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.

Ku Klux Klan

A photograph taken of a Klu Klux Klan meeting sometime in the 192?

A photograph taken of a Ku Klux Klan meeting sometime in the 192?

Klan Background

The Ku Klux Klan began in the American South after the Civil War to defy Reconstruction efforts to allow blacks to vote and hold office. It was inactive by the early 1890s, but resurfaced in 1915 when the film Birth of a Nation was released. The film depicted the original KKK as the heroic protector of Southern honor against the horrors of minorities. As the Klan moved beyond the South, it recruited F. Halsey Ambrose, a Presbyterian minister who came to Grand Forks in 1918. He publicly espoused the merits of white Protestant Americanism and incorporated a North Dakota Klan Chapter in 1922 with headquarters in Grand Forks. The Fargo-Moorhead Chapter was incorporated the same year. They had enough robed, hooded followers that in 1922 the legislature ruled that no one over 15 could wear a mask or head covering that obscured identity. By the end of the 1920s the popularity of the Klan in North Dakota declined and the organization later disbanded.

KKK Differences in the North

Unlike the rest of the nation, the Red River Valley had very few non-white settlers during the early 20th century. The majority population was white Northern Europeans. Nationally, the Klan targeted black Americans, immigrants, Jews, and Catholics, but in this region the target were Catholics, Jews, and morally lax individuals like drug addicts and bootleggers.

Rudolph Bener (Rudwoj Bojcio)

Rudolph “Rudy” Bener, originally Rudwoj Bojcio, was born in 1891 in Uljanik in what is today Croatia. He moved to the United States in 1910 and filed for naturalization in 1925 in Fargo, N.D., where he worked for Ford Motor Company across from the Great Northern Rail depot. Characterized as a short man with an olive complexion and a thick Slavic accent-derogatorily, a “swarthy” man- he was not the stereotypical KKK member. He never married, but was known as “Uncle Rudy” to his friends. They discovered his KKK involvement after his death in 1964, and suspect that his membership was an attempt to prove his patriotism and to be accepted as an American.

Hood Law

In 1923, North Dakota passed the Anti-Klan Law, which banned the wearing of hoods or masks in front of public places. Violators faced $25-$100 in fines and/or 10-30 days in jail. The law directly targeted the KKK, but marches and “konclaves” populated by men in Klan regalia continued through 1925.

-Intro to Museums Class, 2012

Fargo: the Divorce Capital of the Midwest

While Fargo was still a rough-and-tumble outpost, one commodity became a steady source of income: divorce. Even when lawmakers put a three-month residency requirement in place, a steady stream of unhappy spouses came to Fargo on the Northern Pacific. Hotels were built so they could live and dine in luxury while waiting three months, and lawyers set up shop to help them navigate the legal waters. The waiting period was one of the most lax in the U.S., and one Fargo judge granted 350 divorces in just one year. The divorce economy faltered in 1899 when the legislature extended the residency requirement to one year; divorce seekers moved westward, and Reno became the new “divorce capital.”

-Intro to Museums Class, 2012


When houses of prostitution cluster in a city, they form what is commonly called a “red-light district”. “The Hollow,” as it was called in Fargo, had a scarlet glow from the 1880s to the early 20th century. Some “working girls” or prostitutes followed the men building the Northern Pacific Railroad, while others settled along the route. Many of the patrons visited Moorhead’s legal saloons, and then crossed the river to thriving brothels. On the first day of every month, Fargo’s police chief visited Malvina Massey’s Crystal Palace and the brothels of Minnie Smith, Clara Devine and others. He instructed the girls and the madams to go to the station and pay fines, usually for “vagrancy.” From July to December of 1889, the arrests brought in $2,668, or what amounted to a steep business tax on houses of ill fame.

An photograph of the Crystal palace taken in 1917.

An photograph of the Crystal palace taken in 1917.

