Said one old timer Parkite, given the pseudonym Pat by the Park Record in a 1979 story, “Mattress gymnastics is a normal function. It’s been going on since the world started.” In Park City’s early days, he added, “it was the king of all indoor sports.”
Pat was, of course, talking about sex. The Park Record had interviewed him about the brothels that had lasted over 75 years in Park City. Park City was like many towns with a blue-collar working class made up of mostly single men. It had saloons for drinking and gambling. It had entertainment venues for a good laugh or some excitement. And it had brothels, where sex workers could relieve miners in need of relaxation and release after hard labor.
A single miner’s life was tough, lonely, and isolated. Sex workers provided a valuable service that acted not only as “entertainment,” but as comfort, therapy, and comradery. Rachel “Mother” Urban had a row of houses, each containing a young woman sex worker. Urban’s house, the largest, not only had services upstairs, but the downstairs served as a social space where miners could just come and drink, talk, or flirt.
Mother Urban ran “the row” from about 1907 through her death in 1933. The next most prominent madam to arise in Park City was Bessie Wheeler. She took over the big purple house that Mother Urban had run, keeping one of Park City’s most prominent professions outside the mines going for another twenty years.
In Park City, Mother Urban and later Bessie Wheeler paid monthly fines to City Hall for running houses of ill repute – the amount varied by how many sex workers were operating under them. Mother Urban, for example, paid $40 for herself and $20 for each woman within her business.
On October 19, 1911, the Park Record’s front-page headline read “Pull Down the Blinds, Denizens of Red Light District Too Bold Entirely.” The story noted that City Councilman “Gibson stated that complaints were often made to him regarding the red light district by respectable people of that neighborhood, and the marshal was instructed to inform the denizens there to keep their blinds down always and their doors closed as required by the ordinance.”
These examples show that sex work was no secret in Park City and that it was permitted by ordinance and punished by fine, but never jail time. That changed in 1955. While the sex work was tolerated and even accepted by some in Park City, others around the state, especially nearby LDS wards, were not so forgiving of prostitution.
LDS Church members convinced state police and local Summit County police to “raid” Park City and rid it of its vices. Park City police, who tolerated Park City’s vices so long as they were under control, were not informed of the impending raid. On April 16, 1955, state and county officials arrived in Park City, shutting down gambling and selling liquor in the saloons and the sex work along the row. According to the Park Record, after being arrested, Mike Spanos, operator of the Salt Lake House hotel, “and Bessie Wheeler face[d] further nuisance actions on charges of maintaining brothels,” and trial dates were to be determined. Bessie Wheeler’s place was officially closed for business in October 1956, over a year after the raid.
The Park City Museum is hosting a lecture by author and BYU professor Michael Rutter on April 12 from 5 to 6 p.m. titled “Rebranding the West’s Oldest Profession: Two Progressive Madams, Two Progressive Business Models, and an Issue-driven Concept Called The Madams Association” at their Education and Collections Center at 2079 Sidewinder Drive. Register here.