft on the enforcement of the red light district. Interestingly, his ideas had some merit. The push for national Prohibition many years later and strong enforcement of those laws through the 1920s ended up creating a huge organized crime network which caused many problems in Milwaukee and around the country.

The article below is from the Milwaukee Free Press of February 19, 1905.


It lies almost in the shadow of the city hall, within whose stately home walls sit men sworn to enforce the laws of the municipality, and others whose duty it is to dispense justice in accordance with the laws.

It is repugnant to many, this “Red Light” district, so called, with this whispered but unwritten stories of vice and of numberless men and women ruined through its influence. But the objection is of a passive sort. Milwaukeeans reluctantly accept the word of their worthy executive when he assures them that the district must be preserved to decrease crime.

For whatever reason it is allowed to exist, or encouraged to remain, the fact is indisputable that it is there. Its limits are not absolutely fixed, but in a general way it extends along the east river shore from Oneida street to Knapp street, on intersecting streets to East Water street, and in some instances Market street, and on East Water street from the city hall to Johnson street.

The outsides of its temples are there for the inspection of all. Children on their way to school look wonderingly at them. Mothers hurry past, amazed at the city’s shame. School boys, old enough to realize the conditions to some extent, smile knowingly at each other in secret. Half frightened at the thought, they plan to know more of the secrets within the walls when they are older.

As the first false step of the future gambler is often the simple game of marbles “for keeps,” so the comparatively innocent saloons on the outskirts of this district offer the first attraction to the curious youth of the city.

A cold winter night. The wind sweeps down the almost empty street. The arc lights send their bluish radiance to the pavement below, and it glints along the ice bordered car tracks. The creak and crackle of the trodden snow on the sidewalk beneath the feet of the lonely patrolman on his beat, tells as well as a thermometer of the bitter, biting cold.

At frequent intervals along the street, shafts of yellow light shoot out from half-curtained windows. From the bar rooms beyond the protecting glass, come sounds of music and maudlin laughter. Occasionally is heard the noise of voices raised in anger and then a loud commanding ejaculation that causes the arguments to cease.

It is in these places that men not unknown to the social and business world stand elbow to elbow with gamblers and others who have spent weary weeks in jail and prison; here, also beardless boys assume an air of wisdom to discuss the latest news of track and ring – with red eyed, bloated beings sunk deep in the dragging mire of dissipation.

Across the room from the polished bar and artistically adorned mirror with its border of sparkling glasses, back of the tables at which men talk in low voices or nod it drowsily over a half filled glass, is a piano with slot machine attachment. A nickel dropped within the opening will cause it to disgorge a stream of lively “rag time.”

White coated bartenders hurry from one group to another with the dripping trays. They smile appreciatively as a man announces that he has won the dice game and his companion must buy the drinks. Occasionally, in answer to the buzzing call from the annunciator near the huge refrigerator, one hurries behind through the swinging doors at the rear of the room.

Beyond them lies the leather seated stalls and wine rooms. They may be reached from the streets by the “Ladies’ Entrance.” Both sexes may gather here without causing comment. It is the primary evil that supplies victims for that inner section of the “Red Light” district where morality is forgotten and degradation and degeneracy in its worst sense, holds sway.

Within the confines of these wine rooms may be studied the story of the downfall of women and the degradation of men in every stage. The innocent and tempted girl, the reckless boy, the abandoned woman – all are there.

Merry voices are heard outside the street door. There is a momentary hush, and then it swings open to admit a party of four people. They are two modest appearing girls clinging to the arms of their escorts. The men are well dressed. Their companions might have been students or clerks.

Looking about, startled, they hesitate again. Then, with downcast eyes, they hasten into the protection of a curtained booth. In response to the waiter’s query, they laugh in an embarrassed manner, communicate with their eyes, and order beer.

“You had better try a cocktail,” says one of the men with a smile. “They will do you good after the cold weather outside. Bring us four Manhattans,” he concludes, turning to the man with the tray.

