Editor’s note: This the first of a three-part series.
Seventeen years ago, I wrote a Memory Lane column about local brothels and madams with a focus on Napa’s infamous madam May Howard. While there was quite a bit of information to draw upon to write that column, there were some missing historical pieces, such as how long had May lived and worked in Napa.
Recently while working on another historical research project, I came across some new information that provides more insight into those mysteries. As a result, this column is the first installment of a multiple part series, and revised edition, of the original column about May Howard.
As early as the late-1860s, Napa County and its communities were trying to leave behind their rough and tumble beginnings and reputations as they embraced the popular and socially prescribed proper and straight-laced mores of the day. However, the reality of local life and living contradicted that conservative facade, especially regarding prostitution.
The city of Napa in particular was well known throughout the region for its red-light district. But of even greater notoriety was May Howard and her infamous house of ill-repute once located near downtown Napa.
Through World War II, Napa seemed to be quite tolerant of bordellos. In 1905, both sides of Clinton Street were lined with brothels. In fact, some sources claim there were as many as 20 houses. This enclave of prostitution earned Napa the reputation of containing, according to a 1974 Napa Register article, “the biggest red-light district of any town of its size in California.”
During that era, “the oldest profession” was considered a normal part of any healthy community. It was also believed brothels provided a necessary function to society akin to any other essential service-oriented business, such as health care, hair salons and barbershops.
In fact, some of the houses were owned by respected Napa businessmen. This tolerance for prostitution was so great at one point in local history, that the ladies of the trade who were considered respectable were allowed to marry prominent Napans.
Along these lines, according to some long-time and lifelong Napa residents, May Howard could have married a wealthy and powerful Napa businessman. (Since some of his descendants still live in Napa County, I am withholding his name.) It has been said, this married man was very much in love with May and would have risked everything to marry her. If only she had accepted just one of his many proposals.
By the 1920s, only one house became the locally sanctioned bordello in Napa—May’s Clinton street establishment. A second house once located in the St. Helena area was also permitted to operate in the county. Essentially, Napa County had an unwritten community policy which, for all intent and purposes, legalized prostitution but only within the previously mentioned St. Helena house and May’s place. Both of these brothels, however, operated in direct defiance of state laws that banned prostitution.
Although to give the appearance of complying with superseding state laws, local policing agencies raided the houses and fined the prostitutes on a regular basis. According to a longtime Napa resident, May was aware of pending raids and planned accordingly. She hid her girls in an undisclosed locations and staffed her house with prostitutes from San Francisco. The night of the raid only those “temps” could be found and fined $50 each while May and her associates enjoyed a night off. But by the next evening, it would be business as usual which was a session of forbidden pleasures for $3 per patron.
Next week’s column will continue the story of May Howard and her bordello.