Loading…

Stella: When Only the Best Will Do

Prostitution in Victoria probably began with the founding of Fort Victoria. Lonely fur traders, far from civilization, were undoubtedly seeking trysts with native ladies from day one. The population of the Fort was small though, and activity was probably limited. This changed dramatically with the Cariboo Gold Rush. By 1858 the Rush was in full swing and thousands of newcomers were passing through Victoria. Many of these men wanted female companionship, and women were soon there to fill the demand. The authorities mostly ignored it. They accepted the selling of sex as a fact of life, and only really responded if violence was involved. Prostitutes picked up by the police were released immediately, but drunk and disorderly behaviour was dealt with harshly.

Gradually brothels emerged in Victoria to serve different clientele. The highest quality houses were around Broughton and Courtney Streets. They catered to society’s upper crust, such as members of the nearby Union Club, and were not raided by the police. The bulk of the sex trade though was conducted further north. Herald, Chatham and Fisgard Streets were the heart of the red light district, with some brothels also on Broad and Johnson. Here the sailors, workmen and others further down the social scale could be entertained. Business boomed in the nineteenth century. Even in 1891 there were far more men than women in Victoria, and something of the frontier prevailed.

Onto this scene came Stella Carroll. Born in Missouri, she had grown up in the rough-and-tumble American West. The eldest of four motherless children, she soon became the head of her family. Her alcoholic father was frequently absent, and the family had to struggle to survive. At one point they were forced to live in sod huts. From this background Stella developed into a mature, capable woman, with the necessary management skills to survive. She also acquired a sharp eye for real estate, undoubtedly fueled by her wish never to live in sod huts again.

In her early twenties Stella started buying real estate, and began to build up some personal capital. By age twenty five, with two failed marriages behind her, she went to San Francisco to seek her fortune. Opportunities for women were much fewer than today, but one business had great possibilities. Brothels were traditionally run by women, and were in high demand. For a woman with financial and household skills it was an obvious way to go. She was not interested in being a prostitute herself. She wanted to run the show.

Stella became friends with Tessie Wall, who was probably the top madam in San Francisco. Tessie ran a very high quality establishment, just the sort of place Stella wanted for herself. And Tessie was generous. She took Stella under her wing and mentored her in the trade. With a few years training Stella was ready to take the plunge herself.

Stella now had to choose where to set up shop. San Francisco already had many houses, but there were other possibilities. Seattle, Vancouver or Victoria were all good markets. Fate intervened for Stella. In 1899 she went to visit her friend Vera Ashton, who ran a brothel in Victoria. Vera was about to sell her business to another woman named Marval Conn. But while Stella was there Ms Conn had a terrible accident, and died. While upset at this death, Stella had the sense to realize that this was an opportunity. Taking Vera aside, she proposed to step in and conclude the purchase. Vera agreed, and Stella became the proprietor of a fine, two-story establishment in the Duck Block on Broad Street.

Stella was lucky that her new landlord was Simeon Duck. He was a well-connected local politician with a liberal attitude to prostitution. With his protection she made the house even finer. Her furnishings were always meticulous, and she did much of the housekeeping herself. Few could meet her standard. She ran the establishment like a boarding house, with the girls paying her rent. They kept the proceeds, while Stella made her money on the sale of liquor.

Things went well for the next few years. With Duck’s protection she had minimal interference from the police, and could concentrate on running the business. But Duck died in 1905. And, unluckily for Stella, there was a rising tide for “moral reform” in the city. Politicians were being forced to control prostitution. In 1906 a reformer, Alfred Morley, was elected mayor. He and the police chief had a meeting with Stella, where they struck an unofficial deal. If Stella would move her business out of downtown and over to Herald Street, the de facto red light district, the police would not trouble her. This way the mayor could be seen as tackling the prostitution problem, without upsetting the demand for this service. So Stella made the move. But citizens’ groups and the local newspaper continued to demand moral reform. The authorities were forced to renege on their deal, and the police continued to raid Stella’s operation. Angry though she was, Stella was forced to recognize the new reality. She began to think of leaving the business entirely.

