By Jan Johnson

Prostitution was nothing new to the port city of Galveston, Texas, when young Mathilda "Mollie" Walters came to the Island from New Orleans in 1868. Indeed, an identifiable red-light district had clearly been established north of Broadway, just west of 25th Street. When the occupation of Federal troops after the Civil War added to the usual seamen and traveling salesmen who frequented downtown, the young madam opened her first bordello on 25th Street between Market and Mechanic. Arrested for "keeping a disorderly house" in 1870, Miss Mollie pleaded guilty and paid her fine of $100, then returned to business as usual.

Although her old brick house became a landmark, the heart of the "segregated district" was Postoffice Street, or Avenue E. During the prosperous 1880s, Mollie Walters invested in the area, buying several parcels of land. Strategically, she chose the northwest corner of Postoffice at 26th Street on which to build her two-story, custom-frame "female boarding house," with entrances on both streets and the alley. The house extended a full half-block on 26th Street to the alley in order to accommodate the long central hall upstairs, lined with door after door into bedrooms. The latticework on the front porch offered discreet clients anonymity.

According to today’s slang, the Gay Nineties were anything but "gay." Galveston was the second largest port in the United States, with as many as 30 ships in port every day. In 1897, the Federal government again contributed to the growth of carnal commerce when it established a coastal artillery installation at Fort Crocket. Thanks to medical students and a growing group of conventioneers, Postoffice Street flourished. It was soon lined with brightly lit bordellos. During this time, the district was referred to as "the Line," and clients walking the street were said to be going "Down the Line," from one house to the next.

In quality, Miss Mollie’s bordello was "top of the Line," offering the wealthiest clients all the decadence the era had to offer. Ushered into the downstairs parlor, the men listened to live music as they met and mingled with elegantly dressed courtesans, until the client made his choice. A maid-manager guarded the stairs as she took care of business. The amount of time was decided upon and the fee paid: usually $10 for 15 minutes. The working girl was given a towel, and the two disappeared up the stairs. If the client took longer, the maid collected more cash, often interrupting with a knock on the door. To spend the whole night with one of Mollie’s courtesans cost $300.

The prices on the Line reflected the overall quality of the house’s décor, the ladies themselves and the amount of available amenities. Less-opulent houses charged between $1 and $5. The working-class sailors and soldiers were relegated to the older girls at Mollie’s backdoor.

Although the number of girls dwindled to three, the 67-year-old Walters continued to run the business until she retired in 1906. She then leased the house to Corinne Pearce for $100 a month, and Miss Mollie bought a home out of the district at 3518 Ave O, where she quietly passed away on December 14, 1908. Pearce renamed the bordello "The Club." During her tenure as madam, she had a run-in with a client who met an untimely demise. Although she was tried for murder, she was acquitted.

Maintaining the quality established by Mollie Walters, Hazel Harvey took over the bordello on the corner of 26th and Postoffice in 1918. Known as "Mother" Harvey because she took such good care of all the kids, she employed only high-class courtesans, some with legitimate careers. Busiest during Prohibition, Mother Harvey’s encouraged clients to imbibe in bootleg brew, while the ladies were only allowed to drink watered-down whiskey.

Towels served as the bordello’s accounting system – at the end of the evening, the number of towels turned in had to match the number of customers the maid had recorded in the ledger. One 12-year-old towel girl couldn’t figure out what they were doing with all those towels every night!

The world’s oldest profession prospered on Galveston Island, despite minor interference by the local authorities. In 1918, a national law banned prostitution within five miles of all military installations. The district officially closed, although the "boarders" were allowed to remain in residence. And once again, it was business as usual at 2528 Postoffice Street.

In 1936, city officials mandated that all prostitutes receive biweekly medical examinations, certified with health cards. However, fines for non-compliance were nominal, and "raids" were announced in advance. Legend has it that some of "Galveston’s finest" actually escorted the ladies to the clinic every two weeks.

One of Mother Harvey’s kids became Mayor in 1947 – Herbert Y. Cartwright. As a student at Ball High School in the ‘30s, he hung out at her bordello, listening to the jukebox and sipping home brew. Considering it a duty and a privilege to maintain the Free State of Galveston during his administration, Cartwright is quoted as saying, " If God couldn’t stop prostitution, why should I?"

In 1944, 2528 Postoffice passed into the hands of Mary R. Known as Gouch-Eye due to her one bad eye, her "top of the Line" house became part of a statewide syndicate. At some point, screened doors were added to the upstairs bedrooms to allow clients to view the ladies. When business was slow, her girls took turns working the windows, dressed respectfully in shorts and blouses. Mary R. left the business before Texas Attorney General Will Wilson "closed down Galveston" in 1957. Seems she saw it coming in the Houston newspapers.

Legend has it that a prominent Galveston insurance man had coffee with the ladies every morning, parking his car discretely in the alley. Unfortunately, he suffered a heart attack at their kitchen table early one day and died at the bordello. The madam phoned a friend — the Chief of Police — for help. Loading the body into the trunk, he drove the man’s car to Kempner Park. To protect the family, the Chief propped the body up on a park bench to be innocently discovered by a passerby, making it appear that this respectable businessman had passed while feeding the pigeons. The current owner of the house swears that the spirit of that insurance man is still there, searching for his car keys.

The Mollie Walters House, aka Mother Harvey’s, is now the home of Island Carriages. The owner is restoring it, one board at a time. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 1886 bordello took its legitimate place beside prim and proper Victorian houses when it was featured on the 1997 Galveston Historical Foundation’s Historic Homes Tour. In honor of this occasion, Cara Moore painted a mural on its Parlor walls. The original owner, Miss Mollie Walters, would have been proud . . .

Jan Johnson is a freelance writer, sometimes historian
and Island tour guide who resides on Galveston Island.