Howard relishes the Agincourt that was. That is both his principal weakness and his greatest strength.
Some time ago I wrote about a trinity of three women instrumental in early Agincourt history. Here starts a three-part series about significant rites of passage in any community—puberty and its unchecked consequences—and those three women.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Mrs Miller’s Enterprise
Opera Alley, a block-and-a-half long passage, runs eastward today from Second Street SW beside the Auditorium and the Blenheim Hotel. When the Auditorium opened in 1895, that stretch of alley was quickly identified with the opera season that occurred every fall and winter for the nest twenty years or so. Eventually, the name “Opera Alley” stuck.
Imagine queued carriages, liveried drivers, stoic horses, nostrils and horse apples steaming in the cold night air, all awaiting their passengers at the theatre or gala events in the Blenheim ballroom. Top hats and tuxedos. Tiaras and sating gowns. Agincourt was that sort of place before the turn of the century.
At the corner of the alley and First Street a tobacco shop once outfitted smokers with a full range of pipes and cigars—perhaps the height of smoking as a symbol of status and masculinity. The proprietor Cassius Hyde Miller hand-rolled cigars and concocted custom blends for his special clientele. He also ran a livery service at the east end of his property, providing carriages for hire—until the winter of 1896, that is, when a November blizzard took him home to Jesus. The nationwide economic panic and bank failures in 1895 had drained the Millers’ small savings, and the social safety net we’ve come to expect hadn’t yet been invented. So Cassius’ wife Annabelle (Belle) scrambled to survive. She knew tobacco and could hire hands to tend the horses. But it wasn’t enough. The situation demanded diversification and Mrs Miller rose to the challenge.
With little investment capital, Belle Miller chose wisely, understanding that her location was prime even in times that were not. In April she added plumbing to the stables behind the shop, making the caretaker’s quarters more comfortable with a kitchen and bath. Then, in late June, she hired builders to convert the hayloft into several rooms, presumably as rental for single folks, some of whom might have worked at the Blenheim then under construction across the alley. A crude drawing of the actual building permit shows a living room and four sleeping chambers, valuable heat coming from the livestock below. A Sanborn Fire Insurance map of 1899 confirms the conversion project. But permits and maps tell only half the story. The U.S. Census for 1900 puts a curious spin on the emergence of Mrs Miller’s Enterprise.
The decennial census for 1900 confirms the conventional wisdom that these quarters had become Agincourt’s first purpose-built House of Ill Repute, though Mrs Miller may have got into “the business” by default. For the sensitive reader, those are euphemisms for whore house. The census taker enumerated two adults living at #14 First Street SW on Tuesday, June 5th, 1900:
- MILLER, Annabelle / head / widow / F / 40 / tobacconist / IN*
- SCHERT, Armand / brother / single / M / 34 / cigar maker / IN
And four more living behind at #14A:
- SPIVEY, Michael / head / single / M / 33 / hosteller / PA
- PRIMM, Rose / inmate / single / F / 26 / hostess / MO
- PRIMM, Lucy / inmate / single / F / 24 / hostess / MO
- BOHLIN, Florence / inmate / divorced / F / 25 / hostess / IA
There are several links in the chain of evidence for census information, things that urge caution in its interpretation: 1) the source of information and, therefore, its accuracy; 2) the ability of that source to speak English; 3) the enumerator’s ability to hear clearly; and 4) the fine art of penmanship, already in decline and today a rare skill. Enumerators received rudimentary training, but were left to interpolate unusual or ambiguous information. How should one acknowledge the presence in their community, for example, of prostitution? Someone’s choice of “hostess” as occupation shows a high degree of tact.
The success of Belle Miller’s Enterprise is the stuff of legend. In fact, the half-block alley running beside her place of business is still called “Easy” rather than “Opera,” to the consternation of our more reputable citizens. There were, no doubt, outbreaks of STD and the occasional failure of birth control, questions that introduce two other characters in this less than holy trinity. But the forbearance it received from law enforcement attests to its high level of professionalism.
Stay tuned for the inter-related stories of Cissy Beddowes and Maud Adams.
The census form for 1900 includes 1) surname, 2) given name, 3) household relationship, 4) marital status, 5) sex, 6) age, 7) occupation, and 8) state of birth; additional information has been omitted here.