Prostitution in Fargo: An Overview

An photograph of the Crystal palace taken in 1917.

One of the best known “Houses of Ill Fame,” Malvina Massey’s Crystal Palace was only one of a half dozen or so brothels in Fargo at any given time in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Prostitution is known as the world’s oldest profession.  It should be no surprise then, that it was one of the earliest to arrive in Fargo, following the railroad into the city in its earliest years.   Rather than provide a thorough analysis of prostitution in Fargo or focus on one particular figure, what follows is a brief outline of the rise and fall of prostitution in Fargo in the late 1800s and early 1900s, designed to provide some basic context for understanding where it fits in with the city’s basic story.[1]

From the beginning, prostitution had important links to the regional and local economy. The railroad brought madams and prostitutes to the city, as well as many of their customers.  According to historian Caroll Engelhardt, traveling salesmen, but especially migrating farm workers who came to the Red River Valley during the wheat planting and harvest seasons, provided the bread and butter for Fargo area prostitutes.[2]  Prostitution tended to rise and fall with the agricultural cycle, as did the other vices to which it was so often linked, drinking and gambling.

As Engelhardt related in a recent interview and in his book, prostitution in Fargo featured a three-tiered system.  At the bottom were street-walkers who plied their trade without a permanent home base, followed by those operating independently and individually with their own “cribs.” At the top were women working for employers, mostly female madams, in recognized “houses of ill fame.”[3]  While Malvina Massey’s Crystal Palace was one of the best known establishments, more than half a dozen “houses of ill repute” were typically in operation in Fargo’s red light district, “The Hollow,” during this time period.

Prostitution was illegal under both state and local laws, but the way those laws were (or were not) enforced depended on the views of the community, especially of those who held power in the city.  Attitudes toward prostitution varied from complete opposition among church leaders and moral reformers, or “purists” to use Engelhardt’s term, to qualified acceptance and toleration from city business and government leaders, the “regulators,” who saw the trade as a necessary evil.  Over time, efforts were made to confine prostitution to the established brothels in the Hollow and to make sin “pay its way” through a series of regular fines that weeded out those independent contractors unable to pay them, and really amounted to an unofficial licensing system.  The city’s bottom line benefited from the growing fines and a portion of the money was used to police the Hollow and the city in general.  As Engelhardt describes it, this approach showed that city leaders and law enforcement saw the institution as catering to an important economic sector and chose “prosperity” over “purity” in the waning decades of the 19th century.[4]

The mixed opinions of the community toward prostitution also come through in newspaper accounts from the era.  On the one hand, brief reports from the court room and crime blotter sometimes adopt a winking or comic tone in referring to local madams and “soiled doves” (prostitutes).  To pick only one example from the dozens of articles found by student and academic researchers in recent years, a May 13, 1898, article in the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican under the heading, “Police Court,” follows the exploits of two local women.  “Meal Ticket” (Mary Guthrie) and “Crazy Annie” (Emma Anderson) were both arrested for plying their trade but were able to escape from the police station—the implication being they had help in doing so.  On the other hand, as Engelhardt notes, particularly tragic stories of young women in the profession suffering violence or maltreatment often brought a sympathetic response from the local press.[5]

While local newspapers sometimes took a somewhat detached or questioning tone, they generally supported the critiques and campaigns of the “purists” against prostitution in their city.  In general, these took place periodically, primarily in the off-season, when they would have less of an economic impact, since most of the potential customers (and some of the prostitutes, likely) were not in Fargo.  They typically waxed and waned with little long term impact.

With the beginning of the Progressive Era in the first decades of the 20th Century, local reformers, civic organizations, church groups and leaders, and most importantly, local politicians came together and began to act with greater urgency and effect.  Mirroring national trends, they focused their attention on reforming a collection of vices, including prostitution, with the anti-liquor effort at the core.  The links they saw between drinking and prostitution reflected reality as well as their moral concerns.  Prohibition had been state law in North Dakota since the early days of statehood and it was violation of this law in her establishment that eventually sent Malvina Massey to the state penitentiary.[6]  By 1916, aided by the county option law that finally outlawed liquor across the river in Moorhead, Minnesota in 1915, Fargo’s red light district was finally eliminated.[7]

In the end, of course, just as with drinking, eliminating prostitution was not as easy as changing a few laws.  Prohibition was defeated when people refused to obey the law.  Prostitution remains illegal, but continues to exist.  While no one can question the damage prostitution often causes to the people involved, it remains an open question whether a system that recognizes but regulates this vice is more realistic than one that forces it underground. What is clear is that with the end of business in the Hollow, an interesting, if morally-conflicted period in Fargo’s history came to an end.

