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Williamsburg and the Demimonde:

Disorderly Houses, the Blue Bell, and Certain Hints of Harlotry

by Harold B. Gill Jr.

The two most fascinating subjects in the
universe are sex and the eighteenth century.
-Bridgid Brophy, Don’t Never Forget

In eighteenth-century Williamsburg, morals offenses were often paid for under the lash at the stocks and pillory. Interpreters Karen Clancey and Steve Holloway portray such an encounter. - Dave Doody

In eighteenth-century Williamsburg, morals offenses were often paid for under the lash at the stocks and pillory. Interpreters Karen Clancey and Steve Holloway portray such an encounter. - Dave Doody

A question often asked by Colonial Williamsburg visitors is: “Where was the red light district?” Any evidence that there was such a place in the eighteenth century is at best recondite. Rumor has it that a bawdy house was kept at the Blue Bell Tavern, just east of the Capitol, but this investigator has found no evidence of it, and one suspects Historic Area guides of long ago invented the tale to titillate. I do not suggest, however, that variety of sin was unknown in old Williamsburg, or even that the Blue Bell had a pristine reputation. It is just that the demographics of the 1700s city made it an unlikely place to follow the old profession.

If prostitution is to flourish in a community, there must be a goodly number of people, and more of them women than men. Williamsburg met neither test. In the eighteenth century, it never boasted more than about two thousand year-round residents, and, at least until the American Revolution, there tended to be more males than females. When a population had more men than women, females tended to marry, the result being there were few single women.

Harlotry was rampant in London, writes Lawrence Stone in his Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800. But it was nearly non-existent in the countryside.

The oldest profession, of course, has been practiced time out of mind. Some bawds accumulated fortunes, and the income of none was overlooked by the authorities. During the Middle Ages, some magistrates taxed brothels to fatten town coffers. In those years, London streetwalking supposedly was restricted to Southwark, the established bawdy house district, south of the Thames. Nearly impossible to enforce, the regulation did not last.

There seems to be no historical evidence to support the Blue Bell’s reputation as a bawdy house. - Dave Doody

There seems to be no historical evidence to support
the Blue Bell’s reputation as a bawdy house. - Dave Doody

Eighteenth-century London was notorious for its low-life. A 1747 pamphlet, The Tricks of the Town laid open, reported: “There’s much to be said to prove this Town to be the Forge of Vanity, a Nursery of Vice, a Snare to the Young, a Curse to the Old, and a perpetual Spring of new Temptations.” A person writing in 1735 said that in London, “We have a Play-House to every Parish, and more than a thousand Taverns, and Brothels to one Church.” The number of prostitutes in the city increased during the eighteenth century, partly to satisfy the appetites of the twenty or thirty thousand apprentices there, partly because of poverty, and partly because of a growing culture of sexual promiscuity. Some young female servants temporarily turned to the sex trade when they were out of work, and according to Daniel Defoe, had to “prostitute themselves or starve.” Defoe wrote poverty was “the reason why our streets are swarming with strumpets. Thus many of them rove from place to place, from bawdy-house to service, and from service to bawdy house again . . . nothing being more common than to find these creatures one week in a good family and the next in brothel.”

If poverty was most often prostitution’s cause, it was possible to grow wealthy in the business, and some of its women married into the aristocracy.

In the American colonies prostitution seems to have been more typical of such seaport cities as Philadelphia and New York than small towns and villages like Williamsburg. That is not to say that there wasn’t plenty of illicit sexual activity in the hinterlands, just that it is harder to identify. Part of the reason is that if nobody complained to the authorities, little evidence survived. Moreover, there is the problem of definitions.

The term “disorderly house” might or might not denote a bordello. Defoe said disorderly houses were the “garrisons” of thieves. But Douglas Greenberg wrote in Crime and Law Enforcement in the Colony of New York, 1691-1776, that though the definition of disorderly house was vague, it was a “significant cause for concern in eighteenth-century society” because it was “a microcosm of a society out of control.” Disorderly houses were known in colonial Virginia.

