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In 1953, a major inter-state prostitution case centered on northeast Minneapolis’ John’s Bar

By mid-1956, John’s Bar had lost its license, and 110 men and women had been convicted of violating the Mann Act.

historical photo of johns bar
John’s Bar and Funhouse (2500 Marshall Street Northeast, Minneapolis), April 2, 1953. Photograph by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In early 1953 Minnesota’s new US Attorney, George MacKinnon, began an attack on organized interstate prostitution in the Upper Midwest, centered in Minnesota on John’s Bar and Funhouse in Northeast Minneapolis. When the campaign ended in mid-1956, John’s Bar had lost its license, and 110 men and women had been convicted of violating the Mann Act.

In December 1951 the FBI announced a campaign against organized interstate prostitution in the Upper Midwest. When George MacKinnon took over as US Attorney for Minnesota in 1953, he took aim at what he saw as a prostitution enterprise that stretched from Chicago to Sioux Falls and beyond. Its nexus was a Northeast Minneapolis saloon called John’s Bar and Funhouse, operated by brothers Frank and John Gawron.

On August 13, 1952, Minneapolis police raided a house at 428 Groveland Avenue, Minneapolis, and arrested three young sex workers: Darlene Morrison, Phyllis Bennett, and Gloria Jordell. These three—convicted of morals offenses—would soon prove key figures in taking down John’s Bar.

The February 1953 federal grand jury brought a host of indictments against people associated with John’s Bar. The first to stand trial were Minneapolis men Austin “Ozzie” Hatch and Harry Long, on March 31. Prostitution itself was and is a crime under state, not federal, law. But the Mann Act (1910) made taking a woman across state lines, or arranging to do so for immoral purposes, a federal offense. The star witnesses were Jordell and Bennet, who testified that the two men—their pimps—had arranged in Minneapolis for them to be prostituted in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The jury believed them and the men were convicted in federal district court in Minneapolis.

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Testimony in that case persuaded three more to plead guilty. They were Daisy “Dee” Wheeler, owner of a profitable (reportedly $250,000 a year) brothel in Chicago; Frances Elliot, its business manager; and John Gawron, who admitted to managing the Minneapolis hub of the operation. Judge Gunnar Nordbye sentenced Wheeler to four years in prison, Elliot to three, and Gawron to two-and-a-half.

Blows had now been struck against the LaCrosse, Chicago, and Minneapolis outposts. Next came Sioux Falls. The defendants were three men from Minneapolis, Clifford Moore, Frank Batsell, and George Sutton, and a woman from Sioux Falls, Frances Cwach. Jordell was the star witness again. She testified that the men had arranged and paid for her to travel to Sioux Falls as a temporary worker in Cwach’s brothel, known as Frances Rooms. The defendants all acknowledged their involvement in the sex trade. Cwach admitted that she had run her brothel in Sioux Falls without problem from 1939 to 1952. But they all testified that Jordell had done everything on her own. The jury believed the prosecution, and all were sent to prison.

Frank Batsell then faced his second trial in the spring of 1953, this time for driving Gloria Jordell from Minneapolis to Duluth. No acts of prostitution took place; when they got to Duluth they found the situation “too hot” and returned to Minneapolis. But on the way to Duluth they had encountered bad roads, so Batsell detoured briefly into Wisconsin; he crossed state lines. That was enough to constitute a crime under the Mann Act, and Batsell was convicted again.

Next up was Rudolph Mast. Jordell and Morrison testified that Mast had picked them up at the Saddle Bar on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis and told them they could make good money in Superior, Wisconsin. He arranged, so they said, for them to travel to Superior and lodge in a hotel, and gave them the address of Sally’s Place, a brothel in Superior. What’s more, they said, Mast promised them protection—he was a Superior police officer. Once again, no acts of prostitution took place; there was “nothing doing” in the port city. Mast, for his part, said that he had taken the women to Superior to get them honest work at Sally’s Place, which he had no idea was a brothel. The jury did not believe him, and he got eighteen months in prison.

With Mast, MacKinnon and his prosecutor, Alex Dim, had secured over twenty convictions and guilty pleas, resulting in over fifty years of prison terms in a span of nine months. The owners of the brothels in Sioux Falls and Chicago, and their Minneapolis middleman, all went to prison. The prosecutions continued, and by mid-1956 110 men and women had been convicted, and John’s Bar lost its liquor license.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.