Even as they talk, there comes a sound of a maudlin feminine chuckle from the next stall. Within its confines a boy, anxious to prove himself a “good fellow” had taken a chance acquaintance and bought her drinks. Unfortunately for him, she was more accustomed to them than the purchaser. He now lay back in his chair, his head lolling against the wall behind him, and the labored but regular breathing showed him unconscious from the sleep of intoxication. As he sat there, his companion leaned across the table and reached in his pocket. Pulling out a handful of bills, constituting his month’s salary, she removed three or four and place them inside her waist. The remainder were returned.

The work done, she looks again at the unconscious figure and laughs. Then she spreads the curtains and steps out, leaving him to sleep until employees come to order him out. To the street she goes in search of another victim.

In a large room, more secluded than the little stalls, there sit a party of women. Their gaudy furs and wide-plumed hats are tossed aside and there are disclosed the painted faces, blackened eyebrows and bleached hair that so often marks the members of their trade.

“Send in some good fellows,” one remarks to the waiter, as she slips over a generous tip in addition to the price of the four drinks before them. “Pick out somebody that looks as if they have the money to burn and wanted to get an assistant fireman.”

The white coated man grins.

“Alright sis,” he remarks. “There’s three lovely ones out here. They are home from some boarding school and I guess they just got their next installment to carry them through the spring term from the way they act. If they are satisfactory, I will come in later and take a drink on you.”

Suiting the action to his words, he soon returns with the group from the bar room. They enter the wine room. The door is closed, and another incident of the evening has begun to be enacted.

The sound of carriage wheels is heard on the pavement. They come to a stop. Two figures emerge and hurry to the dark doorway. One is a typical sport. His small shifty eyes are set in a face not unhandsome; his evening clothes are immaculate; his conversation is that of one accustomed to talking. His companion is a woman who is known as a prominent figure in a middle-class social set. Her husband is not the man at her side.

Muffled in furs, her face is barely discernible. As the couple enters the building and proceeds to the half-concealed table, an intimate friend might have passed her and not recognized her. She is one of those females of the Jekyl and Hyde class, who may be seen in every city. Fortunately for society, they are not frequent in this.

Through the early hours of the morning they sat talking in low whispers. Occasionally the arrival of another drink disturbs the talk, but it is resumed again. This subject is not to be learned by outsiders. Then, as quietly as they came, they hurry out of the door, resume their places in the carriage and are driven rapidly away.

Many and varied are the saloons in this “Red Light” district.

Here may be seen the Bohemian “bier stube,” with its female bartender and quaint musicians dispensing harmony from instruments still more quaint. Yonder is a negro hang-out, where the casual visitor is greeted something after this fashion: “Beer? Yes sir. Ever shoot craps? Or play poker? There’s a good, square game in the back room there. Better take a chance. Nothing risked, nothing won. Shoot a dime, shoot a quarter, take a stack of chips – any way to double your money. Be game. Take a chance. No? Well come again, sir.”

Interspersed with these resorts whose character forbids even a cursory descriptions are the immoral saloons of still lower class class with their upper rooms in which men are lured by gaudy, painted creatures who barter their very souls for the gold that is later spent in riotous celebration. Here are women who perhaps, are engaged in respectable occupations for a portion of the day, and who spend their nights in occupations that lead them to forget their church, friends, family – all.

This blot on Milwaukee’s map is not large in its area. But in every paving stone, on every sidewalk flagging, on every doorstep is written the history of bodies weakened and destroyed, of minds undermined and ruined, or souls degenerated and lost.

Necessary? Aye, it may be. But to those who advocate the theory, let the question be put of the manner in which they would accept the news of the presence there of sister, brother, son, or wife.

Unavoidable? Perhaps. But why should the cost be paid in the souls and bodies and lives of others’ families instead of the families of those who argue that mankind’s weaknesses should be accepted “reasonably,” instead of being overcome and prevented?