York County, Virginia, within which lies part of Williamsburg, summoned its grand jury twice a year to decide whether to present or charge people whose misdeeds were called to its attention. Grand juries were made up of twenty-four freeholders selected by the sheriff. On May 19, 1735, it presented three men for not attending their parish church, two men for being common swearers, three women for having bastard children, and one man for not keeping his mill bridge in repair. The following year the grand jury presented four women for having bastard children, one man for not attending church, two men as common swearers and drunkards, one man for not keeping his mill bridge in repair, and the surveyor of the highways for not “keeping the Bridge in repair that leads over the head of back Creek.” The people presented appeared at the next court to explain their behavior, and to be acquitted or convicted and fined.

People presented on morals charges could be tried in the York County court or, if residents of the city, the Hustings Court of the City of Williamsburg. Because the records of the hustings court were destroyed in the War Between the States, it is nearly impossible to make an accurate study of morals offenses in Williamsburg. A hint is left from November 1741, when Rachel Rodewell was presented by the county grand jury for “keeping a disorderly house,” as was Joan Clarke “upon the Information of Robert Martindale,” a schoolmaster. Rodewell appeared for trial in York court the following February, when the case was dismissed because “it is being prosecuted in the City of Williamsburg.” We can’t know the outcome, and we can say only that Rodewell’s house stood “on the main Street” near the Capitol.

Joan Clarke’s case was tried in the York County court, where she was found guilty and required to give bond “in the penalty of herself in the sum of £10” and her securities for £5 each for her “good behaviour for a year and day.”

The presentments mentioned are typical, but it must be said that sometimes the grand jury made no presentments. Most of the morals charges were brought to the attention of the jury or to the monthly court by the church wardens. For example, in February 1701 two church wardens of Bruton Parish called to the court’s attention the fornication of Elizabeth Wood. She was summoned to appear at the next court in March, which she did:

Tavernkeeper Susanna Allen was accused of operating “a disorderly house” at today’s Alexander Craig residence. - Dave Doody

Tavernkeeper Susanna Allen was accused of
operating “a disorderly house” at today’s
Alexander Craig residence. - Dave Doody

Elizabeth Wood in obedience to an order of the last court having now appeared to answer the information of Mr. James Whaley & Mr. Joseph White, Church Wardens of Bruton parish in this County, for her offence in committing lately the sin of fornication who upon tryal confest the fact wherefore for want of effects to pay her fine; it is ordered that the sherriff take her into custody to the whiping post & forthwith there to give her fifteen lashes on her bare back laid well on.

Later that year the Bruton Parish church wardens accused Rebecca Burton of fornication, too, but she was luckier. William Harrison came into court and “assumed to pay her fine of 500 pounds of tobacco for the use of the parish aforesd & ordered that he made due payment thereof with costs.”

Susanna Allen opened her tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street in 1710, and soon she began to make appearances in court. First, she was charged with not posting James City County ordinary rates “in the common entertaining room of her ordinary.” She was acquitted, most likely because the tavern was on the York County side of the street.

Whatever the case, Allen’s tavern was becoming successful and a popular gathering place, especially for the young. Whether it offered the clientele more than food and drink is a matter of conjecture. William Byrd II wrote in his diary, April 19, 1712: “Several of our young gentlemen were before Mr. Bland this morning for a riot committed last night at Su Allen’s and A-t-k-s-n’s, but came off with paying 10 shillings apiece. The gentlemen were Mr. Page, Ralph Wormeley, John Grymes, Mr. Johnson, and Jimmy Burwell, though I understand the last was not much in fault.”

What exactly happened that night at Susanna Allen’s is not clear. The young gentlemen were examined before a magistrate, not before the county court, and there is no official record of the proceedings. There is no indication that Susanna got into any trouble over the riot. With the exception of Ralph Wormeley, who died in 1713, the young gentlemen became members of Virginia’s General Assembly and leading citizens.

