Toward the end of 1943, the federal government, in partnership with the City of Seattle, opens a rapid treatment center for young women infected with venereal disease. The facility is located at the Crittenton Home for unwed mothers in Rainier Beach, leased to the city for the duration of World War II. The project is part of a wider effort to keep syphilis and gonorrhea from sapping the strength of the nation's fighting forces.
The Crittenton Home
In 1899 a group of women in the Seattle area, inspired by the message of millionaire-philanthropist Charles Crittenton, formed a Rescue Circle to help "fallen women" in their community. The home they established quickly evolved from one meant to rescue prostitutes to a sanctuary for pregnant teens and unwed mothers. When the original home in Rainier Beach proved inadequate, the women replaced it with a sturdy brick structure. The Crittenton Home weathered changing economic times and social norms for nearly three quarters of a century, with one significant interruption during World War II.
In 1943, the Crittenton Home became a "Rapid Treatment Center" for women with venereal disease (STDs). The women targeted were the "Victory Girls" who populated Seattle's downtown and waterfront, as well as other ports of embarkation, during the war years. Not exactly prostitutes, these good time girls were willing to give their all for the war effort. The resulting outbreaks of syphilis and gonorrhea threatened to sap the fighting power of the armed forces, so punitive measures were taken. In many places, women and teens were arrested and detained if suspected of being infected; if contagion was proved, they could be quarantined, even when no law had been broken. In an obvious double standard, infected enlisted men were treated on base and were not subject to arrest. Nor was the young age of some of the girls considered a cause for charges against the men involved.
Threat to Public Health
So serious was the perceived threat to public health that the federal government established an agency, headed up by one Eliot Ness, with funding from the 1941 Lanham Act, to combat the problem. The Seattle treatment center, run jointly by the city and the feds, was one of 59 nationwide under the aegis of the Division of Social Protection of the Federal Works Agency. Many were set up at former Civilian Conservation Corps camps in rural areas. The Crittenton Home, already fitted up for the care of girls and young women, and far removed from temptation, also seemed an ideal location for what were, in most cases, first offenders. (The word "amateurs" is often used in government reports.) The trustees of the home were persuaded to lease the building and grounds for the duration of the war.
The program for the residents was quite similar to that of the Crittenton girls: school studies, chores, occupational training (typing, sewing), and fun and games interspersed with medical exams and treatments. A type of self-government prevailed, including elected officers. However, unlike their predecessors, the inmates of the euphemistically-titled Lake View Manor School for Girls were all court-mandated. Further, they were not (necessarily) pregnant. The grounds were patrolled by guards. When one "faithful and respected guard" died, the inmates raised funds for a floral arrangement (Tattler).
An Urban Curiosity
Situated as it was within an urban area, the home found itself something of a curiosity. Visitors included society women such as Mrs. Kenneth B. Colman (Edith, 1905-1970) and attorney Lady Willie Forbus (her name, not a title, 1892-1993), Seattle Mayor William Devin (1898-1982), and Father (later Bishop) Thomas Gill (1908-73), all in addition to a stream of public health and military officials. The residents were often called upon to entertain visiting dignitaries with skits and songs.
Lake View Manor did aspire to something more than medical cures; the authorities hoped fervently for moral rehabilitation and "individualized redirection," as well. A memo to Ness written by his local representative invited him to come and see "what can be done with promiscuous girls." The writer added that the inmates are "worthwhile human material" (Cooley, May 9). The regional representative enclosed copies of the Tattler, a typewritten newsletter written by the residents, as evidence of their creative spirit. True to its name, the Tattler offered up gossipy, often catty, tidbits about both residents and staff, using full names. For example, "Where on earth did Alice Flowers get those bedroom slippers? For a while we thought someone had dyed their French poodles red and turned them loose in the house" (Tattler).
Treatments at the time consisted of sulfonamides for those with gonorrhea, and a combination of drip and injection therapy with drugs containing arsenic for those infected with syphilis. "Rapid treatment" typically meant six to 10 weeks of confinement, as opposed to a year or more of outpatient treatment. The use of penicillin, which could effect a cure in a far shorter period of time, was just around the corner.
The war on VD included weapons familiar to other epidemics, including AIDS in the 1980s and COVID-19 in 2020: swab tests, quarantine, contact tracing, and medical monitoring. For the Lake View Manor women, medical follow-up meant periodic tests to assess whether disease was still present. Three negative gonorrheal cultures were required before a woman was eligible for release. Tattler snippets refer frequently to the intimately-obtained cultures in humorous terms: "Wonder why some of the girls are having such a hard time sitting down recently? Essie, you should be built more like Doreen" (Tattler).
The use of the Crittenton Home for the treatment center lasted from late fall 1943 until spring of 1945, scarcely a year and a half. Estimates of numbers served at any given time range from 43 to 100 women. The annual budget was $100,000. Early on, planners had promised that inmates would receive assistance with placement in jobs once they left. No information is available to determine actual results. Because the Crittenton board had leased the property to the city, the trustees were able to reopen the home to unwed mothers by August 1946.