– Chris Hummel, Digital History 2013


[1] Another reason this focus is not being taken here is that it has already been done very well elsewhere.  The best recent work on the history of Fargo and Moorhead is Caroll Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).  Chapter 6 focuses heavily on prostitution and other vices and is invaluable for anyone studying the issue. This has been recently supplemented by an interview conducted by Dr. Smith and David Flute of the 2013 Digital History Class with Dr. Engelhardt on 11/15/13.  A significant portion of this interview became part of the Malvina Massey documentary found elsewhere on this site, which does an effective job of dealing with the story of one of Fargo’s most notable (and notorious) madams.  This brief discussion relies heavily on information from these sources and other work of earlier researchers. Readers who wish to know more are directed to these sources.

[2] Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains (Kindle Edition), Location 2810.  Certainly permanent residents sometimes consorted with prostitutes and Engelhardt relates several stories of local scandals in which married men were outed for their illicit activities, sometimes in divorce proceedings (see chapter 6 of Gateway).

[3] Engelhardt, Gateway, Locations 2798-2802.

[4] For more on this, see Engelhardt, Gateway, Chapter 6.

[5] Engelhardt, Gateway, Locations 2854-2877.

[6] Engelhardt does an excellent job of telling Massey’s basic story near the end of chapter 6 of Gateway, Locations 2901-2919.  See also note at Location 4509.

[7] Engelhardt, Gateway, Location 2901.

Repurposing Fargo

Fargo has grown immensely and gone through numerous changes in its 142-year history. Growing from just over 2,500 people in 1880 to over 107,000 today and surviving such natural disasters as fires, floods and tornadoes; nothing has been able to stop Fargo from thriving.

Fargo’s downtown has always been a thriving business mecca[1] of the Red River Valley and is a key reason Fargo has survived to be the city it is today.

Recently, the city of Fargo has begun to restore much of the historic downtown district located along Broadway and Main Street.

The 1970’s were the birth of the “mall” as we know it today. Malls could be seen sprouting out of new developments in cities all across America. These malls drew businesses and shoppers away from downtowns into one central, indoor location. This spelled death for many downtowns across the nation. Fargo was no exception. In the late 70’s, the Red River Mall[2]Red River Mall was implemented on Broadway in an attempt to draw pedestrians to shop at downtown businesses after the opening of the West Acres Mall drew much of the business away from downtown. Broadway was realigned in a zigzag pattern to slow traffic and create a more pedestrian friendly environment. By the mid 1980’s many business owners were voicing their displeasure with the Red River Mall’s design. In 1986 the Mall was dismantled and Broadway was straightened.

For much of the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s, downtown Fargo was a shell of its former glory days. [3] In 1999 the city of Fargo, realizing that its historic downtown was suffering, issued the “Fargo Renaissance Zone Plan.” With lucrative incentives (five-year tax exemptions and tax credits) given to property owners that invested in the rehabilitation of Fargo’s Renaissance Zone, downtown Fargo slowly began to thrive once again.

Downtown Fargo is now a flourishing mix of residential and commercial buildings. Many of the buildings in downtown Fargo date back to the rebuilding of Fargo after the fire of 1893. The 600 block of Main Avenue[4] is the only block of buildings that survived the fire. All of the landmark buildings have gone through some sort of renovation or name change in their history.

Hotel Bison and the Fargoan Hotel are no longer hotels. They now house commercial spaces on the street level and residential living spaces on the upper floors. The Ford Building is no longer assembling cars; it houses commercial spaces and high-end residential condos. Many of the buildings have always housed businesses of some sort. Yet very few of these buildings have remained the same throughout the years. The Merchants National Bank building is now the King House Buffet, and the First National Bank building is now a bar fittingly called Fort Knox.

