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​Madam Melvina Massey and the Crystal Palace

by HPR Staff | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Culture | May 3rd, 2017

The surface of the former city hall parking lot had been filled in, was much lower long ago.

It flooded nearly every spring, was called The Hollow, and was Fargo’s red light district, full of illegal swinging-door saloons -- and what are called “female boarding houses” in the old insurance maps.

The most famous house of prostitution in the history of the Red River Valley was Melvina Massey’s Crystal Palace, at what was once 201 Third Street North.

Until recently, there was a kiosk at the Second Street entrance to the City Hall parking lot. That toll booth, had it existed one hundred and ten or twenty years ago, would have been in Melvina Massey’s front yard, or hanging in the air just above it.

As the deep excavations for the new downtown floodwall and new city hall neared the site of the Crystal Palace, Professors Angela Smith and Kristen Fellows of NDSU fought desperately for access to the earth excavated from the former site of Massey’s house, negotiating with the City of Fargo up until the last possible moment.

They succeeded, their museum studies and anthropology students sifted and catalogued and wrote, and the result is ‘Uncovering Vice in Fargo-Moorhead, 1871-1920,’ an engrossing new exhibit at Bonanzaville.

The recovered items afford insight into the daily lives of sex workers, Johns, and other visitors to the Crystal Palace.

The exhibit was designed and constructed by graduate and undergraduate museum studies students of Professor Smith. Anthropology students of Professors Kristen Fellows and John Creese catalogued and researched the artifacts recovered, and wrote the exhibit’s commentary.

At any given time in that period, there were six to a dozen such houses in Fargo. The sex workers in them were in a higher category than streetwalkers or women who made use of tiny shacks built for the purpose, close to the river.

Though the women in the houses had better pay and more comfort, they, like other sex workers everywhere, were probably in a state of involuntary servitude. The exhibit is important in that it’s a point of departure on the way to discovering more about their daily lives and eventual outcomes.

It also places The Hollow’s illegal saloons, violence, and prostitution, in the context of the disapproving culture of the time, the futile efforts to eliminate these activities; and official tolerance, since they were an important source of income for the city.

The objects recovered from the excavation are not the whole exhibition. The research into local history began in 2013 and has continued to the present day.

“I am interested in discovering information beyond the sources available in the archives,” writes Dr. Smith, “because I need to go deeper. I am continuing the research and want my next project to be a book about Massey and the context of her life. I am particularly interested in understanding the social and cultural dynamic of her life -- given that she was probably born in slavery.”

We look forward to Dr. Angela Smith’s book. Meanwhile, there is a lot to absorb in the exhibit, and many of her students and Professors Fellows and Creese’s will be present on the exhibit’s opening night, and hopefully authorized to comment and enter into conversation with interested lay people such as ourselves. We have lots of questions.

The mention of drugs in the exhibit’s description makes us wonder if recovered artifacts include evidence of the use of laudanum, the 19th century opiate. It could have been used to make the workers’ lives more tolerable, to lessen pain, or to addict them so that they were less likely to escape.

Laudanum is a mixture of alcohol and opium, 10% opium, a strong painkiller and highly addictive. It was sold without prescription until the early 20th century.

It’s been substantiated that Massey’s astuteness and business acumen kept her house open as others were driven out. But was it partly because of the pervasive racism of the era? Were she and her employees not thought of as a threat to public morals, while their competitors were? Perhaps one of the professors or students would care to comment.

Another thing we don’t quite understand is the concept of ‘privatism’ in Carroll Engelhardt, ‘Gateway to the Northern Plains,’ and we’ll be asking about that as well. See you there!


Uncovering Vice in Fargo-Moorhead, 1871-1920

Opening night reception, Monday, May 8, 7pm

Main Gallery, Bonanzaville

1351 Main Ave W, West Fargo

Opening night admission free of charge



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