From even the early days, Chicago thrived on its reputation for being a “wide-open town”. As far back as the 1850’s, the city gained a notoriety for its promotion of vice in every shape and form. It embraced the arrivals of prostitutes, gamblers, grifters and an outright criminal element. A commercialized form of vice flourished during the Civil War era and according to author Richard Lindberg, an estimated 1,300 prostitutes roamed the darkened, evening streets of Chicago. Randolph Street, he wrote, “was awash in bordellos, wine rooms and cheap dance halls in plain view of the courthouse”. The area became known as “Gambler’s Row”, mostly because a man gambled with his very life when braving the streets of this seedy and dangerous district.

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The Great Fire in 1871 would sweep away much of the worst of the city’s vice areas, destroying both gin rooms and disease-ridden prostitution cribs, but a desire for illicit activities caused it to rebound quickly. By the 1880’s, Chicago had gained its place as a mature city and also as a rail center for the nation. Waves of foreigners and immigrants poured into the city and with the arrival of the World’s Fair in 1893, thousands of new citizens followed.

The Custom House vice district sprang from the ashes of the Great Fire. For nearly 30 years, the area would be regarded as a blight on the downtown area. Like most segregated vice areas, where gambling, liquor and prostitution are indulged, the Custom House thrived on not only its proximity to the railroads but to an alliance with the police as well. The closest station could be found at the nearby Armory station and they turned a blind eye to questionable activity in the district, for a price, of course.

The Custom House district existed between Harrison Street on the north and Polk Street and the Dearborn train station to the south. It is an area more popularly known as “Printer’s Row” today. The boundaries of the area tended to change and expand with the opening of each new saloon or house of ill repute. It also tended to shrink when any of the owners neglected to make their protection payments. Such absent-mindedness was usually followed by a police raid.

The Dearborn Station became essential to operations in the area as it made a perfect recruiting spot for prostitutes during the gaslight era. Naive young women who stepped off the train were often greeted by one of the army of “pimps” who waited in the station. From that point, they were introduced to immoral acts and lured into the “scarlet patch” originally known as the Cheyenne District and later the Custom House.

The most infamous bordello here was Carrie Watson’s place at 441 South Clark Street. Despite the seediness of the area, the beautiful Miss Watson’s “house” enjoyed a wide reputation for being a charming place, with 60 women in her employ.

There were other “resorts” along the Custom House that were not so elegant or refined though. Often an unsophisticated visitor would stumble into what was called a “panel house”, where he might be drugged and tied up while an accomplice slipped through a hidden panel in the wall and liberated him of his valuables. More often, the secret panels hid thieves with long hooks who could relieve a customer of his wallet, from pants hanging on the bed post, while he was “in the act”. Few of these victims would report the robbery to the police, lest they suffer the humiliation of having their names printed in the newspaper.

By the time of the Columbian Exposition in 1893, Chicago had become known as the “Paris of America” for its many illicit attractions. Reformist WT Stead, in his book IF CHRIST CAME TO CHICAGO, counted 37 bordellos, 46 saloons, 11 pawnbrokers, an opium den and numerous gambling parlors in the Custom House district while writing his expose on Chicago vice.

The official stance on such districts was to leave them alone, as long as the operators, thieves and undesirables stayed in the district and kept to themselves. However, this was rarely the case. Granted a wide berth by city officers, the dealers in vice exploited the situation with prostitutes being arrested in the theater district and posing as sales girls in reputable stores. By 1903, conditions had become intolerable and reformers would no longer stand for it. A wave of criminal indictments, pushed through by church groups and the mayor himself, sent the vice operators reeling. Most of them moved to the South Side Levee District, where they were welcomed with open arms. The Custom House Place Levee had vanished completely by 1910.

After that, the deserted area was slowly taken over by commercial printing houses and bookbinderies, creating the name the district bears today, “Printer‘s Row”. Eventually, the printing houses joined the bordellos and they too faded away. The area finally gained its dignity around 1979 when it converted into the condominium and rental community that exists today. The railroad freight yards have also disappeared, although Dearborn station remains. It has been converted into a small shopping small, serving the residents of this quiet street. The Custom House Levee is now only a memory.....