Santa Cruz County History - Crime & Public Safety

Harlots and Whorehouses: Lust in the Valley of El Pajaro, Part 1
by Phil Reader

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


The town of Watsonville sits nestled in a beautiful pastoral valley alongside the meandering Pajaro River in southern Santa Cruz County.

Agriculture has always been the major industry of the area, but during the l9th century, lust may very well have been a close second. Historian Betty Lewis in Memories that Linger [1980] calls Watsonville a "sin city" where "shady Ladies were run out of town so many times it became ludicrous - each time was for 'the last time.'"

In 1871, under pressure from church and temperance groups, the town council passed an ordinance "to prohibit and suppress houses of prostitution, ill fame, disorderly houses, and brothels within the town of Watsonville. It shall be unlawful to open or maintain any house of prostitution, ill fame, disorderly house, or brothel within the corporate limits of the town of Watsonville..." This order, of course, had the desired effect - none. But it did quiet, for a while at least, the forces of purity and chastity.

It was here that Madame Pauline got her start in 1867 and where Bob Christy and Jim Handley ended their colorful local careers, when Judge Dibble proceeded to shut down the "Abbey" with it's infamous collection of curiosities and photographs in 1883. "Spanish Mary" was perhaps the best known resident of the extensive red-light district near the river.

The suburbs of Watsonville were equally well known for their pleasure palaces and their dens of wickedness. The renowned Whiskey Hill (Freedom), where Jose Maria Gutierrez held forth, was for many years a "must stop" local for the vaqueros, lumberjacks, and bandidos to let off steam on a Saturday night. The Chinatown district near the corner of Maple and Union Streets was another haunt for the stalwart painted ladies. In 1888, when John T. Porter moved the Chinese across the river into a settlement called "Brooklyn on the Pajaro," the prostitutes were quick to follow.

"Spanish Mary" Rodriguez

Maria Rodriguez was indeed the black sheep of the prominent Rodriguez family of Watsonville. Her grandparents were Sabastian and Perfecta Rodriguez, grantees of Rancho Bolsa del Pajaro, who had given the downtown plaza to the people of Watsonville. She was born October 2, 1850 to Pedro and Candida Rodriguez.

Maria was a wild young lady who, at an early age, went to work at Madame Pauline's pleasure palace on the corner of Bridge and Main Streets. The local boys gave her the name of "Spanish Mary" and she was a great favorite at Pauline's for many years.

During the mid-1870s, she opened a brothel of her own on Main Street between Maple and Bridge, just across the street from Tom Kennedy's Eclipse Livery Stables and the Lewis Hotel. Mary, along with nine other house operators, was arrested on nuisance charges on New Year's Eve, 1878 during a sweep of lower Main Street by Marshal W. S. Neal. She pled guilty and was fined $40.

One of her regular clients was a wealthy farmer named Robert Gallagher. On the night of December 21, 1883, two attempts were made to burn down her house. During the first, two cans of phosphorus were thrown under the house and ignited. Rags soaked with coal oil were used the second time. Alert neighbors were able to extinguish both fires. Had they not been successful, the whole lower block of Main Street - which was entirely made up of wood-framed structures - would surely have gone up in flames.

"Spanish Mary" filed arson charges against Gallagher, citing a fight which they had earlier that day as the cause. Gallagher denied the charges and claimed that Mary and a freebooter named Antone Avedino were attempting to black mail him for $2,000.

Gallagher's trial began on May 7, 1884 and lasted for three days. "Spanish Mary's" chief witness was Avedino, who swore that he had seen Gallagher running away from the house just before the fire was discovered. Charles Ford testified that he had sold the defendant several cans of phosphorus on the morning of the 21st.

Gallagher's defense lawyer, the eloquent Julius Lee, attacked Avedino's character as well as that of "Spanish Mary," describing her as a "low type." The purchase of the phosphorus, he dismissed as a mere coincidence and played off the whole affair as a vicious attempt to extort money from a good and decent family man.

Throughout the trial, the press was arrayed against Mary emphasizing the "immoral" nature of her occupation. The whole anglo community rallied to the support of Gallagher, and Lee was able to cast enough doubt on the integrity of the two Spaniards to cause the jury to become hopelessly deadlocked. So the judge was forced to dismiss all of the charges against Gallagher.