Two of the most iconic buildings in downtown Fargo that have stood the test of time are the Hotel Donaldson, locally known as the HoDo,[5] and the Fargo Theater. The Hodo was built in 1894 to serve as a meeting hall for the International Order of Odd Fellows. As one of the first buildings built after the fire, the building is a constant reminder of where Fargo came from. In the mid-1910’s, the building officially became the Hotel Donaldson. It has had its rough patches throughout the years, changing ownership and purpose many times, but the heart of the building and its history has survived. The Fargo Theater[6] was built in 1926 as a cinema and vaudeville theater. Originally designed in the Renaissance style, the theater was restored in the 80’s with a more art deco style interior. The Fargo Theater still stands at its original location in downtown Fargo and is a major attraction to this day.

Downtown is once again a must see for anyone visiting Fargo. From its vibrant beginnings, surviving disaster, and period of rough times, downtown Fargo has risen to new heights. The Fargo Street Fair[7] every summer (the largest outdoor event in North Dakota) and Cruisin’ Broadway[8] have become staples of downtown Fargo’s thriving resurgence.

-Logan Kern, Digital History 2012









Alexander Stern and the Rebuilding of Fargo

Stern ad November 9, 1892

Advertisement for one of Stern’s businesses.

In 2007, the Fargo Forum asked a five person panel of local historians to name the five most influential individuals in the history of Fargo-Moorhead. At the top of the list was Alexander Stern.[1]Originally from Germany, Stern moved to Fargo in 1881, and started his career in Fargo as a local retailer by opening a clothing store. In 1885, he moved this clothing store to the corner of Broadway and N. P. Avenue. He was noted as one of the foremost builders and boosters for the city in its early years.

Fargo Fire - Sterns Block

Image of the Stern Block following the Fargo fire.

His actions following the 1893 fire were instrumental in the rebuilding of the city. He assisted in the rebuilding of the Fargo opera house, and rebuilt the Stern Building. He operated his clothing retail business from its new brick location, and continued to involve himself in the real estate side of the city. He constructed the Edwards building, the Stern building, the Donaldson Hotel building, the Pioneer building, and the Kaufman building. He later established the Dakota Trust Company with his brother, Max Stern, and served as mayor of Fargo. Upon his death, Martin Hector noted of Alexander Stern, “Nothing ever jarred that confidence. Hard times and distressful conditions came to the community and to the nation, even the great disaster of the Fargo fire, but nothing could change his belief that there was a great future for the city.”[2]Upon his death, the governor of the state declared a 2-hour period of mourning for the entire state. In many ways, he grew with the city of Fargo and exemplified the city’s growing spirit.-Chad Halvorson, Digital History 2012

[1] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), August 12, 2007.

[2] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), June 5, 1934.

O.J. deLendrecie

O.J. deLendrecie was born in Canada and worked all around the world before coming to Fargo in 1879. He built the Chicago Dry Goods House, which did an amazing business. He owned a good amount of land around the city.  On the night of November 24th, 1893 a blaze started in Holzer’s Cigar store in the back of the Park Hotel. One of the townsfolk was walking by when he discovered the flames in the back of the store. He proceeded to kick in the door to alert everyone and sent word for the fire department. They were able to remove most of the stock from the cigar store and hotel, but the flames did a lot of damage. The firemen moved on to protect Ehrman’s Candy Palace, which was next door. The firemen thought that they had protected the building, until flames started to come out of the roof. The belief is that a few of the embers started it and it went unnoticed. In a few moments the Candy Palace was worse off than the hotel in which the fire started. O.J. deLendrecie owned both of the properties the fire affected; he did not have insurance on either of the properties. Both of the buildings were burned past repair.

– Mathias Zastrow, Digital History, 2012.



