Tacoma Mayor Harry Cain summons 31 madams to his office in an effort to "clean up" the city on July 25, 1941.

  • By C. Mark Smith
  • Posted 5/19/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22699
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On July 25, 1941, Tacoma Mayor Harry P. Cain (1906-1979) summons 31 madams to City Hall to announce that arrests will be made if the women don't shut down Tacoma's brothels immediately. Cain's lecture comes amid skyrocketing rates of venereal disease at nearby Fort Lewis, where more than 40,000 soldiers are housed. "This closure is for six months," Cain tells them. "If the venereal disease rate goes up during that time, instead of down, I’ll not only allow you to re-open, I’ll become a barker at your doors and encourage more trade for you" ("Blitzing the Brothels"). 

Tacoma Vice

On September 16, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940, the first conscription of qualified men into the armed forces in the history of the nation. Within months, thousands of the new draftees were arriving at Fort Lewis, located about 12 miles south of Tacoma, increasing its military population from 5,000 to more than 40,000 by March 1941, a number that did not include the rapidly growing number of civilian workers who were employed there by the military.

Not yet 41 and serving his first year in office, Tacoma’s dynamic mayor Harry Cain sought close ties with the senior officers at the nearby bases, playing golf and socializing with many of the military leaders with whom he would later serve, including Kenyon Joyce, Mark Clark, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Like many West Coast seaport towns, Tacoma had a permissive relationship with prostitution, gambling, and unlicensed drinking establishments. For years, vice had been tolerated, and even encouraged, by a loose coalition of citizens who profited from it in various ways, so long as it was contained within certain restricted areas and its negative effects were not obvious to the general public. That became more difficult to control with the massive influx of workers and soldiers in the run-up to World War II. A citizen watchdog group began appearing at Tacoma city commission meetings and calling for the resignation of Holms Eastwood, the Commissioner of Public Safety. Cain had his own concerns about Eastwood and the police department, and in private forcefully pressed Eastwood and his chief of police for answers. In response, Eastwood assured him that the problem of prostitution was not significant and that, in any event, his department lacked the officers or funding to do more than they were already doing. Cain received a vastly different perspective from former Tacoma Police Chief and future Pierce County Sheriff Harold Bird, and from his director of public health, Dr. L. E. Powers. They told Cain that on any "good" night, "there would be as many as three hundred girls, madams, procurers and camp-followers" engaged in commercial prostitution in downtown Tacoma ("Blitzing the Brothels"). 

Concern at Fort Lewis

Cain soon received a visit from a delegation of high-ranking officers at Fort Lewis who were concerned about the rapid spread of venereal disease among their soldiers. A subsequent private meeting held in October 1940 explored two available options: one, regulate the brothels through identification and fingerprinting of the women, combined with weekly health examinations; or two, suppress the trade through active law enforcement. Eastwood again claimed that the latter course was impossible, given the available police resources. Cain was skeptical, but the decision was made to try regulation.

Venereal disease rates continued to soar. Regulation didn’t work. By December, Tacoma’s illicit nightlife was back on the front pages of the local papers when the army threatened to go to state authorities if the city didn’t act. Eastwood threw a couple of punches at the reporter responsible for the story and refused to meet with the media. 

As 1940 turned into 1941, the Fort Lewis base commander was again threatening to place Tacoma off limits to all military personnel. The Tacoma Times called for Eastwood’s resignation. Cain was ready to dismiss him, but needed the support of a majority of his fellow commissioners. The army’s latest threat meant that something else had to be tried.

Cain and Public Health Director Powers decided to explore suppression of the trade altogether. Powers knew of a successful repression program that had been carried out in Vancouver, British Columbia. He visited the city, meeting with public health officials, interviewing social workers, and observing conditions on the street and in the hotels, bars, and dance halls where prostitution had flourished. The justification for closing the brothels clearly needed to be based on public health issues and their resulting disease-based social costs, rather than on moral or economic grounds.

Cain and Powers began a four-month public information campaign, using the radio, newspapers, pamphlets, and talking to any group that would listen. The results were impressive. A new ordinance was enacted that prohibited unescorted women from going into taverns. In the meantime, President Roosevelt signed the May Act, which allowed local base commanders to determine where prostitution was occurring and to declare such communities off limits to military personnel. Colonel Ralph Glass, the Fort Lewis base commander, immediately sent Cain a letter indicating his willingness to act under the new legislation if Tacoma didn’t. Overnight, the issue became an economic problem, not just a moral problem, for Tacoma. We now know that Glass’s action was not spontaneous. In a July 22 entry in his journal, Cain described a meeting he had held with officials from Fort Lewis the previous Thursday. "We discussed suppression [of prostitution] and how best to approach the problem. It was agreed by all that direct action was required" ("Being Mayor"). 

A series of frantic meetings with business leaders and his fellow commissioners resulted in a July 24 pledge to the army from the city that "all discoverable houses of prostitution within the city limits would be closed within two weeks" ("Being Mayor").

A Meeting With the Mayor

The events that followed became the basis for one of Cain’s favorite stories. This version is taken from an interview Cain conducted with Miami public affairs radio personality Charles Kappes in March 1975. Cain said that he called all 31 local madams into his office on the morning of July 25, 1941:

"I was well prepared and in a good mood. They were all handsomely dressed – they should have been; they were all making a fortune – and I said, 'Ladies, when you leave this office, you’ll be on your way back to close up. You’re done.' Well, they were indignant, some screamed, some swore, and some threatened to go out into the neighborhoods. I told them, 'If you do that, because of the difficulty in [customers] getting to you, your business is going to decline and your prices increase, and the local housewives are going to know where you are, and they’re going to come and complain to me, and I’m going to send the police out there [and] put you in the Bastille.' This closure is for six months. If the venereal disease rate goes up during that time, instead of down, I’ll not only allow you to re-open, I’ll become a barker at your doors and encourage more trade for you" (Kappes interview). 

Cain was so pleased with his success in cleaning up the brothels that he wrote an article about it in the December 1943 issue of the Journal of Social Hygiene, called "Blitzing the Brothels." Its publication brought favorable attention to Tacoma and, not coincidentally, to the aspiring politician, Harry Cain, the first sitting mayor in the country to be accepted into the Army’s new military government branch in May 1943.


Harry P. Cain, "Blitzing the Brothels," Journal of Social Hygiene, December 1943, pp. 595, 598; "Eastwood, Irked Over News Story, Stages Fisticuffs," Tacoma Times, December 1, 1940; "Army Challenges Eastwood," Ibid., February 10, 1941; Harry Cain, entry in his "Being Mayor" journal, July 22, 1941; Harry P. Cain interview conducted by Charles Kappes on WNWS Radio, Miami, Florida, March 12, 1979, tape recording in author’s collection.

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