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Lancaster Vice project tells fascinating tales of city’s seamier past

Prostitution, gambling and alcohol were widespread in the early 20th Century

  • Scott LaMar
The corner of Walnut and Prince Streets in Lancaster where a prominent brothel stood a century ago.

The corner of Walnut and Prince Streets in Lancaster where a prominent brothel stood a century ago.

Aired; April 9th, 2024.


The history that most of us have been taught or focus on usually centers around the people and events that shaped the nation, state or the towns and cities we live in. Often, that history is full of dates, stories and well-known names.

Of course, right now, there are debates going on across this country about who and what should be included in that history.

But what we don’t hear as often is the seamier side of history. And every place has those stories they don’t highlight in the history books. But those tales can tell us a lot about a place and its people and how they evolved. That history can also be fascinating and entertaining as well.

A great example is the Lancaster Vice project. Lancaster was known as a “wide-open” city in the early part of the 20th Century, where prostitution, gambling and drinking were rampant and law enforcement often looked the other way or were part of the corruption.

The Lancaster Vice project includes a walking tour, a podcast, a blog and articles in LNP. Alison Kibler is a Professor of American Studies and Women’s Gender and Sexuality at Franklin and Marshall College. Dr. Kibler runs the Lancaster Vice project and was on The Spark Tuesday.

Kibler said she researched by using the Law and Order Society collection at Lancaster History that included some 800 pages of investigative reports. Three male detectives and a woman were hired by the Law and Order Society to investigate the commercial sex trade in Lancaster during one month in 1913.

In their reports, the investigators conclude there were 190 “professional” sex workers and 40 brothels or furnished rooming houses in Lancaster.

Kibler said there were “charity” girls, who weren’t considered professionals, but exchanged sex for tickets to the theater or vaudeville shows. Kibler indicated that the professional prostitutes thought the charity girls were “giving it away for free” and ruining their business model.

Kibler described the politics of Lancaster made the vice possible,”In Lancaster, the set of conditions that makes this happen is that there is a government that’s running as a corrupt machine. And in Lancaster, that happens to be a Republican administration. In other cities, it’s a Democratic machine. So, police officers are political appointees and factory inspectors are political appointees. There are stories of vote buying. So in that context, vice is running in basically with the full knowledge of city officials and police officers. And they it’s not just that they sometimes do nothing. They largely do nothing and then sometimes participate themselves. So vice in Lancaster is not a secret. Maybe you could describe it as an open secret, but it’s definitely running in cooperation with law enforcement in Lancaster. So, here’s some examples from the archives. There’s reports in the newspaper that police officers basically don’t even patrol the streets at night. They just go to the firehouse and go to sleep on their overnight shifts. And then there’s also a report…now, this has not been fully substantiated, but one, I think maybe two newspapers do report that there seems to be prostitution actually running out of City Hall or the county courthouse, so that women are coming in the back door, at all hours of the night. And when they report on that in the paper, they kind of jokingly refer to the courthouse there sarcastically. They call it the Temple of Justice.”

Learn more about the Lancaster Vice walking tour here.


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