Chicago Dry Goods

Add in the Fargo Fourm November 9, 1892

There were many department stores in Fargo. One was the Chicago Dry Goods House department store at 618 Front Street.  It later changed its name to the deLendrecie’s. It was situated right in the heart of the city and the location helped to keep it profitable in the midst of the depression in the mid 1890s. That made the store a staple of Fargo until the fire in 1894. The fire led to an influx of architects, many of whom would be cooped up in tents or hotel rooms just about anywhere to get out of the rain and cold. They had big plans for the department store.  It was re-built in 1894, with two-floors, a basement, and a mezzanine.  The property was moved to Broadway and Seventh Street, so it was closer to the Headquarters Hotel, and would help bring in steady amounts of people and keep revenue high.- Mathias Zastrow, Digital History, 2012

Peter Elliott


Ad for the Elliot House from the Fargo Forum 1893

Ad for the Elliot House from the Fargo Forum 1893

Peter Elliott was a man who moved to Fargo in April 1893. Before he moved, he worked on a steamboat sailing up and down the Red River, to and from Winnipeg. After his time working on the steamboat, he spent two years working as a surveyor for the United States surveyors. When he relocated to Fargo, he opened a restaurant in the basement of Martin Hector’s building on the corner of Front and Fifth. His restaurant was very popular among the Fargo citizens. In 1882 he leased a massive three story building that was located just to the west side of where the Citizens National Bank was located. Here,  he opened his hotel, “The Elliott House”, and restaurant of the same name. Both the restaurant and hotel grew in popularity within the community. It grew so much in popularity that Peter Elliott had to turn people away nearly every night because both had reached full capacity. When the fire ravaged the city in 1893, it destroyed the building, a loss of approximately $10,000.  The devastation of the fire didn’t keep Elliott down for long. It wasn’t more than five days after the fire and Elliott already had tents set up and was serving food to the distraught citizens of Fargo. Elliott did his best to run a  first class operation, even if it was under canvas. Very quickly he entered an agreement with I.P. Clapp to invest in the Syndicate Block. He had a two story structure built for his new Elliot House. It had offices, a kitchen and multiple dining rooms on the first floor, and hotel apartments up on the top story. The entire building was heated by steam and illuminated by electricity. – Mathias Zastrow, Digital History, 2012

The Arrival of Row Housing

Looking southeast from Headquarters Hotel, Fall 1876

Looking southeast from Headquarters Hotel along Front Street (Main Avenue) shows a billiard hall, Rogers & Kimball, Maple Rooms, a meat market and other buildings. A group is playing croquet in the foreground, and a flagpole can bee seen far right [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000951]

Row construction allowed for quick and efficient “business-raising” where new enterprises could be in operation seemingly overnight and able to accommodate nearly any kind of commercial business imaginable. With easy and convenient access, the arrival of business set an elevated standard operating procedure for additional expansion and inclusion of new business and industry.

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012

Fargo’s Growing Businesses

Southwest view from Headquarters Hotel, Fargo, Downtown, 1876

Fall view looking southwest from atop Headquarters Hotel, showing Cass County courthouse building between 9th and 10th streets, Adams and Jefferson avenues, Gethsemane Episcopal Church, and dwellings [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000956]

When Fargo’s settlers completed the initial phases of construction and growth, the commercial structures created a centripetal force, and continued boosterism, encouraged businesses to rally and grow. Community support for buildings like the Headquarters Hotel and the courthouse provided the nucleus for rapid growth, a diverse assemblage of even businesses arrived to compete. This ultimately created a stronger city center.

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012


Goodman & Yerxa Groceries and Dry Goods


J.M. McNaughton & Co. Hardware and Goodman & Yerxa Groceries and Dry Goods in 1879. [Regional Studies #2029.8.21]

Peter Goodman and W.A. Yerxa founded the Goodman & Yerxa Groceries and Dry Goods general store in 1875. Shown in the above 1879 photograph is the Union Block, built in 1878. The Goodman & Yerxa general store was one of the original businesses on the block. The Union Block stood two-stories tall and was built of brick. It had ornate brickwork design adorning the top of the building. Goodman left Fargo in 1882[1], leaving Yerxa as the owner. Yerxa expanded his business into the W.A. Yerxa and Company, and he soon owned “three other buildings, each 25 x 100”[2].  Yerxa’s four buildings housed his four companies which supplied Fargo with a retail display and sales department, groceries and crockery, clothing and boots, and dry goods and carpets. Yerxa’s business was key to the commercial, retail and industrial growth of Fargo and the Union Block was the starting point.



The Fargo Fire of 1893 originated in the Union Block (notice the restaurant sign). [Regional Studies # 51.30.1]

 -Logan Kern, Digital History 2012