Homes of friendly women
By LOU BERNARD
A few years ago, I was giving a tour of Bellefonte Avenue. I pointed out the corner where a sort of homeless and abuse shelter used to stand, donated by Mayor Charles Sperring. I talked about it, and mentioned that it was called the “Sperring Home For Friendless Women.” But a truck was going by at the time, and some of the participants thought I’d said “Home For Friendly Women.” Afterward, a man came up and asked me about it.
“Oh,” I said. “No, Lock Haven had those, too. But they were mostly on the other side of town.”
Back in the old days, Lock Haven was actually known for that sort of thing. We had a number of, um, houses of ill repute. Actually, though that would be the term, it appears nobody was really speaking ill of these particular houses; they were well-liked in the community. So my challenge here is to write about these in a somewhat family-friendly and mature way, while still remaining historically accurate.
I’m going to take a moment here to thank Leonard Parucha, a local man who did this before I did. Wrote a column about the houses of ill repute, I mean. Not attended them. Some of this comes from him, in spite of the fact that I hate depending on other people for my information. (Insert your own “oral history” joke here.)
There was said to be one on Jessamine Street, near present-day Kephart Plaza. Also one along the railroad tracks by Bald Eagle Street, near the corner of Bald Eagle and Liberty. This is something of a trend for the time, many of these places were within easy walking distance of the train tracks, which made it easier for travelers and railroad employees to find them. Location, location, location.
At 218 North Grove Street, there was this barbershop. It was run by a man named Bill Brindle. In addition to cutting hair, it was said that he had a bath house for lumbermen, where they could clean up after weeks of hard work and change clothes. Bill was said to be able to supply women on demand, since the guys had taken off their clothes anyway.
In one of her books, Rebecca Gross mentioned Brindle. She implied that he would give directions to the “twilight doves,” instead of being actively involved. Either way, it’s pretty certain Brindle was doing more than just haircuts.
A woman named Myrtle Rayhorn was arrested for prostitution on October 19, 1910. Amusingly, I looked her up in the city directory, and she was listed as a “laborer.” Rayhorn lived at 653 East Clinton Street, and based on the location, she probably was affiliated with — Or perhaps competition for — Nell Bowes.
It’s impossible to write about prostitution in Lock Haven without getting around to Nell Bowes. She was the most well-known madam in the city. She ran a place at 338 East Clinton Street, at the corner of Clinton and Pine. Not only does that house no longer stand, but much of the street is gone—The place appears to be a large pile of random concrete now. Nell was said to have paid off a lot of the right people, conducting her business with the full knowledge of the police department and the local government. (This actually suggests that Rayhorn was competing with her, as she probably wouldn’t have been arrested and charged if she was actually working for Bowes.)
And while I’m talking about the “friendly women,” it’s also worth mentioning a trial that happened in the early 1900s. A dead man was found at the bottom of the stairs just outside one of these places of business, and there was some question about how he got there—Fell, or pushed. The defense attorney was Wilson Kress, a prominent local attorney and a Civil War veteran, and he showed up in a lot of trials like this.
He had one of the, ahem, employees on the stand, and was trying to set the stage for the jury. He was asking her questions about the building’s layout: How many steps were there? How long was the hall? How far was a certain room from the door to the steps?
Finally, not really understanding the procedure, the prostitute burst out,“Captain Kress, you know that building as well as I do!”
Not only did that happen in open court, but somewhere in the courthouse, the whole exchange is preserved forever in a trial transcript. Don’t anyone ever tell me this isn’t a great community.