Cincinnati’s White-Slavery Crusader Couldn’t Resist Forbidden Sweets

When the head of the city’s Vigilance Society was discovered naked in the bed of a known prostitute, he uttered a most unusual statement.
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When Leonard A. Watson, officer of the court, was discovered naked in the bed of a known prostitute, he uttered a most unusual statement.

Watson was the Secretary—essentially the executive director—of Cincinnati’s Vigilance Society. The society was devoted to ending white slavery, the seduction of young women into prostitution. According to a report Watson compiled for national distribution, prostitution in Cincinnati was worse than anywhere in the United States.

From Cincinnati Post 29 December 1911 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

“When Detective Sergeant Bowler of Chicago was in Cincinnati, early in the month of February, 1911, and walking through the outskirts of the ‘red light’ district with me, between eight and nine o ‘clock one evening, he was aghast at what he saw, and stated that never at any time, would such things have been tolerated in Chicago, as were transpiring openly in Cincinnati. This was but another way of saying, what we, who have been waging a war against the ‘white slave’ traffic and its kindred vices, have realized for a long time, namely, that Cincinnati is perhaps the most depraved city, from the view point of public immorality, in the country.”

Cincinnati’s red-light district, from around 1880 to 1918, occupied a large swath of the West End, from Plum Street westward to Mound Street between Fifth Street and Seventh Street. On George Street, which ran between Sixth and Seventh, there were 45 brothels between Plum and Mound. Just one block of Longworth Street, which ran between Fifth and Sixth, offered 18 “bagnios.”

As the designated agent of the Vigilance Society, L.A. Watson was deputized as an officer of the Juvenile Court and given free rein to investigate wayward women in Cincinnati’s brothels, particularly to search for underage girls brought to Cincinnati across state lines in violation of the new 1910 anti-white slavery law known as the Mann Act. In fact, Watson proudly included in his national report the details of his most successful case, arresting a prostitute and her madam, both of whom were convicted of Mann Act violations.

“Emma Harris, who for twenty-three years has kept one of the largest and most lavishly equipped houses in the city, which she owns, was sentenced to four years at hard labor, in the federal penitentiary, at Leavenworth, together with the costs of prosecution.

“Bessie Green, twenty-six years old, who for several years had been an inmate of the Harris house, and who acted as the emissary of Emma Harris in bringing two girls from Charleston, W. Va., was sentenced to one year at hard labor in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, together with the costs of prosecution.”

So, imagine the surprise of Frank Kuhn, juvenile court probation officer, when he discovered Watson in flagrante delicto with, of all people, Bessie Green, in the brothel owned by the notorious Emma Harris. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer [28 December 1911], when Officer Kuhn, accompanied by Cincinnati Police Sergeant John F. Ringer, pulled the blankets off Watson’s unclothed form, the Vigilance Society Secretary said:

“The jig is up, Kuhn. But don’t say anything for God’s sake. I can do you a great deal of good. I’m done and will quit. Everyone is liable to fall sometime. Don’t be too hard on me.”

To Sergeant Ringer, assigned to patrol the red-light district, Watson said something even more peculiar, suggesting that his behavior was not a one-time event:

“You’ve been trying to get me long enough.”

Publicly, Watson claimed he was framed. The nefarious white-slave ring, he asserted, had drugged him and led him into Bessie Green’s bed. He told the Cincinnati Post [28 December 1911]:

“I merely have been a fool. To think of a man of the world and sophisticated, allowing myself to be the victim of a conspiracy like this.”

Progressive crusaders like Leonard Watson expected women enticed into prostitution to abandon that life if offered an alternative. Few did. The low pay, societal condemnation and menial jobs available to women on the outside made life in the demimonde more attractive.

From “Horrors of the White Slave Trade” by Clifford G. Roe, 1911 Digitized by Internet Archive Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

There were forces at work, Watson told reporters, that implicated powerful people in Cincinnati and would shock the populace once the facts came out.

He may have been correct. Watson arrived in Cincinnati a few years before his embarrassing downfall and immediately accused the Cincinnati Police Department of lax enforcement of the vice laws, which was certainly the case. In January of 1911, Watson presented a list of people who owned property in the red-light district to a meeting of ministers. Allegedly, some of the most prominent names in Cincinnati society appeared on that list. Not surprisingly, none of the city’s newspapers would print the roll of shame.

On the other hand, Watson had a habit over several months of bouncing checks all over the red-light district. The night before he was exposed, witnesses saw Watson and a companion enter the Diamond Saloon, directly across the street from Emma Harris’ brothel. The proprietor there, J.L. Franks, told police that Watson asked to see the saloon’s girls. When Frank informed him that there were no women on the premises, Watson and his companion walked over to the Harris place.

The only outcome from any investigation were two lawsuits. Watson sued the Vigilance Society to recover back pay and the Vigilance Society sued Watson claiming he owed them money. A few members of the Vigilance Society believed Watson’s conspiracy theory and backed him in organizing a new anti-white slavery organization, but nothing came of it. The original Vigilance Society continued its work but agreed that sending male agents into the red-light district might not be the optimum approach. They advertised to recruit women agents.

Neither of the lawsuits went anywhere, both Watson and the Vigilance Society agreeing that discretion was called for as they settled privately. Emma Harris and Bessie Green both went to prison in 1913 after their appeals failed.

One footnote to Leonard A. Watson’s legacy in Cincinnati might be mentioned. Watson was among the few men who openly supported women’s suffrage. In August 1911, Watson announced a meeting to organize a Men for Woman Suffrage organization to support women’s right to vote. No one showed up.

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