The Petticoat Navy of Contra Costa County

By William Mero

During the early 20th century, Martinez gained a colorful reputation for its unique fleet of floating brothels anchored in the middle of the river. Some of the most famous "boats of ill repute" were Wanda’s Scow, Margaret’s Scow and "Old Lady" Miller’s Scow. Police raids were regularly made but timely warnings always allowed their clients to be absent. Fines for running houses of prostitution provided significant revenue to the county for many years and became a practical method of taxing the profits of these illegal enterprises. Rumors suggest that some of the best customers of these watery "entertainment" boats were the local politicians, lawyers and judges. Their patronage may have provided protection for the illegal operations. Drinks were also sold allowing clients to socialize with the soiled Martinez mermaids before and after services rendered. According to court records, Margaret Bantz and Millie Landt were some of the most notorious water loving madams on the river.

During the 1920's the floating pleasure palaces found that local objections and difficulty with access forced their closing. Among the ordinary citizens of Martinez the biggest complaint to the local police was the frequent ringing of various ship bells on the shore announcing that a client wished to be ferried out to a particular barge for an evening’s entertainment. It was one of the first recorded instance of a county noise pollution problem.

Open prostitution had been an accepted fact of life during the settling of Contra Costa County. Many county brothels masqueraded as "boarding houses" whose guests were exclusively young women. Many had interesting names. One famous house in western Contra Costa was called The Artists' Tea Room. Of course, a request for tea would have been greeted with astonishment.

Women were always in short supply in this thinly settled, largely rural county. The early vaqueros, sheep headers and field hands led lonely lives without much opportunity to meet available women or, even more importantly, the financial ability to marry. Consequently brothels were widely tolerated or viewed as a necessary evil. In fact, it wasn't until the early 1900's in California that the ratio of women to men became nearly equal. Women were initially so scarce that during the 1850's in San Francisco several madams were accepted as valued members of normal society. They often made large contributions to local charities out of their profits of sin. Mammy Pleasant, a famous Black madam, was a major donor to early African-American civil rights groups.

Romanticizing the brothels of the pioneer west can easily be carried too far. While providing a service valued by at least the male portion of the population, they also had a serious downside. Disease and violent crime were not uncommon where prostitution flourished. In the Chinese community many young Asian girls were sold by their families into prostitution and shipped off to the cribs of San Francisco. Many prostitutes used alcohol and drugs to excess. That combined with disease, often made for short, tragic lives. Some women did marry and leave the sporting life but this was comparatively rare.

Eventually Contra Costa outgrew its pioneer past and traditions. By 1952 the public tolerance of openly functioning brothels in Contra Costa County had worn thin. Under the urging of Attorney General Earl Warren, the remaining historic brothels were finally closed. One of the most famous houses shuttered at that time was located near Crockett under the Carquinez Bridge close to the old railroad tracks. The site was notorious for a establishment called the Golden Horseshoe, famous for its spicy selection of a dozen accommodating women who for many years entertained the local factory workers and longshoremen.

Court records and Sheriff Veale’s personal papers preserved in the Contra Costa County History Center offer unique insights into this colorful facet of Contra Costa's social history.


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