A Fargo Forum headline in May 1911 told Fargoans “Aging Negress is Dead.” Many knew of the deceased, Malvina Massey, madam of the Crystal Palace. From the late 1880s, Massey provided an eager clientele with prostitutes and illegal liquor; the latter cost her nine months in prison in 1901 and the former just a long string of $25 fines. When she returned to Fargo from serving her sentence at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, a group of friends met the train, and she was back in business. Another arrest came within months, but her case was dismissed “when the prosecuting witness forgot his lines.” Massey’s business continued at least until 1905. On her death, her estate went to her husband, H.C. Rae and a son, Henry.

-Intro to Museums Class, 2012


Liquor once flowed freely on both sides of the Red River at Fargo and Moorhead, but when North Dakota statehood came, saloons had to be closed by July 1, 1890. Moorhead saloons quickly filled the gap, offering free transportation to Fargoans still needing a lawful drink. That liaison lasted until Clay Countians voted dry in 1915, closing Moorhead’s saloons ahead of national prohibition in 1920. But intoxicants of questionable need were available before and after prohibition in both states. North Dakota’s 1895 Druggist Permit Amendment allowed physicians and drug store owners to administer alcohol for medicinal and sacramental purposes. In 1923, a 640-gallon shipment of alcohol disguised as hair tonic was seized at the NP freight depot in Moorhead.

Prohibition Laws (ND and MN)

North Dakota’s territorial days were full of liquor and saloons. In 1887 counties were given the choice to vote to go dry. The entire state went dry when it was admitted to the Union on November 2, 1889. It was the first state to be admitted with a prohibition clause in its constitution. All saloons in the state had to be closed by July 1, 1890. At this time Minnesota was still a wet state. Fargo and Moorhead had opposing liquor laws for 26 years. Counties in Minnesota were given the option to go dry in 1915. Clay County ended its wild and wet days on July 1, 1915 by voting to go dry. National prohibition went into effect on January 17, 1920. Prohibition years lasted until December 1933 when both Minnesota and North Dakota voted to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment.

Jag Wagons

Jag wagons were a free transportation system sponsored by Moorhead saloons to bring thirsty customers from Fargo over the river to wet Clay County. They were commonly a large wagon pulled by a single horse that operated day and night. The main pick up station was on NP Ave just east of Broadway in Fargo. Jag wagon drivers got in trouble for delivering booze orders across the river and even transporting North Dakota Native Americans to Moorhead in order to drink. Fargo had hoped passage of a new streetcar law franchise would put jag wagons out of business, but the free rides still continued until 1913.

Blind Pigs

The lower class version of a speakeasy, blind pigs popped up all over Fargo-Moorhead during Prohibition. The name came from owners of these establishments charging a fee to see an attraction, such as an animal (pig) and then providing alcoholic beverages. Newspapers from the time period were littered with arrests and raids of local blind pigs. If found guilty, blind pig owners could be fined up to $1,000 and sent to jail for up to a year.

Druggist Permit

In 1895 North Dakota passed the Druggist Permit Amendment. This allowed physicians and drug store owners to administer alcohol for medicinal and sacramental purposes. A permit could be obtained by submitting a signed petition by 25 reputable community members and a bond of $1,000. Prescriptions for alcohol were supposed to be only a half a pint per sale and only for emergency cases. Christianson’s Drug Store in Fargo was one such place a person could get alcohol legally. Common orders were whiskey for heart disease and liniment brandy for fever. Friday nights were busy down at Christianson’s as people stocked up for the weekend. Mr. Christianson was eventually accuses of running a blind pig and forced to go to court.

Hair Tonic Case

In 1923, 640 gallons of alcohol disguised as hair tonic was confiscated at the Northern Pacific freight depot located at 15th Ave and 2nd Ave Moorhead. The shipment was postmarked to Franklin Drug and Distributing Co. of Moorhead, which did not exist, from a warehouse in the Twin Cities. After investigation, it was thought that 7,600 gallons of the 85% grain alcohol was being stored Minneapolis.