The night wanes. The hands of the great clock in the lofty tower have swung around the dial and the five booming strokes of the melodious bell mark the approach of sunrise.

Down the snow-covered walks men stagger, singly or in groups. Cab drivers query passers-by in the hope of a final “fare.” Two women walk with uncertain gait toward their homes. Their escorts have deserted them. Physical weariness, aching heads, mental disgust – these alone are left to remind them of the night of “pleasure.”

In the bar rooms, the cash is counted carefully and the rolls of bills and glittering heaps of silver show the tribute of Milwaukee to the great god of Bacchus – in his temples in the “Red Light” district.

Father is Missing – July 21, 1912

100 years ago today, life could be harsh for poorer Milwaukeeans. The husband was the only one supporting the family and when he failed in his responsibilities, the rest of the family were in dire circumstances. This case

Milwaukee Sentinel July 21, 1912


Loaf of Stale Bread Is Food of Family of Six for Two Days With Mother Ill.


Police Now Searching for August Grabowski for Second Time on Abandonment Charge.

“The Milwaukee police department got me once, but they will never again. I was foolish enough to let them nab me, but I am too wise for them now,” said August Grabowski, 675 Sixth avenue, as he left his wife and five children destitute for the second time and started for his present hiding place.

The Grabowski case came again to the attention of Supt. Spindler of the county poor department on Friday and is one of the most pitiable that the department has ever found in Milwaukee. Poverty stricken and nearly starved, Mrs. Julia Grabowski, who is in poor health, was found trying to comfort her children in the little, damp basement rooms that they occupied.

Live on Stale Loaf.

For several days the mother and her five children, Mary, 9 years old; Frances, 7 years old; Anna, 5 years old; Amelia, 3 years old, and Stacy, 2 years old, had lived on one loaf of stale bread.

When the landlord went to the place to collect $5 due for rent he found the entire family in bed and only a single crust of bread in the house. Not knowing where to go for assistance, the woman had lived in her destitute condition and when the landlord came he had to force open the door. Mr. Spindler was called at once and he is now taking care of the family.

This is the second time that Grabowski has left his family. On April 15, last year, he took with him the savings of the family and left without a word to his wife. He went to Columbus, O., where he enlisted in the United States army. His company was sent to Fort Bliss, El Paso, Tex., where he was arrested by Detective Hammes for abandonment.

Draws Two Weeks’ Pay.

He was brought back to Milwaukee on Nov. 8, in full army regalia, and was sent to the house of correction for five months. When released he went to work and supported his family for three months.

Drawing two weeks’ pay, all that he had coming, on July 10 Grabowski went to his home and put on his best clothing. He then told his wife that he was going away and that the Milwaukee police would not be wise enough to find him. A warrant charging the man with abandonment was sworn out on Saturday.

Student Bandit

This story from the Milwaukee Sentinel of December 3, 1930 tells about a down-on-his-luck Marquette senior that turned to armed robberies to fund his expenses.

Alice Becker and Esther Burby - Because these restaurant workers didn't fear his pistol as much as other victims had, James Maher, Marquette university student, is in jail after a holdup Tuesday night. He fled when Alice approached him and was captured outside by a patrolman. It was his fourth holdup attempt, the Hilltop senior told police. Economic depression, he explained to police drove him to banditry.

Milwaukee Sentinel, December 3, 1930


Advances on Gunman Robbing Restaurant, Causing Capture; Youth Admits Career of Crime.

A Marquette university senior’s career of banditry, staged to finance his last year at school and his graduation in June, ended abruptly Tuesday night when he was trapped through a girl’s bravery after an apparently successful holdup of the Civic Center restaurant, 1224 W. State st.

Screams of his two girl victims, sudden flight of the bandit with his loot, and his capture after a thrilling chase were highlights of the student’s fourth attempt to fatten his meager educational fund at the point of a revolver.

