Tracker Pixel for Entry

​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

Recently in:

Katrina Klett grew up running in fields with bees stinging her bare feet. Her parents constantly reminded her to put on shoes, but she rarely listened. Today, the family company she helps run in Jamestown, Klett Beekeeping, has…

How long have you had your computer monitor? Is it time to get a new one? How do you know if it is time to get a new one? Many people got their monitor bundled with their computer. I don’t have too much to complain about if that…

May 31-June 1Fargo Civic Center 207 4th St N, FargoA platform for you to build your business, your unmanned expertise, or network with fellow enthusiasts. Even more useful, on May 30 and June 2, Part 107 Drone Ground Training…

We’ve just read Mike McFeely’s interview with Governor Burgum, are intrigued by the governor’s vision of the future of higher education; that online courses will largely obviate the need for campuses, tenured faculty, and…

The rich live 20 years longer than the poorSeveral recent incidents in the airline industry are sending messages to the Ninety-Nine Percent around the world. If you can’t hold it, don’t book a flight. A male passenger was…

The moment of truth has arrived. After seven weeks of sampling and judging some of the finest libations in the area the results for this year’s Cocktail Showdown have arrived. Christopher Larson, Raul Gomez and Sabrina Hornung…

Do you eat enough vegetables? Almost no one does. The current USDA nutrition guidelines for adults recommends 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables to be eaten daily. Other nutrition sources indicate this number can be upwards of 6 cups of…

Nine band lineup at The AquariumLocal radio listeners are likely to be familiar with 95.9 Radio Free Fargo, a station devoted to serving the Fargo-Moorhead area and run completely by volunteers. The station plays a little bit of…


​Killer serial makes Blu-ray debut

by Christopher P. Jacobs

“Daredevils of the Red Circle.” Who are they? What is it? Before the internet, before television, serialized drama was still a significant part of popular culture. Novels were serialized in magazines and newspapers going back…

Artist Anna Lee brings years of knowledge to Fargo in new workshopsOrganizing and participating in locally-grown fashion shows, years at corporations like Target. And now working as an independent artist, Anna Lee has done it all,…

When we had a chance to catch up with Corey Ruffin, the mastermind behind the Grand Rapids-based traveling burlesque troupe Super Happy Funtime Burlesque, he was at the repair shop getting a tune-up on their tour bus. The retired…


​Talking to strangers

by Sabrina Hornung

“I don’t have a tour, like, on the back of a sweatshirt,” comedian Paula Poundstone says. “I go out every weekend. This weekend I went out Friday, Saturday and Monday. Mostly it’s Friday/Saturday or Thursday through…

This Memorial Day weekend, thousands of hands will be reaching into icy cold coolers for a refreshing beer to wet the whistle. Mark Bjornstad, co-founder and president of Drekker Brewing Company hopes that at least once during the…


​Gut instinct

by Amber Schmidt

While many of us suffer with the occasional upset stomach, long-term digestive issues can lead to increased problems down the road. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 60 to 70…

Live and Learn

​The other shoe

by HPR Contributor

By Elizabeth Nawrotnawrot@mnstate.eduI look up from my hotel lobby breakfast astonished to see a framed print of Wassily Kandinsky's "Mit und Gegen,” a masterpiece of color and composition that just happens to be my favorite…

With the recent passage of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) by the U.S. House of Representatives, it is important to have an honest and truthful discussion regarding what the AHCA is and what it is not. But before we get into…