Home » A few figs from thistles » The Night They Raided Pinsky’s

The Night They Raided Pinsky’s

In 1976 North Dakota decided to allow games of chance—blackjack, pull tabs—so long as the proceeds benefitted non-profit organizations in the arts and social service. Many rushed to fill the void, but its ranks have been thinned and the industry stabilized in the past thirty-five years. This symbiosis between virtue and vice is just one more way that North Dakota stands apart from her sister states.

I had lived in Fargo just five years but long enough to have done some research on community history (it’s a curse that I need to  know things about the places I live) and found a wondrous parallel with Fargo in the 1890s: Few are aware that Dakota Territory was the divorce capitol of the U.S.

When Dakota entered the Union in 1889 as two states, it’s difficult to imagine two more different places coming from a common source. As one  bi-centennial book observed: “Everyone in North Dakota thinks that everyone in South Dakota is somewhere to the right of Genghis Kahn. While everyone in South Dakota thinks that everyone in North Dakota is a Bolshevik.”

All things considered, I live on the right side of the 46th Parallel.

Fargo and her sister city Moorhead, Minnesota, developed an interesting relationship after 1889. North Dakota was admitted as a dry state, so Fargo’s two breweries and several dozen bars had to relocate east of the Red River of the North. But the new state’s laws concerning divorce were the most liberal in the nation. An odd but completely understandable symbiosis evolved where Fargo harbored all the prostitutes and Moorhead accommodated all the bars. Liquor and Lust!

There was an area along North Third Street near the river that was called “The Hollow.” Home of at least three houses of prostitution, the most famous (notorious?) was run by an African American named Madam Melvina Massey, a proud, bold business women who had the audacity to ride unescorted in an open carriage. Cheeky!

Meanwhile Moorhead’s bars multiplied until there were more than fifty of them within a hundred yards of the three bridges that connected our two communities. For added convenience, there was a shuttle service at closing time called the Jag Wagon: patrons in advanced states of inebriation were apparently stacked like cord wood on the flatbed wagon and summarily pushed off at the several hotels and “sporting houses” on the Fargo side.

Municipal authorities knew about these houses of ill repute. In fact, city council records suggest an actual institutionalization: 1) Fargo’s red-light district called The Hollow was defined and delineated by city ordinance; 2) the houses were regularly “raided” by Fargo police, a representative sampling of the girls was taken to municipal court, dutifully fined and released; and 3) the fines were applied to the city’s public schools. These so-called fines were a de facto tax on vice that was invested in the virtue of public education.

I rest my case.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Public Works

Threaten people with a powerpoint presentation on urban infrastructure and you’ll clear the room in a heartbeat: “Gee, thanks, I’d rather have a root canal.” It’s difficult to build enthusiasm for wires overhead and pipes underfoot until they go awry. Out of sight is out of mind—until a Friday afternoon in August, 1929, that is.

A city work crew had been busy all week trenching Sixth Street N.W. for a sewer line. Municipal services hadn’t yet reached all of Agincourt’s edges, but this had been a low priority project and was put off until some of the hottest days of summer. About 2 p.m. the last block between Agincourt and James avenues was half trenched, when the tractor and backhoe fell into a vaulted brick passage about six feet below grade. City records gave no hint that the tunnel existed. Enter Sheriff Pyne.

It was a quiet summer afternoon. A lot of folks had already gone to the lakes. Then, there was a sudden flurry of activity next door at the orphanage—a suspicious scurried loading of trucks. Someone called the cops and before long Sheriff Pyne showed up, disappeared into the tunnel and came out the orphanage back door with two guys in cuffs. By this time, several mystified neighbors had gathered. So had the good Sisters of Saint Jerome’s Orphanage.*

Jeromeemiliani1

You might know there’s a convoluted tale here. Agincourt seems to have more than its fair share.

Sal Lipinsky

Ten years earlier, a mysterious benefactor had come to town: Salvatore Lipinsky.

Lipinsky/Pinsky/Pink—he was known by them all at one time or another—had been born about 1875 in an orphanage at Cicero, Illinois. His Italian mother died giving him life; his father, a Russian Jew, had been a part of the Chicago underworld. Sal (or Sol) was sheltered by the Sisters of Charity, unaware of his gangster father until someone spilled the beans. But how, when and to what degree Sal got involved in gang activity is unknown. What is certain is the indebtedness he felt toward the people who were “family” for his first eighteen years.

Prohibition brought Lipinsky to Iowa—with mixed consequences. The orphanage he built on NW Sixth Street accommodated two dozen children and four Sisters of Charity who cared for and educated them. The good Sisters were active here into the early 1940s. What was less obvious was their source of income—accidentally revealed by the Public Works project on the street beside it: a two-story “speak easy” and casino had been carefully concealed in the orphanage basement!

For nearly ten years, liquor (and presumably a modicum of lust) came and went through a tunnel that ran west under Sixth Street to an innocuous garage behind the Sunset Tourist Court. How the hell do you build three hundred feet of brick-vaulted tunnel without anyone knowing? One answer is tempting: several people must have known, some of them in law enforcement, when a balance was struck between virtue and vice. The profit derived from what could be called a victimless crime benefitted hundreds of blameless children.

Let’s hope none of them felt an obligation to join the Chicago mob.

The idea for this story came from a conversation with Mike Larson when he was an associate at Klai+Juba in Las Vegas. Thanks, Mike.

*Saint Jerome Emiliani [1481-1537] is the patron saint of orphans and the abandoned.


1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Ramsey,

    I am the great great great grand daughter of Malvina Massey…please contact me at ronie4ever@live.com…I’d like to discuss your article.

    Thank you,

    Sha’Ron

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