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Sex And Jacksonville: Lascivious Legacy of Jax, Part 1!

Did you know that at one time, one of Jville's most important industries was prostitution? A Jacksonville man is considered the creator of gay porn. Another Jville native was the most expensive male prostitute in the world. Cora Crane, arguably the most fascinating Grande Madame in the history of this country's bordellos, made her home here and that's only the beginning of the surprising history of sex in Jacksonville! Join us after the jump for details!

Published March 23, 2013 in Culture      16 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

It would really be hard to imagine what Jacksonville would have been like without the influence of the grand madames--whether in terms of their architectural tastes, or their general capital investments into nearly all facets of entertainment, or their sumptuous sensibilities---- or the general aura of disportment which characterized the city.

After all, the word 'resort' used to have an entirely different connotation in the Victorian world, and Jville was one of the most famous 'resort' towns in the world.

The city was a major transportation junction located in a tropical paradise, and as so many others have noted before, the wealthy of the world flocked here for rest and entertainment.  Not only were there 14 national passenger train companies that made regular stops in Jacksonville, but they connected with the great steamships, including the famous Clyde Steam Lines in downtown.  Trade and commerce, and the idylls of the wealthy made Jacksonville fat with money and wonderful nonsense.  Frilly buildings, surprising tropical exhibitions,  and above all, a glittering nightlife that made it the draw of the entire eastern seaboard.

It was also an important trade route to the Caribbean, and ships laden with the excess of Puerto Rico and the ports of the Caribbean exchanged cargo with the great rail lines that exported the booty on throughout the mainland of the United States.

Jacksonville Docks. Courtesy of Shorpy.

And where there are thousands of working men away from families, either on sea or rails, there is going to be a vibrant sex trade, and in this respect, Jacksonville was exceptional.  Combined with the well padded wallets of thousands of business travelers, the industry rose from wooden frame abodes to marble, plaster jigsaw work and solid brick with well appointed columns.  The madames became legendary, rich, and then influential.  They shoveled money into the primarily black entertainment community of LaVilla, providing employment and a certain sartorial sense to the nascent blues musicians beginning to express themselves here in Jacksonville.  

An entire boulevard became the home to the bordellos.  Ward Street.  At the height of the era, there were over 64 separate bordellos and brothels all centered around the old glittering boulevard.

"The Line" was how the bordello district was known throughout the resort visiting world. Railmen, wealthy travelers, steamship passengers (and crews) and merchant marines far and wide were drawn to Jacksonville by it.  What and where was it?  It went for about five blocks along old Ward Street on the west end of downtown, near the Union Terminal. Today, Ward Street is called "Houston Street" and almost every structure that was along it was literally torn up by its roots and sent to line the river between 1960 and 1984.  Only one former "female boarding house" remains standing now, because the rest were literally dynamited and ripped out of the ground by later generations of Baptist Pork Chop Gangers.

Properly, "The Line" was comprised of the two long blocks on which both sides of the street were fronted by the gorgeous facades of the Great Houses.  And no expense was spared for the public accomodation and aesthetics of the Line in its heyday. As a result, it had great effect on the community around it.  Between The Line and the gorgeously rococco detailed buildings of the Astor Block, the architectural tastes and aesthetics of Old Jacksonville were defined.

As you couldn't be considered a Great House without a resident Piano player (called a 'Professor") even the smaller venues had to pay for musicians in an age before recorded music and amplified sound.  The industry had very specific kinds of needs that would go on and shape the DNA of Jacksonville.  One wonders how the excellent musical history of the city got its start.  Easily enough.  A fifty year period in which entertainment was a paramount concern in the hotels, bordellos and bars owned by the Great Madames.

But don't count out the dressmakers, the shoe designers, the furniture makers and the doctors.

If you can visualize the health issues that come along with 80,000 people descending on a city from all over the globe, served by another 50,000 local residents, and an equal number of sailors, merchant marines and rail workers flowing in and out of the streets of downtown, then one can quickly appreciate why there were so many excellent doctors, surgeons, and experimental medical practitioners in Jacksonville at the turn of the Century.