Rum Running

With the implantation of Prohibition, some citizens of North Dakota turned to smuggling alcohol into the state. As time progressed, the illegal sales of booze increased as the sellers became better organized and more skilled at evading the authorities. Police officers from Minot decided to take a stand and ‘befriended’ some of the bootleggers so they could help them hide the alcohol on ‘farms’ and later confiscate it. Bootleggers had developed an effective system, however, that could sometimes spoil the authorities’ plans. Lights were left burning in upstairs rooms of farmhouses along roads stretching from Minot to Canada to warn smugglers of police officers who were on duty in the area. These systems were so efficient that the price of whiskey began dropping because the illegal supply had increased so much. People also went ‘clubbing’ together to cut down on the high prices. Authorities were having such difficulty apprehending bootleggers that they often pulled over cars full of innocent ladies at gunpoint.

-Intro to Museums Class, 2012

Violent Crime

Crime Overview

As railroad construction continued and industry expanded in the late 19th century, the gap between the upper and lower classes grew. With an influx of people looking to work along the tracks, complications arose, leading to an increase in crime. Although the introduction of the Northern Pacific and SPM&M improved economic opportunities, with it came prostitution, alcohol consumption, and conflict.

1913 School Shooting

On March 5, 1913, Bennie Tinjum began a dispute with school teacher Anna Skeim, leading to gunfire and casualty. Details of the incident vary from story to story, including the exact date as well as the spelling of Miss Skeim’s name.

Students recall the day their teacher was shot at a schoolhouse near Glyndon, MN. A man, believed to be the teacher’s boyfriend, appeared and requested to speak to Miss Skeim in private. After a few moments of the two conversing in the cloakroom, the children heard a couple of gunshots. The teacher came running out of the cloakroom and attempted to hide. The school children, terrified, ran out the door and into zero degree weather without as much as a coat or gloves. The schoolhouse was located in a rural area so the children had nowhere to escape. Miss Skeim was seen running out of the schoolhouse towards a nearby church. The shooter, Bennie Tinjum, continued to fire his weapon until Miss Skeim was shot in the neck and collapsed. She was shot six times before the assailant then shot himself in the head, ending in his fatality.

The teacher was found sitting at her desk when help arrived. Miss Skeim survived her attack and spent two weeks in the hospital. No children were shot with the exception of one boy being slightly grazed by a bullet in the arm. Although it is still unknown what happened to Miss Skeim, according to the MN death certificate database, an Anna Rebekka Skeim died June 11, 1951.

John Rooney: The Last Execution

John Rooney was the last person to be executed in North Dakota. Convicted of the murder of farm worker Harold Sweet, Rooney shot and killed the victim during a robbery near the railroad tracks in Fargo. Rooney was sentenced to death by hanging on March 31, 1903. Rooney maintained that the shooter was actually his partner, “Kansas Slim.” His appeals went as far as the Supreme Court, but to no avail. He was hanged on October 17, 1905 at the Cass county prison. It was the first private execution to be held in a prison rather than in public.

The death penalty was abolished in 1915 in North Dakota. It was restored from 1939 to 1977, although no one was executed during that time.

Saloon Shootout

On April 25th, 1872 Edward Curran, also known as Shang Stanton, and Dan “Slim Jim” Shumway began a dispute, leading to a shootout within a local saloon. Stanton and Shumway, both infamous gamblers, had been following the Northern Pacific Railroad in pursuit of wealth and willing opponents. The shootout, located where the Moorhead Mall parking lot now resides unraveled as follows…

After a dispute the day before, both men entered the saloon, coming in contact with the other. Stanton was the first to fire his weapon, discharging into Shumway’s abdomen. Shumway returned fire and a duel ensued. Stanton fled the scene to another saloon while Shumway continued fire, inadvertently shooting Orleans Club owner Daniel Thompson, ending in his fatality. Shumway continued shooting outside of the saloon until he collapsed. He was disarmed and died due to his injuries in early May. Shang Stanton was later apprehended but released under the terms of Justifiable Homicide.

