Sunday, January 20, 2013

Blodgett's Brothel

In today's issue of the Republican-American, there was yet another article, with mug shots, about prostitutes arrested in the Hillside neighborhood. This seems to be a never-ending situation. For at least two decades now, certain streets in the Hillside neighborhood have been in use by prostitutes looking for "jobs." Every so often, the police do a sweep and make arrests, followed by the printing of mug shots in the newspaper. Once in a great while, the "johns" are arrested, and their names and addresses are published in the paper.

Back in the old days, things were different. The Hillside neighborhood was filled with the wealthiest people in Waterbury, members of high society who did their best to appear respectable and genteel. Appearances were blown apart in 1873, when a scandal involving a "house of ill-fame" (polite phrasing for a brothel) exploded in Waterbury.

According to the November 19, 1873 issue of the Norwich Aurora newspaper, the scandal began when the son of a leading Waterbury manufacturer (no names given) fell in love with and married a "lady of the house of joy." His family pleaded with him, and even attempted to bribe him, to divorce his "tainted bride," but he refused. About a week later, the owners of two Waterbury brothels were arrested: Henry Austin and Dave Blodgett.

The Aurora claimed that the scandalous love affair blossomed at Blodgett's "house of ill-fame," which was a highly profitable business, bringing in (reportedly) $50,000 over three years. In 1873, that was a small fortune.

I've read through the microfilm copy of the Waterbury American (available at the Silas Bronson Library) to find the local version of the story. The American was extraordinarily tactful, and also declined to publish the names of members of polite society involved in the scandal.

The story began in the papers on November 4, 1873, with the following account in the American:

For quite a length of time, it has been generally known that houses of ill-fame were kept at a distance of two or three miles east of the city, and that our young men, and old men, too, resorted thither. Dame Rumor says that if all who went there were known, some people wouldn't be considered as respectable as they are now.  Of the truth of this, we are unable to vouch, and we would not strike in the dark and thereby, perhaps, cause unjust suspicions. Those who have been there are probably aware of the fact, and they must answer to their own consciences. Although for many years these bawdy houses have been the curse of Waterbury, this is the first time they have been molested since our acquaintance with this city. Complaints having been made to John O'Neill, Esq., assistant city attorney, he caused the arrest of Hobart Austin and David Blodgett, who are the proprietors of these houses. ... "Out East" has been disreputable long enough, and the neighbors will rejoice that their air may become pure once more. To those who think it smart to be styled "fast young men," we would suggest that now is a good time to reform and save character and reputation. Wild oats are never a profitable crop, and the frequenting of bawdy houses is the worst oat in the lot.

Hobart Austin was arraigned first, on November 4, 1873. He had previously lived on Plank Road, but had recently relocated to a nearby location. Ministers and physicians testified that Austin's place had a reputation for being "of ill-fame," although none admitted to having first-hand knowledge of what went on there. Witnesses were called from the courtroom audience (only half a dozen were present, many others were not). None of the witnesses admitted to first-hand knowledge of what went on at Austin's (nor could they say whether it was Austin or his wife who ran the brothel), only that they "heard there were girls out there." Austin was found guilty that same day and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

The trials of David Blodgett and his wife Annie, who lived on Plank Road, dragged on for much longer and involved much more scandal.

Blodgett's Trial

The Blodgett trial began on November 5, with somewhere between 50 and 100 witnesses subpoenaed, a large audience of spectators, and at least one person stationed at the door to prevent young boys from listening in.

David Blodgett was charged with "keeping a house where idle and dissolute persons resort," living in a house of ill-fame, and frequenting a house of ill-fame. The defense attorney protested the charge of frequenting.

Blodgett's neighbors were the first to testify against him. One neighbor suggested that Blodgett's wife, Annie Bishop (also called Annie Wilson), was not actually married to him. Another neighbor, a lady who had recently moved to a different street, had no idea that he was operating a brothel. Several neighbors testified that the girls living at Blodgett's boarding house had reputations of being loose, but for the most part, the neighborhood witnesses stated that the house and its residents were "not disorderly or noisy." They may have had bad reputations, but they weren't disruptive to neighborhood life. The Blodgetts paid their bills in a timely fashion and were generally good neighbors.

The trial heated up a bit on the afternoon of November 7, when young men who had been "out to Blodgett's" testified. The details of their testimony were not included in the newspaper account, most likely because it would be far too indecent for public sensibilities of that era. The American left it with "Another witness was honest enough to answer that it would be hard telling how many times he had been out there."

By November 8, witness had begun scattering to the far winds. One went hunting, another went to New Haven, another to Winsted, and one hopped the train to New York that morning to avoid the public embarrassment of answering questions about visiting a brothel. Six witnesses had the courage to appear in court, but they all refused to answer questions about the girls at Blodgett's, on the grounds that they would incriminate themselves.

The Norwich Aurora went into more creative detail as to the whereabouts of the witnesses who skipped town:

The married and faithless ones are flying over the country in all directions, ostensibly on account of the panic. Some of them, pretending to have rheumatism, have gone to the hot springs of Arkansas. One of them departed yesterday, leaving word with his wife that he was going to New York to see a long lost brother from the Sandwich Islands. Society in Waterbury is in a perfect fever.... So far only a few witnesses have presented themselves, but not a single married man has been netted yet. Some of the leading heads of families have all of a sudden bethought themselves that the season for shooting wild ducks in Maine is at hand, and have departed in that direction. (November 19, 1873)

On November 12, David Blodgett was found not guilty of keeping and maintaining a disorderly house, not guilty of keeping a house of ill-fame, and not guilty of frequenting a house of ill-fame. He was, however, found guilty of living in a house of ill-fame, guilty of being a bartender and employee in a house of ill-fame. Blodgett was ordered to pay fines totaling $75.

Annie Blodgett's trial for keeping and frequenting a house of ill-fame began as soon as David's trial concluded. A grocer testified that she bought groceries under the name Annie Wilson. Two physicians and a minister testified that they heard her house was a brothel. A neighbor testified that Annie lived in the house, and that he had seen girls sitting on the verandah. Another neighbor testified that the girls had a bad reputation. Annie, like David, was found not guilty of keeping and maintaining a house of ill-fame. She was found guilt of frequenting a house of ill-fame and was sentenced to pay a fine of $25.

After the Trial

I can't say for certain what happened to the Blodgetts and their business after the scandalous trial. The 1880 census shows them running a boarding house with four young women boarders, all dressmakers. The City Directory also listed the Blodgett home on Plank Road as a boarding house.

Dave Blodgett died in 1889, and his house was sold to Thomas H. Hayes. The infamous house burned to the ground in 1907, by which time history had been thoroughly rewritten. No longer remembered as a house of ill-fame, it was "one of the landmarks of the country," known as "the old Blodgett tavern."

A description of the house appeared in the Bridgeport Herald after the fire: "The house contained twenty-two rooms, all of which were elegantly furnished. ... For many years, it was one of the most popular taverns in that part of the state and some of the greatest men in the country have been guests there."

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