The Ward Street Red Light District

The excellent Sanborn Insurance Company made many detailed maps of the cities, rating each kind of structure for its potential to burn and thereby cause liability.  In the case of Jacksonville's downtown, the category for a bordello, brothel, or old fashioned "House of Assignment' was listed discreetly as 'female boarding house'

At the height of their power, the Madames of the Great Houses were something to be reckoned with:  Belle Orloff, Ethel Dreme, Lyda DeCamp, and of course the most extraordinary of them all: Cora Crane.

The Bordellos were near and dear to the hearts of Jacksonville, which kept the practice legal until 1953.

They won elections, and by some strange coincidence, were the only district downtown completely untouched by the Great Fire of 1901

In the picture below, the far west end of The Line is amongst the first in the city to get modern plumbing installed.

Laying pipe on Ward Street. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

article by Stephen Dare

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March 22, 2013, 10:31:57 AM


March 22, 2013, 11:16:07 AM
This looks like a really fantastic piece. Looking forward to reading it (away from the prying eyes of company IT) :D


March 22, 2013, 11:19:56 AM
P.S. Amazing how much things would change by 1980:


March 22, 2013, 11:24:53 AM
P.S. Amazing how much things would change by 1980:

I love how creepy the article about the anti porn people sounds now. ;)  great find! 

What most people didnt know is that the majority of the porn theatres had been long time leassors of property personally owned by (yes, you guessed it!) one of the pastors involved with the crackdown.

When one of the pastor's congregation got angry and started making threats about it, the pastor stepped up the public crusade against his own tenant and eventually declined to renew the leases.


March 22, 2013, 11:29:21 AM
Michael Thevis was based out of Atlanta.


March 22, 2013, 11:31:55 AM

Jacskonville,Florida had an Ellwest Stereo Theater back in the 70’s.It featured a single screen as well as multiple peepshow screens and later they added live shows,where a patron put in quarters or tokens and watched a woman perform nude behind a glass screen.The theater was closed down in 1981 following pressure from anti porn groups and later demolished after it was accidently set on fire by some homeless people.


March 22, 2013, 11:34:26 AM
Also the company still exists in jville.  its address (amusingly) is
501 W Adams St
Jacksonville, FL 32202


March 22, 2013, 11:40:36 AM
Also sad news for Jake Godbold today.  His wife Jean (who was a very dear woman) also passed away.

Jean Godbold, the wife of former Jacksonville Mayor Jake Godbold, died this morning. She was 82.
Mrs. Godbold died of complications from a stroke, said her son, Ben Godbold.
The Godbolds were married for 57 years.



March 24, 2013, 11:27:42 PM
Im so disappointed! I had hoped after a few days this excellent story would have some interesting comments.A fascinating glimpse of the Jax that used to be,I never dreamed we were so cosmopalitan at one time,what the heck happened?


March 24, 2013, 11:30:36 PM
I never dreamed we were so cosmopalitan at one time,what the heck happened?

There's the ten million dollar question right there.


March 25, 2013, 12:34:08 AM
I never dreamed we were so cosmopalitan at one time,what the heck happened?

There's the ten million dollar question right there.


April 10, 2013, 02:29:44 PM
Really looking forward to Part 2!


July 18, 2013, 10:07:59 AM
Laying pipe on Ward Street indeed.


August 21, 2013, 10:42:50 AM
In the late 50s, the most accessible brothel in town was South of the Border Truck stop in St. Johns County on US 1, run by a long time madam Dorothy Lee, but the Green Lantern off Lem Turner Road was still operating, as were several places along Philips Highway and out 17 on the northside. The Shore Patrol used to public a list that was posted in the old greyhound bus station of these places and others as off limits to military personnel. So if you wanted to know where they were, you could go down to the bus station to see the list. It was rumored that the sheriffs of St. Johns and Duval knew about Dorothy Lee and that they received a piece of the action. Just a rumor though.


January 30, 2014, 03:27:48 PM
P.S. Amazing how much things would change by 1980:

and then we installed cable tv and invented vcrs.  lol


January 30, 2014, 03:35:57 PM

I hope you write a book on this subject and use this as the title & cover.
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