After it was over, James Maher, 23, Alpha Kappa Psi fraternity man and former Menominee, Mich., High School tennis star, sat in a central station cell, foresaw that prison walls would enclose him instead of a university auditorium at graduation time, and cheerfully admitted that “it doesn’t pay.”

Borrowing an overcoat from a fraternity brother at the chapter house, 199 Twenty-fifth st., the handsome young Maher strolled forth at 6 p. m. Tuesday for his fourth foray into criminal fields. He planned to hold up a Piggly Wiggly store on State st, he said, but as he arrived the clerks were closing and wouldn’t let him in.

Undaunted, he passed on a few doors and entered the Civic Center restaurant. Three previous holdups, all successful, had given him a professional slant on things; he eyed the eating house and found conditions favorable. Only Esther Burby, 19, of 760 N. Fifteenth st., cashier, and Alice Becker, 30, of 1405 Walnut st., waitress, were in the main room. Sam Poulos, chef, was in the kitchen.

Maher took a seat in a booth and ordered a 35-cent meal, which Miss Becker served. Finishing it leisurely, the student-bandit strode to the front, where he flipped out a revolver and pointed it at Miss Burby.

Orders Register Opened.

“Open the register,” he ordered, and she obeyed.

“Hand over the cash.” he next directed, and she gave him $37.

“Now pile up the silver for me,” said Maher, and it was here that his aplomb was lost when he saw Miss Becker advancing toward him.

“Stay there,” he shouted, and turned the weapon on her, but without a quiver she kept right on coming. Maher, who hadn’t encountered such a situation in his short career as a gunman, turned and ran.

He fled east on State st. to Twelfth, but the screams of the girls followed him and attracted Patrolman Arthur Bratz, who was walking west on State st.

Surrenders to Officer.

Meanwhile Poulos had taken up the chase and had almost overhauled his quarry when Maher leaped into a Ford car, rented at a nearby agency, which he had parked between State st. and Highland av.

Maher had been watching Poulos and didn’t notice Bratz until the officer jumped into the car and covered tho boy bandit with his pistol.

“The jig,” said Maher, calmly, “is up.” And he submitted quietly to arrest, though he knew what it meant to his school career.

At central station he was docile. Though police had no criminal record on Maher, he promptly supplied his own. His first plunge into crime, he said, was two months ago, shortly after beginning the year that was to crown his student activities.

Attending classes in the college of business administration by day, Maher “burned the midnight oil” studying his lessons—and planning banditry. He first chose the Ogden Waffle shop, 258 Ogden av. Here, he said, he found an officer dining, and calmly waited more than an hour until the policeman departed, then went in and staged the holdup.

Other holdups followed within the next few weeks at the Legion restaurant, 201 E. State st., and a sweet shop at Twenty-seventh and State sts., according to the story he told Lieut. Arthur Burns. He estimated his total loot at about $150.

‘Tough To Get Along.’

“I’ve been a pretty decent sort of follow,” young Maher told a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter. “But it has been tough to get along. My father, who was a Menomonee policeman, is dead. My widowed mother has scraped together my tuition fees, but I’ve had to make living expenses.

“I’ve worked in many restaurants in town, was playground supervisor one year at the Trowbridge school in Bay View, had a Boston Store job for a while, and later worked in a shoe store.

“But this year was different, maybe due to the depression. We Hilltoppers just couldn’t get jobs. I planned to demonstrate for a flour company by making pancakes — anything for an education — but that fell through. I might have ‘stuck’ my fraternity brothers, but I chose banditry instead.”

“Did you think about the consequences?” he was asked.

“Yes, a long time,” he answered thoughtfully. “I realized I’d probably be caught, but I thought it was a good gamble. Education against a chance of going to prison. I planned this thing deliberately, and I am willing to take the consequences. What will they probably be?”

Sighs for His Mother.

Told he could be given as much as fourteen years In Waupun for assault and robbery armed, he sighed a bit.

