The 1907 Ordinance

by Ben Boulden

At one time, Fort Smith distinguished itself in the way it dealt with a profession regarded by many as undistinguished. It is one of the very few American cities to have had legal and regulated prostitution.

From 1907 to 1924 within a proscribed vice district, prostitution was legal, madams and prostitutes were licensed and the women were subject to regular health inspections.

Only a handful of states left the legal issue of prostitution up to the counties and cities within its borders and Arkansas was one of them. However, Fort Smith, and doubtless other cities in the state continued to prosecute women for engaging in the practice. Even during the period of legalized prostitution in the city, Fort Smith tried and convicted women for prostitution in areas of the city outside the vice district known as The Row.

Before 1907, Fort Smith authorities tried to eliminate it everywhere, or at least keep it under control. In 1890 in the city's police court, 255 prostitution cases were ajudicated. The Digest of City Ordinances that was published in 1891 contains 15 separate sections governing prostitution-related offenses. The ordinance at that time prohibited the presence or keeping "a bawdy house ... for assignation or lewd purpose"; the use of a cemetery as a place of assignation; walking with or associating with a known prostitute; and the movement of any woman on the city streets after 9 p.m.

Nevertheless it seems to have little deterent effect in abating the expansion of commercial sex enterprises in the city. Whereas there were over 250 cases in 1890; in 1990, there were as many as 445 cases in 1900; and 780 cases in 1905.

According to Barbara Meil Hobson's historical study of U.S. prostitution, "Uneasy Virtue," "only one city in the United States, St. Louis ... ever adopted a formal regulation system" and this was in 1870s.

Fort Smith was an exception to this statement. The ordinance read as follows:

All prostitution in the City of Fort Smith, Arkansas, shall be confined to the district embraced between North 'C' Street on the North; the alley in Blocks No.s 2 and 3, City of Fort Smith, on the East; North 'A' Street on the South; and Arkansas River on the West, and there only."

This was the language passed by the Fort Smith City Council in 1907 that legalized prostitution within the Row and defined its boundaries. The ordinance further stipulated that any owner of a house that was used for prostitution in the Row was required to obtain a permit from the city clerk for this privilege.

Similarly, all keepers of houses of prostitution were required to purchase licenses for engaging in prostitution within the district. Both of these groups made monthly payments to the city of the exact same amounts that they had been paying monthly in the way of fines.

Other restrictions required the construction of fences around the houses that would be a minimum of eight feet in height, and prohibited the entry into any of the houses of any male under 21 years of age and any woman under 18.

The most significant innovation was the introduction of the bimonthly health inspections by a city health officer. According to the ordinance he was to inspect both inmates and keepers and to revoke their licenses if they were found to be sick and to withhold their licenses until they were restored to health.

Amidst a wave of law-and-order vigilantism and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan statewide and locally in the 1920s, the city board of commissioners acted to repeal the 1907 ordinance. With sweeping words, the new city law established a fine of $25 to $100 for use of any place or thing for "illicit sexual intercourse, fornication or adultery, or as a place of assignation."

Prostitution would continue to flourish on the Row and in other locations in the city despite the prohibition. Regular raids, fine and even health inspections would continue to characterize how the city handled the vice into the 1970s.

This essay was taken from an earlier article written for the Times Record's Insight 2000 history of Fort Smith and from a study of Fort Smith prostitution done in 1994 for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.