This is Miss Laura's bordello. It's the only whorehouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it serves as the official welcome center for the city of Fort Smith. Well, why not, given the wild and wide-open history of Fort Smith, a town once known as "Hell on the Border."
Laura Ziegler, a working prostitute on Fort Smith's Bordello Row went into a local bank in 1903 and borrowed $3000 with which she purchased this building, the westernmost of a half-dozen adjacent bawdy houses that lay conveniently between the river and the railroad tracks (two important sources of business). She immediately turned her new place into the classiest of the row, requiring that girls not go downstairs unless fully dressed and that the girls have regular medical checkups, the results of which were tacked to the appropriate bedposts. At right is a copy of one of those health certificates. The visitor center hands them out as souvenirs.
All this class didn't come cheap. Miss Laura's girls charged three bucks a pop, while the standard price charged by the competition was one dollar. The competition dropped off sharply in the winter of 1910 when a fire raged through Bordello Row and destroyed five of the six whorehouses. The flames were licking at Miss Laura's portico when a providential wind shift saved the day.
They've got a half dozen rooms upstairs tricked out in period style, newly renovated from the ravages of tornado that blew the roof off the sucker in the early '90's.
In the old days you might have had cigars and brandy in the sitting rooms downstairs, but today you'll find only brochures hawking the tourist attractions of eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas. There are also some cases containing interesting historical artifacts, such as the prepaid tokens distributed to local politicians and law enforcement officials.
You might recall Fort Smith as the juris diction of the infamous Judge Parker, known for entirely unrelated reasons as the "Hanging Judge." His term here was not quite contemporaneous with that of Miss Laura. They missed each other by about five years. It was the duty of Parker's successors to enforce the occasional laws against the running of houses of prostitution and to collect the stiff $5 fine. Once a month, Miss Laura and the other five madams walked the streets to the courthouse to pay their fines. Then they went back to business.
Miss Laura sold the business to Bertha Gale Dean in 1911 for $47,000 and moved on to parts unknown. The establishment continued to be known as Miss Laura's and entertained its last paying customers in the early forties--soldiers in training from nearby Fort Chaffee. Surely the ladies knew what to do with a handful of privates--fresh fish when they entered, but raw recruits when they came out.
Visit Miss Laura's at Riverfront Park at the foot of the highway 64 bridge in Fort Smith.
Source: New York Times, 27 November 1997, F8.
When I was in high school, Fort Smith 1972, big entertainment came from driving by the bordellos, which were still in operation and seeing if the "red light" was on. Then we'd drive to the dump and shoot rats. Sounds pretty tame in today's world.