“Tough for mother,” he said. “But she, too was determined that I finish with honors. Athletics? Yeah. I won a tennis championship for Menomonee High, but I haven’t had time for that sort of thing in Milwaukee.”

Maher slicked back his carefully combed hair, then had a last whimsical thought.

“You know, it’s Hell week out on the Hilltop.” he said. “It certainly turned out that way for me.”

Suicide Pond – October 26, 1901

The VA Hospital grounds in Woods has seen many veterans pass through its buildings and grounds, many of whom have stayed for the eternal rest. Many have died of their war-time injuries and others of natural causes but there are those who died of suicide of various means. A popular means of suicide at the turn of the century was by drowning and a pond on the grounds became known as the “Suicide Pond”. This article tells the story of that pond.

Milwaukee Sentinel, October 26, 1901


Beautiful Lake at National Home Attracts Weary Ex-Soldiers.


Two Places on Grounds Noted for the Number of Tragedies – Rachford the Last.

The death of James Rachford, which the coroner yesterday decided was a suicide, adds one more to the long list of old soldiers who have taken their lives in the beautiful and idyllic surroundings of the Soldiers’ home. Within the past eighteen or twenty years many a war-rearred veteran has buried himself in the placid waters of the artificial lakes in these grounds, which at night are so ghoulish and lonely in appearance, and now the veterans of the civil war who are living at this home call one of these lakes “suicide pond.”

By day it is merry and gay, but at night still and dark, and frogs croak and crickets ring. Most of the suicides by drowning have been at night, and it is said that the beauty of the grounds is a thing which attracts men to this place, and some have returned here for the sole purpose of dying in the sentimental surroundings.

“Suicide pond” lies to the west of the path that leads from the street car station to the big buildings which house the 2,000 or more veterans who fought in the civil war and have become disabled therefrom, or have not been over successful in life since. It would take days to go through the records and find the exact number of men who have become tired of continuing in their seemingly useless life, and ended their earthly existence in this beautiful stretch of water – men who with valor faced death by bullet and exposure through the long and weary campaigns of the sixties, but finally saw the futility of their escape in those exciting days.

Favorite Pond for Suicides.

There is another little pond back of the buildings, and over toward the cemetery, which has been the grave of many a disheartened soldier, and several rows of white headstones on the eastern side of the little hillock near Calvary show where the bodies of these unrecognized heroes lie. This is also a pretty little pond, and it is lonely and apart from the scenes of activity around the home. One other pond is in the park surrounding the home, but no cases of suicide have taken place there.

On a summer afternoon when the beauty and the chivalry of all South Side has gathered in the park, the bands playing inspiring military airs, and the surface of the little lake is dotted with graceful white swans and row boats occupied by the languishing swain and his fiancee, there is not the slightest suggestion of the gruesome finds that are made there some mornings. The lake is alive with laughter and fun, and the old soldiers who lie about on the bank and gaze dreamily at the little ripples chasing one another from the prow of a skiff toward the shore, speculate who will be the next to be pulled from the sparkling waters.

Seek Beauty Spot to Die.

The grizzled veterans who live at the retreats provided by the government make up an itinerant body of men, and they go from home to home in search of peace, which is hard to find among so many men who have little to do but talk over their troubles. It is said by men at the home that such a beauty spot is the little lake; that veterans who have searched in vain all over this broad country for peace in life have returned to Milwaukee and sought peace in the ideal little sheet of water, where they bury with them the stories of fortune or misfortune in war and peace.

Governor Wheeler was not at the home yesterday, and figures on the number of veterans who have ended their lives in this pond were not available, but there have been scores of them.

The last man to commit suicide on the grounds was James Rachford, who was a member of Company G of the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts volunteer infantry, and was 86 years old. He selected for his piece of eternal rest the little pond over near Calvary, but his remains will be buried at the angular, black and white plot where his comrades lie.