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Boise Beginnings - Prostitution & The Growth of Downtown

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

There are sides to Boise's history that directly confront the squeaky clean image often illustrated in the past. One of the pillar's of Boise City's early economy was vice, and especially prostitution.

Image: 75-157-7, Boise Main Street - Starling Hotel Ca. 1915, courtesy of the Idaho State Historical Society.

Establishments like the Starling Hotel (pictured) once located on Main Street, set aside rooms and even entire floors, to be used by prostitutes and their "Johns."

Idahistory: Mini-Histories – Boise's Beginnings - Prostitution

By Mark Iverson.

After George Grimes discovered gold in the Boise Basin in 1862, the Union Army quickly established Fort Boise in July of 1863, at the point where the road into the basin and the Oregon Trail intersected. Boise City was platted soon after and, like many other mining towns throughout the Pacific Northwest, its population was almost entirely male.

Saloons and parlor houses sprang up almost immediately. In Boise, some of the earliest documented parlor houses, often rudimentary facilities attached to saloons known as cribs, materialized at the juncture of 6th and Idaho Streets, the route to Fort Boise and Idaho City beyond. Prostitution stimulated Boise’s economy as did patrons of parlor houses who purchased beer and liquor. Drunk men spent their money on prostitutes.

Breweries and distilleries flourished and eventually Boise City profited from the sale of licenses, the collection of taxes, and payments of fines. As Boise grew and evolved, prostitution adapted. After 1892 most madams and pimps moved operations to Levy’s Alley, named after local property owner and pimp Davis Levy, the current location of Boise City Hall and the Department of Human Resources more specifically.

Operations moved to the alleys of Boise to avoid the scrutiny from “polite society,” quickly growing tired of the visibility of Boise’s underbelly. Hotels and boarding houses such as the Starling Hotel, once located at 716 Main Street in Boise, maintained floors or rooms devoted to the sex trade.

Though ordinances were passed to hinder the ability of prostitutes to work within Boise, many government officials and lawmen conveniently looked the other way. The majority of prostitutes led hard lives. Chinese prostitutes suffered the worst degradations imaginable. They often endured horrendous physical and sexual abuse after being sold to Chinese or Euro-American pimps and kept in a state of sexual slavery. Non-Chinese women also suffered. Often times, the loss of family members left dependent young women to the mercies of the unforgiving American West. Without options, and many times with dependents to look after, unfortunate women resorted to prostitution to live.

Yet Boise’s citizenry viewed prostitutes as a “necessary evil,” by saving “decent women” from the uncontrolled lust of male society. Despite the economic boon prostitution represented, and, in spite of the vital role society determined they played, prostitutes never enjoyed the benefits of being a profitable demographic of Boise’s population. Whether Boiseans like it or not, Boise prospered, in part, because prostitutes worked its streets and filled the coffers of politicians, officials, and businessmen. Look around while you stroll downtown, especially along 6th and Idaho Streets. You are, for certain, treading ground walked by the prostitutes, “johns,” and pimps of long-ago Boise.

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