George Street Was Once The Heart Of “Cincinnati’s Tenderloin”

It is unlikely that anyone will ever install an historic marker on the tiny remnant of George Street that survives in downtown Cincinnati. If such a marker ever materialized, however, it would have many tales to tell—but not in polite company.

By the time this photograph was captured around 1920, the bordellos of George Street were allegedly shuttered by federal mandate. A few survived, very discreetly, into the 1930s.

From “Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens” By Wendell P. Dabney, Published 1926 by Dabney Publishing Company. Collection of the University of Cincinnati Archives & Rare Books Library. Used by permission

Today, George Street is just one block long, little more than an alley linking Elm to Plum between Sixth and Seventh streets. Cincinnati Bell occupies the entire north side, forming a canyon with the parking garage opposite. Even a century ago, this was the boring end of the street. Westward, as it crossed Plum on its way to Mound Street in the West End, George Street inspired rhapsodies as scribes and reformers attempted to describe the sinfulness of this supermarket of sin. In 1890, just four blocks of George Street contained 46 brothels, each supporting an average of five to seven prostitutes.

The heart of Cincinnati’s so-called “red-light district,” George Street featured 46 brothels (marked as pink) in the four-block stretch from Plum to Mound. There were also eight saloons (marked in green), usually located at intersections.

Map roduced by Greg Hand' Base map: 1891 Sanborn Insurance Map digitized by Ohio Web Library, https://sanborn.ohioweblibrary.org/

Here is Wendell Dabney, in his landmark 1926 book, Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens:

“The street of streets, famed wherever Cincinnati is known, was ‘George Street.’ Three blocks, East to West, from Central Avenue to Mound, lined on both sides with pretentious houses, neatly, cleanly kept, constituted the principal realm consecrated to the worship of Venus.”

Of course, the iconic 1943 WPA-produced Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and its Neighbors weighed in:

“George Street, a short east-west street between W. Seventh and W. Sixth Streets, was the city’s most celebrated tenderloin district until the first World War. The three blocks between Mound Street and Central Avenue were lined with brick houses whose red lights proclaimed that Venus presided within. Quiet during the day, George Street sang a litany to venery at night.”

Here is the notorious “Dirty Helen” Cromwell, from her 1966 autobiography, describing her initiation into the oldest profession during the 1890s:

“George Street was, in a nutshell, the Queen City’s Temple of Aphrodite and Adonis. Tenderloin was readily available to fit any pocketbook.”

None of these latter-day descriptions could match the intensity of contemporary reports. The Cincinnati Post [11 July 1883] condemned the dawn of depravity along George Street in the early 1880s:

“It is unpleasant to state that the increase of iniquity on George-st., for the last half-year, has been enormous. The demi-monde are striving hard to make this the Mecca of attraction for the pleasure of libertines and dissipated youths. At least a half-dozen lupanars have been started on this thoroughfare within the past six months, and, strange to say, they are encroaching westward at an alarming increase. Although the houses are considered to be first-class, yet it is said that the inmates will stoop to most any nefarious stratagem for the gain of lucre.”

Ten years later, three West End churches banded together to appeal for relief from the city authorities. It is remarkable that an African American church joined with two predominantly white churches in this crusade. According to the Post [7 March 1893], the petitioners complained:

“Houses of prostitution have become so numerous and their patrons and inmates so bold and aggressive of George Street on the two blocks between Mound and John Streets, that they have become an intolerable nuisance. It will soon come to this, that no respectable person, rich or poor, can live on either of these blocks.”

The response from Cincinnati Police Chief Philip Deitsch? He refused to shut down the “lupanars,” but offered to invite the madams to move their businesses a little eastward, to the blocks between John and Plum Streets. So incensed were the law-abiding residents that they attempted to rename the western section of George Street as Kinneon Street in 1887. City Council voted against the proposal.

Although known as a “red light district,” at least after it had been shut down in 1917, there is no contemporary reference to red lights. Whorehouses in Cincinnati used stained glass to advertise, according to the Post [22 Oct 1894]:

“The brothels of the city plainly advertise themselves by stained glass windows, bearing feminine names in big letters. They are patronized and often sustained by men conspicuous in commercial and banking circles. There is one where a man prominent in banking affairs in this city keeps a woman at the head of the establishment. It is on George Street.”

George Street was home to such colorful characters as Mollie Chambers, reputed to tip the scales at 300 pounds, whose brothels often erupted into fisticuffs among the inebriated patrons. Dora Green presided here, too, and the mystery of how she remained unarrested for so long was solved one day when the newspapers reported how she loaned money—lots of money—to police officers on the George Street beat. Edna Creighton’s “resort” made the papers when Harry Borgman, a traveling salesman, shot another patron named Herman Klein. Although Borgman’s gun was loaded with blank cartridges, the wadding infected Klein’s wound and blood poisoning proved fatal.

George Street was the scene of a scandalous murder-suicide in 1883, when 19-year-old embezzler Bert Schieble killed his lover, a prostitute named Josie Stupp, in Belle Kirk’s house of ill fame at 141 George Street.

The death knell for George Street was sounded during World War I. To promote “maximum efficiency” of its fighting force in World War I, the U.S. Army instigated a federal law banning “objectionable” establishments within a five-mile radius of any military training facility. The proximity of Fort Thomas in Northern Kentucky led federal authorities to clamp down on Cincinnati’s so-called “segregated district” in the West End, especially infamous George Street.

Today, the entire sin-drenched avenue, from Plum to Mound, has been demolished. The eastern section lies underneath the parking garage north of the Convention Center and the western section is buried by a tangled web of I-75 exit ramps.


This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.

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