Santa Cruz County History - Crime & Public Safety

Harlots and Whorehouses: Lust in the Valley of El Pajaro, Part 2
by Phil Reader

"Stories of the World's Oldest Profession in 19th Century Santa Cruz County"

The Brothels of Whiskey Hill

It has been said that Whiskey Hill is the spot where the residents of the Pajaro Valley went to quench their thirst and this does indeed seem to be the case.

It sprang into existence at the juncture of the Santa Cruz Road (Freedom Boulevard) and the trail up to Green Valley (Green Valley Road) at about the same time that Watsonville began to grow on the banks of the Pajaro River. By 1852, it was already a motley collection of a dozen rude shanties scattered along the road, each one containing a cantina which catered to the vaqueros of the San Andreas and Los Corralitos Ranchos. They featured, not only whiskey and "aguardiente" of the more volatile brew, but also gaming tables and hordes of randy women. The saloons and brothels of Whiskey Hill were said to be among the most wicked and wild in the state.

It was Jose Maria Gutierrez, who for many years ran the meanest little whorehouse at Whiskey Hill. The girls were hard, the gambling tables - rigged, and the fandangos - deadly. Gutierrez, was a native of old Spain, who had arrived at California via Guadalajara, Mexico in 1845. A particularly exciting time at the Gutierrez saloon was on the 16th day of September during the celebration of Mexican Independence Day. This yearly fiesta was usually accompanied by at least one shooting or knifing. In 1872, the victim of a shooting was Garcia Rodriguez, a young bandido from Branciforte.

Another saloon and brothel which enjoyed a lively name at Whiskey Hill was operated by Jim Enemark. It was here that Elsie Twitchell was working just prior to the day that she was stabbed by Benino Soqui during a "domestic" quarrel under the Pajaro bridge in 1893. The incident almost cost Elsie her life and resulted in Soqui spending eight years at San Quentin. After recuperation young Elsie returned to a life of sin at Enemark's.

Whiskey Hill's reputation for booze and lust spread far and wide making it a favorite watering hole for the likes of Joaquin Murrieta (so it is said), Tiburcio Vasquez, and Juan Soto, as well as local "bad boys" Faustino Lorenzana, Jose Rodriguez, and Ignacio Tejada.

In 1877 the citizens decided to change the name of the village to Freedom perhaps in the hope that by adopting a more placid appellation there would be a corresponding change in reputation. If indeed that was a part of their thinking it proved to be singularly unsuccessful, as the fighting, drinking, and sinning continued on into the 20th century.

Chinatown and "Brooklyn on the Pajaro"

The "Chinatowns" of Watsonville were always hotbeds of prostitution. This is due in part, of course, to the arbitrary restrictions which were placed on Asian immigrants. Spurred on by tremendous pressure from racist factions, lawmakers passed statutes severely limiting the immigration of oriental women, thereby opening the door to prostitution.

The first Chinese ghetto in Watsonville was located along Main Street at the corner of Maple. During the 1870s there were several houses of ill-repute which pandered to the needs of Chinese farm laborers that had only recently been imported to work in the fields of the Pajaro Valley.

Perhaps the best known Chinese prostitute of the era to work the Chinatown district was Ah Foy, who had come to Watsonville via San Francisco in the late 1860s. She was still in the area at the time of the move over into Pajaro, when she was well into her forties. Among the other Chinese pimps were Wo Kee, Heong Kong arrested with "Spanish Mary" on New Years Day, 1878 - and an import from Santa Cruz named Den Kee.

In the October 16, 1871 issue of the Watsonville Pajaronian , Editor C. O. Cummings published an article titled "Chinese Houses" which read in part

"It is a well known fact that there are several disreputable Chinese houses right in the center of town; the inmates stand at the door and invite customers; a low class congregate around them, not only after night but often during the day, making themselves obnoxious to respectable people who's business calls them to the neighborhood."

He then goes on to point out that earlier that month the town trustees had passed an ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting their properties out to those who would use the premises as disorderly houses. Cummings ends the piece by chastising these "greedy" landlords saying

"We hope the town authorities will see that their ordinance is enforced, and that these miserable wretches are removed to other quarters. If not, we trust that the owners of the houses, that are so lost to all sense of decency and shame, be made to feel where they are most sensitive by fining them heavily till the nuisance be removed."

This editorial, as its title definitely states, was aimed strictly at the Chinese brothels because it fails to mention that just two doors down from Chinatown was Madame Pauline's bagnio, and directly across the street could be found "Spanish Mary" and her house of delight.

It would be another decade before Editor Cummings would have his way. In the interim, California would witness the rise and fall of the Workingman's Party with its racist slogan "The Chinese Must Go!" as well as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. On many occasions, local toughs attempted to run the Chinese out of town and there were an untold number of violent attacks on these hapless immigrants. Finally in 1888, John T. Porter, the ex-sheriff who owned all of the buildings in Chinatown, packed up the Chinese and moved them over the river into a new settlement in the Pajaro district. The prostitutes and pimps were quick to follow and before long they were back in business.

One of the saloons in "Brooklyn on the Pajaro," as the new Chinatown was called, was operated by Sam Dunlap, a former Watsonville town constable. He ran a string of girls out of the house which included both orientals and caucasians. One of the most violent episodes in the history of Brooklyn happened at Dunlap's Saloon on the night of October 6, 1889 and it occurred when Sam was away on business in San Francisco.

There was a tough calling himself Ralph Lednert (and several other aliases) who pimped in some of the houses on lower Main Street. On the night of the 6th, he crossed the bridge into Brooklyn looking for one of his girls, wishing to avail himself of her services. He went into Dunlap's where she sometimes worked and found her in one of the second-story rooms already engaged in business with Charlie Porter, a waiter at the Lewis House, so Lednert ordered the young man out. But Porter, who had already paid his hard earned money, refused to budge from the bed. In a fit of anger, the pimp pulled out a large knife and began slashing everything in the room. When the cutting was done, he went down stairs and calmly ordered a drink. Someone in the place sent out for Constable Riley of Pajaro Township.

Upon entering the bedroom, Riley found Porter and the lady in question laying on the floor bleeding profusely from numerous wounds on the face and body. The lawman proceeded down to the bar and arrested Lednert and one of the Tait boys, who was drinking with him.

As they walked out onto the porch, Lednert jerked away, pulled a pistol out of his shirt, and opened fire on Riley. The constable dropped to the ground just as a bullet knocked the hat off his head. He quickly drew his own revolver and exchanged shots with the two men as they retreated down the street toward the bridge.

Riley mounted up and rode into Watsonville where he rousted Constable Fred Hoagland from a sound sleep. They followed the desperados along the Pajaro River in the direction of Santa Cruz in a futile attempt to recapture them.

Meanwhile back at Dunlap's Saloon, a doctor cleaned and dressed the wounds which had been inflicted by Lednert's knife. At first it was thought that both Porter and the girl had suffered mortal wounds, but the two "lovers" managed to survive their ordeal and carried the scars of this incident for the remainder of their lives.

Harlots and Whorehouses: Notes and References

Excerpted from: It Is Not My Intention to Be Captured. Copyright 1995 Phil Reader. Reproduced with the permission of Phil Reader.

View similarly tagged articles:

brothels, Chinatown, Freedom, prostitution, Watsonville


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