Bad Girls and the Men Who Hate Them: A Discussion of the Boston Bawdyhouse Riots of 1825

Bridget Allison, Bad Girls and the Men Who Hate Them: A Discussion of the Boston Bawdyhouse Riots of 1825 (1998)

In mid-July 1825, Boston men tore down notorious bawdy houses in the North End of the city. The area was home to numerous brothels, saloons and dance halls. When city leaders did not close the “Beehive,” an infamous house of prostitution there, about 200 working class men descended on it and tore it to the ground piece by piece. Mayor Josiah Quincy urged the rioters to desist, but they rioted again. Quincy and the Board of Aldermen offered a reward for information regarding the rioters, but only 15 men were tried. Seven of them were sentenced to serve from one to three months in jail.

It is unclear what specifically triggered the riots, but a confluence of factors seems to have been at their core. Boston was founded by Puritans as a “Godly commonwealth.” Its natives envisioned the city as a moral community. In this environment prostitution was unacceptable. Public censure and town meetings were not the only forms of governing behavior. Prior to the 1825 riots, Bostonians had formed mobs and rioted to protest social problems. Citizens were not afraid to use violence to protest government action or inaction. Collaboration between public and private parties was a frequently used method of city planning. Citizens used such joint efforts to influence the city’s moral and economic development.

As the population grew in the 1800s, economic classes solidified, crime increased and the government began to regulate vice. The once prestigious North End became poor and overcrowded, while the West End became home to Boston’s elite. Mayor Quincy strove to contain poverty, crime and vice. When he was elected in 1823, the center of vice in Boston was on Beacon Hill in the West End. Quincy removed the liquor licenses of many establishments, and organized a posse to raid the West End’s bawdy houses. Still, prostitution continued to run rampant in the North End.

The Founders’ beliefs in republican government based on civic virtue, commitment to the public good and use of government power to address social problems persisted in Boston long after the Revolution. When the rioters saw that Mayor Quincy closed down houses of prostitution in the West End, they expected him to do the same in the North End. When he failed to do so, they perceived his inaction in their neighborhood as an indication that control of morality was not going to be handled equally in all sections of the city. It gave them an excuse to take the law into their own hands.

During the 1800s, women were regarded as physically weak but morally strong; the home was their domain. This ideology left no room for poor women who entered the work force out of necessity. The drive to end prostitution became a moral crusade in the early 1800s. Single women and widows were believed susceptible to prostitution. Unwed mothers who sought public assistance were placed in workhouses with minor criminals. Some women chose to become prostitutes rather than go to workhouses. Social aid, offered to some deviants and vagrants, was withheld from prostitutes. They were targeted because they violated contemporary standards of womanhood and diminished Boston’s reputation and economy.

By the 1820s, Boston’s Puritan foundations had relaxed, but Bostonians were caught up in the Great Awakening and other religious revivals of the time. These revivals were part of a large set of moral reform movements, including abolition and temperance, as well as the crusade to end prostitution. The religious fervor of the time, combined with the era’s perception of women, Boston’s tendency towards citizen involvement in government, and rioting to protest government action all played a role in bringing about the bawdyhouse riots of 1825.

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