In 1908, though, a new opportunity arose. Rockwood, a beautiful mansion and estate on Gorge Road, was up for sale. As well as being a superb place for a high-class brothel, it had two advantages. First it was in Saanich, which meant that Stella could escape from the Victoria police. Second, it was on the Gorge Waterway, so customers could come discreetly by boat. Stella bought it, and set to work to make it the finest brothel Victoria had ever seen. Expensive furnishings from Europe, oriental rugs, nothing was too good for this house. Stella’s own appearance set the tone. She wore dresses of hand-made lace from Ireland, and diamonds in her hair. Her undergarments were tight and uncomfortable, but gave her a regal and commanding appearance. For entertainment, she had an excellent piano player and a new phonograph. And of course she had the best girls. She had truly fulfilled her dreams.

But, sad to say, troubles continued to dog her. Moral reform, whether it was directed at sex or alcohol, was a movement sweeping North America. It would culminate in Prohibition in the 1920s. But some of Stella’s problems were her own doing. Unlike the downtown houses, hers was still being raided by the police. The owners of those houses, though, were quiet and discreet, with good political ties. Stella was always the flamboyant outsider. She would, for example sue a non-paying customer in court, when good sense should have told her not to. When the police arrested her and hauled her into court she would rage at the magistrate. And her private life caused problems. She had violent lovers, one of whom shot her in the leg and caused it to be amputated. She herself was known on occasion to hit a girl. In a still very British town this was not the accepted norm.

Her worst problem, though, was not her doing. Her long time lawyer and confidante, Todd Aikman, betrayed her. He accepted the job of Saanich prosecutor, and was thus in the position of taking Stella to court. With him knowing all her business secrets Saanich was not the safe haven it once was.

Stella began to think of leaving Victoria. After a few more stormy years she went to visit her friend Tessie Wall in San Francisco. There she discovered that Tessie was leaving the profession, and was selling her business. Stella bought it, and left Victoria in 1913. Except for a brief visit a few years later, she left for good.

But business in San Francisco was difficult as well. Moral reform groups were as active there as they were in Victoria. Also, her friend Tessie had become emotionally erratic, and would not leave the house. The end was in sight. When the First World War was over she decided to leave the sex trade. Tired and ill from her leg, she became the landlady of a boarding house.

The remaining years of her life were happy, then sad. She married a decent man, and had twelve good years of marriage. As well, she was close to her siblings, and enjoyed entertaining her nephews and nieces. But her husband died in an accident, and the insurance company refused to pay up. Her last years were penniless and lonely. Her family were a comfort though, and she would make notes in her scrapbook of her wonderful memories. She died in 1946.

People seeing her in these last years could scarcely have imagined the rich life she had led. They are not alone. Until recently people could not easily find information on her. In our Heritage Room, for instance, we have no clipping files on Stella Carroll.

This situation changed three years ago, when Linda Eversole published her book Stella: Unrepentant Madam, which introduced us to a fascinating and important member of our past, a past we are only now willing to acknowledge. We can now see Stella as a pioneer businesswoman, someone who overcame the handicaps of poverty and being a woman in a man’s world. Prostitution was one of the few opportunities a woman had, and she made the most of it. She had the misfortune to live in an oppressive era, but she dealt, usually successfully, with the obstacles in her path. Her recognition is long overdue, and we are all in Ms Eversole’s debt.

Postscript

Stella’s beloved Rockwood burnt down in 1923. The Duck Block however, where Stella had her first brothel, still stands on Broad Street. Also still standing is her brothel on Herald Street, which now houses the Youth Hospitality Training Centre. This Centre offers temporary housing and skills training for youth at risk. Stella was very fond of young people and was known for helping those in distress. Her own childhood had been very hard, and she would have empathised with those needing a helping hand. The Centre serves as a fitting memorial to her.

Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian
July, 2008