-Intro to Museum Class, 2012

Vaudevillian Culture in Fargo

Vaudeville shows were a major form of entertainment in the early years of Fargo.  Records of these theaters are numerous, but  but due to the culturally tabooed art forms played in vaudeville theaters and their association with sinfulness, alcohol consumption, and sex these theaters were minimally mentioned in the press of early Fargo and are mostly noted on accounts of deaths, crime, disturbances, or imposed fees.[1]  The Argus refers to vaudevillian theaters as “dens of vice”[2] and the Coliseum itself was tied to a billiard hall and saloon, which did not improve its reputation.

The audience for vaudeville was predominantly adult males.  Any visitation of these theaters by women would be considered scandalous.[3]  Many reports of loud and rude audience behavior were reported in the Argus.  It mostly was said to come from the galley of the theater, the center seats closest to the stage.[4]

The performances in vaudeville theaters were varied and often spectacular.  They included acts such as boxing, contortionists, gymnasts, acrobats, club swinging, and knife juggling, instrumental soloists, orchestras, trapeze, tight ropes, loose ropes, right wire, character artists comedians, Scandinavian dialectician, fire eating, magicians, rifle marksmanship, female impersonation, and knife throwing.[5]

There was also a particularly interesting report in the Argus concerning a woman named Rosa Thu-Zett. The description of this act was as follows:

“Miss Rosa Thu-Zett holds cannon said to weigh 239 pounds, in her teeth, while she hangs suspended from a trapeze.  The cannon is discharged while she is in that position.  She is said to be the only woman in the world who has accomplished this feat.”[6]

One of these vaudevillian theaters was the Coliseum which opened in March of 1880.  On its opening night it featured acts such as operatic selections, Irish sketches (with the “burnt cork” blackface of the era), jigs, clogs, comic, sentimental songs, and ballads.  It was not certain when the theater itself closed down but it remained active for at least eight years.  Ballets, acrobatics, full-length dramas, plays, musicals, and burlesque were also featured in this theater.[7]

The vaudevillian theaters were monitored closely in early Fargo.  Each theater needed specific licenses for operation and liquor sales.  If not in compliance owners were arrested, such as W.M. Talbot of the Odeon Theater (located on Front Street) and B.P. Reynolds were arrested for failing to obtain licenses for their shows.[8]  The arrests occurred on the same day and showed a crackdown on the vaudevillian culture of Fargo.

Much of the pressure being exerted upon vaudevillian theaters in the mid-1880s was due to a community dilemma which occurred after vaudevillian actors employed at the Star Theater passed out tickets to school children.  The community was enraged, writing scathing complaints to the Argus, most of which demanded all vaudevillian theaters be closed.  There was a fine given to the Star Theater, license prices for all theaters were raised, and an additional fee given to the mayor was also tacked onto monthly expense.  Later, all were ordered to close at midnight rather than 2 a.m.  Many of the theaters folded in the following years as a result of this as well as the economic effects of prohibition.

The actors of the vaudevillian theaters were usually given short contracts before moving onto the next job.  It was a rough life with early rehearsals and late nights six days per week.  However, the early economy of Fargo had a significant tie to vaudeville theaters.  Aside from alcohol sales. the theaters employed 458 people alone between 1880 and 188.

Valerie Tescher, Digital History 2012

[1] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[2] Fargo Daily Argus 6 December 1884:  Print.

[3] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[4] Fargo Daily Argus June 14 1881.

[5] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[6] Fargo Daily Argus 22 May 1884: Print

[7] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota Territory from 1880-1888. Fargo, ND: North Dakota State University, 1979. Print.

[8] Fargo Daily Argus August 1884: Print