Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series.
Last week’s column began to tell the story of Napa’s infamous madam, May Howard. Today’s Memory Lane will continue her story and how she ran her Clinton Street brothel as well as reveal the details of an incident that shed some light on the length of her Napa residency.
Part 1 of this series ended with May and her associates avoiding raids as well as their standard rate of $3 per patron. However, it was far from easy to gain access to May’s house and associates.
The men desiring entrance always had to go to the back, or kitchen, door. At that door, those wannabe patrons were scrutinized and judged by May’s trusted African-American housekeeper and sentry. If she did not like the appearance or behavior of a prospective customer, he was literally left out in the cold.
May also had a policy of forbidding entrance to uniformed soldiers. In response to that policy, a downtown bar owner kept a supply of civilian clothes on hand for those soldiers.
Although May had strict rules regarding who could visit her brothel and enjoy the company of her girls, she did occasionally experience the ire of rejected men. A 1916 Napa Daily Journal article reported one such incident. “The resort of May Howard at 5 Clinton Street in the local tenderloin district was invaded by a band of hoodlums … who attempted to break down the front door of the house after their admittance was rejected by the proprietress.”
The Journal continued, “When the ruffians still persisted in demanding entrance, May went to the door and remonstrated with them. The invaders persisted and applied numerous vile epithets to her, which angered the proprietress to such an extent that she went to her room and secured a revolver and, on returning, fired two shots into Clinton Street with the intention of terrifying the obnoxious gang.”
This gutsy action might have been rooted in the place and time May is said to have gotten her start in the business. Numerous sources claim May was a prostitute in the Yukon during its Gold Rush era.
Regarding the 1916 incident, the Journal reported, “The bunch, many of whom are known by the police, then retaliated by showering the house with bricks, which was quickly followed by May phoning a ‘hurry up call’ to the police station.” But when Patrolmen Hein and Wooden arrived, the offenders quickly scattered and, as a result, evaded arrest.
Typically, however, May’s bordello was safe and secure. Throughout the years, its unassuming facade and casual air allowed even the most prominent Napans to visit May’s house. In fact, because of this attitude these men parked their recognizable vehicles in plain-sight without a care of public disclosure. Some long-ago Napans admitted they found observing the arrivals and departures of May’s customers to have been quite interesting and even amusing. But there were occasions when those observers provided the comical moments, such as the following account from the 1950s.
According to a lifelong Napan, she and three young adult companions staked out May’s house. These four spies were in a car parked at a safe distance from May’s brothel. At one point during that evening, the driver accidentally got his hand stuck between the car horn ring and the steering wheel. With the horn blaring continuously, and fearing arrest, the two young women passengers ran away at the orders of their beaus. The women literally took sanctuary in St. John’s Catholic Church. Eventually, the police did arrive, but they rendered aid and assistance, not arrests.
Next week’s column will conclude the story of May Howard, her house and life.