In July 1713, Susanna Allen was again before the county court, this time charged with “keeping a marryed man constant company & keeping a disorderly house.” The disorderly house charge was dismissed, but “hearing the evidence on the former It is the opinion of the Court & accordingly ordered that she be fined 500 pounds of Tobacco to the parish of Bruton to be paid to the Church wardens at their next levy for the use of the sd parish.” The “marryed man” seems to have gotten off-at least in the eyes of the court. Despite her miscreancy, the court renewed Allen’s tavern license annually until her death in 1720.

Whether prostitution was involved in these cases it is impossible to tell, but in Williamsburg the term “disorderly house” usually meant “brothel.”

Taverns as well as the theater were often hubs of prostitution. Specific references to prostitution in Williamsburg’s taverns or theater, or in the area for that matter, are rare. In one case blacksmith John Loynes-or Lynes-was presented by the grand jury in 1707 for “keeping a whore in his house and absenting himself from the church.” He was convicted and fined five shillings for missing church, but nothing further about the woman was recorded. Was Loynes a pimp? Loynes, it might be noted, was a security on James Shields’s ordinary license in 1706 and had earlier been security on Sidney Row’s license for an ordinary in Williamsburg.

Because of the loss of the hustings court records, we will probably never know the extent of prostitution in eighteenth-century Williamsburg. Evidence of it, however, is sometimes found in unexpected places. St. George Tucker, the well-known lawyer and poet of Williamsburg, relates what he said was a true story of a dog, entitled The Faithful Mastiff:

At lukewarm, or at faithless friends
I’ve no design to rail:
An honest, but mistaken Zeal,
The subject of my Tale.

Yet think not, with a Cynic’s Eye
That I regard Mankind
Because in Men and Brutes, alike,
Some Qualities I find.

To err is human-and that Dogs
Can be mistaken too,
Most clearly follows from a Tale
Which I can vouch is true.

Ah! could I but as clearly prove
That Men, like Dogs, were true,
Full many a heart would now be blithe,
Which now their Falsehood rue.

In Williamsburg, ‘ere party rage
The Capital removed,
Together lived three waggish sparks
Who mirth, & frolic loved.

Their Names are still remembered there,
For, still, some there remain,
To curse that Policy that razed
Their City to the plain.

Their house by night from Thieves to guard
A Mastiff they had bred;
Yet, oft, did honest Towzer go
The way their footsteps led.

For well he knew their waggish tricks
Might sometimes kindle Rage,
And well he knew the argument
That Passion to assuage.

For he had found a single look
From him could peace command,
As readily as did the Touch
Of Hermes’ Magic Wand:

Or, as the Intercessions strong
Of well-armed faithful friends,
Or, as the sheriff’s puissant arm,
When Posse Com: attends.

One ev’ning in the month of June,
When sultry was the day
To Waller’s-Grove our youngest Wag
Directs his lonely way:

That Grove, where old Dodona’s pride
Spread far & wide its shade
‘Till war & avarice allied
A cruel havoc made.

His steps the faithful Towzer mark’d
As on he saw him pass,
And followed lest perchance there lurk’d
Some Snake beneath the Grass.

When night her stable Mantle spread
The youth a Cottage spied,
Where, to solace from earth-born Care,
With nimble pace he hied.

There, lived a nymph whose tender Breast
Was ne’er assail’d in vain;
Delighting Pleasure to impart
To all who felt a pain.

Our weary pilgrim on the bed
Now sought a soft repose;
When Towzer straight crept underneath,
And fell into a Doze.

The creaking of the Bedstead roused him soon;
A rustling noise he hears
Of Conflict fierce above his head,
And for his Master fears.

He bounces up-& seiz’d the Foe,
Beyond the bended Knee,
Nor, heeds, that in the Conflict, low,
And panting, laid was she.

“Why how now, Towzer!” cried the wag.
“Pray let us both alone:
“Your aid, just now, I do not want,
“My adversary’s down.”

December 24, 1789


Harold Gill, the journal’s consulting editor, contributed to the spring 2001 magazine “Portrait of an Artisan,” a profile of eighteenth-century Williamsburg cabinetmaker Edmund Dickinson.



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