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San Antonio's Blue Book

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Born in San Antonio in 1870, banker Jesse D. Oppenheimer saw a lot of change in his 94 years.

One of those changes involved Texas’s transition from the wild and wooly “anything goes” mentality of the Old West to a more staid attitude. Not that vice went away, it just went underground.

“I remember when San Antonio was the ‘widest open’ city of its size,” Oppenheimer wrote in a short memoir called “I Remember,” published not long after his death in 1964.

That civic permissiveness, common in all Texas towns of any size, allowed or ignored saloons offering gambling as well as booze, horse racing, cockfights and legally and socially accepted prostitution.

“Open gambling was indulged in at the Silver King, Revolving Light, White Elephant, Jack Harris and other minor resorts,” Oppenheimer continued.

Beyond the gambling, the Alamo City offered residents and visitors a robust night life scene. The better known places included The Fashion, Jack Harris’ Star and the Gray Mule.

At those theaters, Oppenheimer wrote, “Girls were engaged to circulate among the audience to induce patrons to buy beer at $1 per bottle receiving 20 cents per bottle as a commission.”

Elsewhere, woman made money in a different way.

“The Red Light district was on the west side known as ‘across the creek’ (San Pedro) where the Resorts were situated,” the aging banker continued. While offering no details on how he knew the names of some of those “resorts,” Oppenheimer proceeded to list them for posterity’s sake: There was Lilly Gibson’s, Sadie Ray’s, Ignacia Cortes’s, Ione Palmer’s, Mande Campbell’s and, on Elm Street on the east side of town, a place known as Fort Allen. Some of the other houses of ill repute were known only by the digits of their address, as in 555, 101-110 and 777.

“During the afternoons, the landladies [better known as madams] would ride in open hacks through the principal streets, each accompanied by several girls all dressed in extravagant fashion,” he recalled.

And that’s all Oppenheimer had to say about the bawdy side of old San Tone, but there is another publication that illuminates the era of open prostitution in Texas. Reprinted in a facsimile edition in the early 1970s, “The Blue Book for Visitors, Tourists and Those Seeking a Good Time While in San Antonio, Texas” initially sold for a quarter.

Apparently written by Billie Keilman, proprietor of the Beauty Saloon (not to be confused with a beauty salon) the blue-hued booklet came out annually. The edition later reprinted by Alamo City historian and longtime Bexar County district clerk Elton Cude was originally published in 1911.

The booklet’s preface notes that the Blue Book was intended as “an accurate guide to those who are seeking a good time.” Referring to the booklet, the publisher continued, would put “the stranger and visitor” on “a proper and safe path as to where he may go and feel secure from ‘hold-ups’ and any other game usually practiced upon the stranger.”

Despite that ostensibly assuring comment, the booklet came with this warning in large caps: “Do Not Mail This Book.” That’s because the U.S. Post Office Department back then likely considered the publication illegally naughty, though the preface seeks to address that by noting that any reader “expecting to be regaled with lewd and obscene reading matter, will be sadly disappointed; as outside of some harmless wit or toasts, it contains only what necessary information is required to make it a directory.”

The publisher also noted with obvious pride that the Blue Book was only the second such publication of its kind in the U.S., the only other being one done in that noted party town, New Orleans.

Filled with ads, the 26-page booklet breaks the good houses of ill repute into three classes, A, B and C. The “metropolis of Texas” had 24 Class A establishments, 20 mid-range houses and 62 bottom rung joints even though a consumer was supposed to assume that the writer vouched-safe for all 106 businesses.

The Sporting District, as it was called, extended “south on South Santa Rosa Street for three blocks, beginning at Dolorosa Street, thence from the 100 block to the end of the 500 block on Matamoras Street, thence from the 200 block to the 500 block on South Concho Street, and lastly the 100 block on Monterey Street.”

A visiting conventioneer could presumably pay for feminine companionship elsewhere in town, but the area described in the booklet was “the boundary within which the women are compelled to live according to law.”

For gentlemen interested in the progression from first to third base in a more traditional sense, the booklet listed the San Antonio Texas League baseball schedule.

Also touted in the booklet were the Alamo City’s two cock pits, the Monterrey at 302 S. Santa Ross and the nearby Ogden’s Cock Pit at 225 S. Santa Rosa. Both places had fights starting at 8 p.m. on Saturday’s and, in difference to the church crowd, beginning at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Admission to both places was 15 cents.

No matter the form of entertainment offered in the Sporting District, the party finally ended in 1941, when the military banned its thousands of San Antonio-based soldiers and airmen from going to the area and prevailed on city officials to shut it down.


© Mike Cox - March 12, 2014 column
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