Thursday, May 22, 2014

San Angelo, Texas' Unique Museum

Every community -- large or small -- celebrates its special contribution to history, often by preserving its memories in a museum.  Visiting those museums is a great way to learn history you never would have read about in textbooks, and it is one of the joys of our travels.

We learned about the Pony Express and the history of psychiatric treatment at museums in St. Joseph, Missouri.  We re-lived the days of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn at the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri.  In Kansas City, Kansas, we got insights into the personal hardships of early westward pioneers at the Overland Trail Museum.  At Alpine, Texas we got new insights about the Big Bend area at the Big Bend Museum on the campus of Sul Ross State University.  And, of course, we have often visited the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg and the Old Pumphouse Museum in Hidalgo, Texas.

But, yesterday, here in San Angelo, we visited a museum like none other we had ever heard of: Miss Hattie's Bordello Museum!  It's on a main street in downtown San Angelo and was fascinating.  There we learned quite a bit about a stream of history that is often kept hidden.

A newly-wed couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hatton, built a home in San Angelo in 1896.  It was a large, two-story building which housed Mr. Hatton's business -- a saloon -- downstairs and living quarters for the couple upstairs.  Not long after they moved into the house, they divorced.  In the divorce settlement, it was stated that Mr. Hatton retained ownership and use of the first floor for the operation of his business and Mrs. Hatton -- Hattie, by name -- retained ownership of the second floor.

In 1902, Hattie, too, opened a business in her half of the house: a bordello.  It wasn't a large business -- she only employed about five "girls" at a time -- but it became quite profitable.  Despite plenty of competition for business in town, Miss Hattie was soon rumored to be "the richest person in San Angelo."

Hattie's Place was at the top of a long, steep, dark stairway which opened into a waiting room furnished lavishly with red velvet settees.  Hattie's elegant desk sat in the corner of that front parlor with her office just behind it.  Above her desk was a buzzer.  It sounded whenever law enforcement officers or an enraged wife made their way up the stairs.  When the buzzer sounded, the "girls" and clients exited through a secret door, walked a catwalk across to the second floor of an adjoining building.  Another secret passageway opened from the bank next door, which generously shared its clients with Miss Hattie, sometimes as their unsuspecting wives and children waited in the buggy in front of the bank!

Down a long dark hallway, each of Hattie's "girls" had her own room which she could decorate as she chose. There were also several "sitting rooms" and a "card room." There gentlemen could spend an evening with their men friends without the danger of an interruption by an angry wife.

 Miss Hattie's rules were strict, "No alcohol," and apparently her prices were reasonable.  She charged  from $1 to $2 per "favor," depending upon the popularity of the "girl" chosen.  Sixty percent of that income was returned to the "girl" by Miss Hattie who kept the other 40% for the business. To insure that all financial transactions were honest, only Miss Hattie handled  any money.  She exchanged the clients' money for tokens with which they paid the "girls."  The "girls" then took the tokens they had received in payment to Miss Hattie to be redeemed for cash.

Miss Hattie, herself, always "dressed like a lady" and saw to it that her "girls" were dressed in the  very best.  She owned the first automobile in the city and faithfully took her "girls" to church in it each Sunday.  Each Sunday it was to different church and she never announced in advance where they were going to attend in case any judgmental members or pastors might make their presence uncomfortable.

One of the "girls" employed by Miss Hattie for a while was a married woman from Oklahoma. Her husband had contracted TB and the family had fallen deeply in debt so it was necessary for the wife to go to work.  She worked for Miss Hattie and while there became pregnant and delivered a child.  Not long after her baby was born, she returned home to Oklahoma, having earned enough to pay off the family's indebtedness.  Her husband, now recovered, received her back joyfully and accepted the child as if it were his own.

For nearly half a century, Miss Hattie's Bordello was a busy spot on Concho Street in San Angelo. Over the many years of its operation, there were three Miss Hattie's:  the original Hattie Hutton, a Hattie Foster who was the widow of a Fort Concho Army officer, and a third proprietor who was "run out of town" in 1948.  Local law enforcement officials were too deeply enmeshed in the business to force it to close.  Finally, in 1951, the Texas Rangers closed down Miss Hattie's Bordello.

This was quite an enlightening tour for this girl who had led such a sheltered life she didn't even know what the word "bordello" meant!  But it was fascinating to see that slice of life from the side of the women who earned their living by it!