Prostitution Biography of Madam Tessie Wall Part 2

About the famous Madam Tessie Wall, biography and history of her San Francisco bordello and its specialties.


Tessie Wall

Specialties and Eccentricities: The emphasis on elegant clothes and furnishings which typified all of the good parlor houses of that era was carried to extremes by Tessie Wall. She would always warn those who had to return home across the bay to Oakland, "You just have time to catch the last ferry." Overnight guests could count on finding their shoes freshly shined and their clothes pressed when they arose in the morning. Miss Wall's girls were generally the best dressed in the weekly parade held each Saturday evening down the Market Street "Pathway to Propinquity." When not engaged in business, Tessie spent much time shopping for antiques. "It wasn't that she lacked taste," recalled one dealer. "She had too much of it."

Operating in a city overflowing with cheap prostitution, Tessie had every reason to look down on such areas as the Barbary Coast "with the disdain of an aristocrat." The elegant parlor house was the top of her profession.

Well beneath it, in areas like the Coast, were thousands of women working in cribs and cow yards. Cribs were no more than small cottages just big enough for a bed, dresser, and washbowl; they faced onto the street, and the prices ranged from a quarter to fifty cents. Cow yards were groups of cribs under one roof, usually a U-shaped structure of from one to four stories divided into small cubicles on either side of long hallways. Some cow yards contained as many as 300 women, and prices varied from a quarter to a dollar. The location of such Barbary Coast brothels was indicated at night by a red light, which burned near the door from dusk to dawn. During the day a red shade was hung in one of the windows.

The biggest cow yard ever seen in San Francisco was erected by the Twinkling Star Corporation in the summer of 1899 and was called the Nymphia. It had 450 rooms, with 150 of them occupied by so-called "nymphomaniacs." Voyeurs were well accommodated; a window was cut in each door, and the shade covering it could be automatically raised by dropping a coin into a mechanism. This novel and popular feature was phased out when a number of Barbary Coast vendors began selling cheap slugs which could be used in place of a dime.

Tessie's house across town in the Tenderloin was closed, along with all other brothels in the city, in January of 1917. A wave of reform had been accelerated by orders from the Navy Dept., which wanted to stop W.W.I sailors from enjoying themselves on leave.

After being arrested for shooting her husband, and being released when he refused to press charges, Tessie retired to a small flat in the Mission District, which became a speakeasy as soon as Prohibition began. When she died there in 1932, she still possessed the best of her antiques. The huge, gold-plated Napoleon bed which Frank Daroux had bought for her in 1900 for $1,000 went at auction for only $105. The sheriff of Sacramento County was its purchaser.

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