After the trial "Spanish Mary" left Watsonville, hurt and humiliated and was never heard from again. In later years, Robert Gallagher was arrested for a number of crimes, including a rather violent assault on a mother and her daughter.

Jean Daras

Jean Daras was an outcast, even among the nefarious denizens who haunted the dives along lower Main Street. This native of Belgium was, without a doubt, one of the most disreputable individuals to make his presence known on the banks of the Pajaro. During the 1880s, this old reprobate rose from whore-monger to pimp and eventually came to own several houses of prostitution in both Watsonville and Hollister. Newspapers of the time say that he was completely lacking in moral character.

His downfall began during the summer of 1892, when Constable Fred Hoagland raided one of his brothels and arrested him on a charge of keeping a disorderly house. Found working there were two underaged girls, sisters, Christine and Amelia Charade. Authorities were shocked to learn that these young women were both nieces of Daras. He appeared before Judge Swank and was sentenced to six months in the county jail and fined $500, which at the time was the maximum penalty for such a crime.

The raid on the house was the result of an investigation which grew out of a complaint filed by Henry F. Pinkham and several other concerned local citizens.

While Daras was sitting in a jail cell, a story of deception and tragedy was unfolding before the people of Watsonville. It was soon discovered that two years earlier, by dint of much persuasion, Daras had induced the girls to leave their home in Belgium and come to the United States, promising them a much better life. Upon arrival he compelled them to enter one of his brothels under the pretense that it was a custom in this country. He went so far as to seduce the girls and live with them as husband and wife.

Upon emerging from jail, Daras was re-arrested by Sheriff Jesse Cope on a charge of incest, while Christine and Amelia Charade filed a civil suit for damages, both physical and emotional. In Watsonville, feelings against Daras were running so high that there was open talk on the streets of resorting to lynch law. But this was 1893, not the 1870s.

Still the seducer's lawyer asked for and was granted a change of venue, so both trials were held at the San Benito County courthouse in Hollister.

After hearing the civil suit, the court ruled for the plaintiffs, awarding them punitive damages of $15,000. In anger, Daras refused to pay any part of the settlement and demanded a retrial. His request was denied and his property was seized by Sheriff Cope to be disposed of at auction to satisfy the judgement. However, the records showed that Daras had already sold most of his holdings to a fellow countryman in an attempt to defraud his creditors.

Meanwhile he was being tried on the incest charge. These proceedings were perhaps the most sensational ever held in the history of Hollister. Daras filed an affidavit which was said to give a record of the life his nieces had led when they were at his brothel in Hollister. It contained names and dates showing the frequency with which certain "prominent citizens" of San Benito county had visited the bagnio. However this tactic did not prove successful and Jean Daras was found guilty, and as the Hollister Free Lance so prophetically states, Daras "is well qualified to spend the balance of his days at San Quentin..." and so he did.

The Abbey

When Bob Christy and Jim Handley left Santa Cruz in 1882, they were bound for San Francisco and, hopefully, a more friendly climate. However in just a few short months they were back in Santa Cruz County. This time around they settled at Watsonville, where they opened a saloon on Rodriguez Street near the river.

Their new place, which they dubbed "The Abbey," featured nightly variety entertainments of a sensual nature as well as "a large collection of curiosities and photographs" which were said to be "immoral." The girls who so freely circulated among the customers were young and attractive. The Abbey quickly became the most popular night spot in Watsonville, so Christy and Handley held high hopes of recouping some of the losses which they had suffered when they were run out of Santa Cruz.

However just as quickly they found the town constable Fred Hoagland at their door with an order to shut the place down. On September 19, 1883, they were hauled before Justice Dibble to be tried on the charge of keeping a disorderly house. The trial which lasted for two days, fascinated the public, not because of the sterling oratory of the lawyers, but because of the dazzling collection of nude photographs which were being paraded before the court.

The defendants were eventually found guilty and fined $75 apiece or seventy-five days in jail. Because lawyer's fees had succeeded in eating up all of their capital, Christy and Handley, the would-be entrepreneurs, were forced to spend the months of October and November inside Jackson Sylvar's little stone and steel resort up on Mission Hill. Newspapers of the day fail to mention whatever became of the evidence that had been so brazenly presented by the attorneys for the prosecution.

Lust in the Valley of El Pajaro, Part 2.

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, prostitution, Watsonville


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