The place to go for sex

In the late 1800s, San Antonio was known as a place to go for sex. Women roamed freely in brothels, saloons, and gambling halls across the city. And for a brief time, prostitution was legal in the city of Alamo.

A group of local men eager to bolster the city’s coffers with licensing fees and control growing sexually transmitted disease problems helped legalize prostitution in the city for a brief period 133 years ago. Although sex work was only legal for about eight years in San Antonio, it was openly practiced and virtually ignored by law enforcement until World War II.

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The decision to legalize prostitution came shortly after San Antonio received its first railroad in 1877, which ended the city’s longstanding isolation from the rest of the country. The arrival of the railroad and the establishment of permanent military bases resulted in a booming population and economy. The growth has also led to the region’s thriving vice industry.

Due to the vice’s official acceptance, a 22-block section near what is now the University of Texas on the downtown San Antonio campus was known as the “athletic district”, so the largest red light district in Texas and the third largest. in the USA

The former 1880s orphanage and brothel owned by Fannie Porter where Butch Cassidy and his gang are said to have stayed in a southwest part of downtown once known as “Laredito.” It burned down this year.

Kin Man Hui/staff photographer

Then-San Antonio Mayor Bryan Callaghan — like the leaders of Fort Worth, Galveston and Austin — was puzzled about how to deal with prostitution and opted for the “bawdy house ordinance.”

The law, which was first passed in December 1889, required prostitutes and madams to acquire an annual license costing $500 (calculated today at $16,103) and undergo weekly check-ups by a local doctor. city ​​for sexually transmitted diseases.

Shortly after prostitution became legal, at least 26 women were arrested for failing to pay hefty license fees, according to the San Antonio Light. One of those women, Emelia Garza, a Mexican American madam, successfully challenged the new law in a case that went all the way to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

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On February 26, 1890, the court ruled in favor of Garza, noting that the San Antonio charter did not allow them to regulate sex work through licenses or license fees.

Elected officials later repaid the money they had received from gambling halls and brothels. A year later, the city submitted an application to the state to revise the city charter to permit the licensing of brothels.

On July 20, 1891, Callaghan passed an identical law that legalized prostitution until another administration took office and outlawed sex work in 1899.

About two months after prostitution was legalized in 1891, on Sept. 8, Garza “was ruled insane … by county court,” reported the San Antonio Light. “She went crazy on Sunday afternoon and has been delirious incoherently ever since.”

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The newspaper account does not explain what led to Garza’s “madness”. Another San Antonio Light story titled “The Insane Woman” said that Garza left behind “beautiful furniture, diamond jewelry, a piano, and four children.”

A week later, Garza died in the county jail while awaiting transfer to an asylum in Austin. However, it is not known how she died.

Garza’s life and legal battle were largely glossed over until recently, when a pair of college theses and a Texas Public Radio podcast about San Antonio’s red-light district shed light on his story.

One of the academic papers was written by Jennifer Cain, who wrote her UTSA diploma thesis on San Antonio’s red-light district. She now teaches United States history at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Helotes and at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio.

Announcement of Emelia Garza's death published in the San Antonio Light on September 15, 1891.

Announcement of Emelia Garza’s death published in the San Antonio Light on September 15, 1891.

San Antonio Light Archives

“A great untold story of brothel owner Emelia Garza who boldly challenged city officials as a woman and as a prostitute remains to be told,” Cain wrote. “The legal wrangling that city officials have undertaken to change the city charter to legally permit prostitutes has most likely frustrated San Antonio city leaders.

She added: “A year after Ms. Garza beat the city in (the) appeals court, she was suspiciously placed in an insane asylum. City officials’ reaction to the bold agency by Mrs. Garza reflected a period of time that saw prostitution as a necessary occupation, but not yet ready to embrace the boldness of a woman.

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