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St. Paul’s Nina Clifford: the ‘richest woman of the underworld’

Clifford was relatively upfront about the operations at 147 Washington Street, since she operated her brothel within the St. Paul’s vice districts.

image of historic two story building
Nina Clifford’s brothel at 147 South Washington Street in St. Paul. Photograph by A. F. Raymond, 1937.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Nina Clifford, a child of immigrants who evolved into the “richest woman of the underworld,” made a name for herself as an affluent sex worker who contributed to the buildup of St. Paul’s downtown Red Light District in the late 1800s. She invited other women to establish their businesses nearby while police sanctioned an environment in which vice could thrive. In spite of a lack of preserved records, standing buildings, and extant photographs related to her business, Nina Clifford remains a legendary madam of St. Paul.

Nina Clifford was born Johanna Crow (also referred to as ”Hannah”) in 1851 in Chatham, Ontario (Canada), the daughter of Irish or German immigrants. Shortly thereafter, her family moved to Detroit, where she later met and married Conrad Steinbrecher. Crow took the opportunity to move to St. Paul after being widowed, buying two lots on Washington Street along the Mississippi River in 1887 and adopting the name Nina Clifford. No. 145 served as her personal residence, while No. 147 — down the street from the police station and city morgue — was established as the location for a brothel, run by Clifford herself.

A year later, Clifford commissioned the building of a luxurious two-story establishment on the lot for $12,000. Many sex workers operating during the nineteenth century cloaked themselves under the guise of working in “cigar stores” or as dressmakers. Clifford was relatively upfront about the operations at 147 Washington Street, since she operated her brothel within the city’s vice districts. St. Paul districts were not as established as those in Minneapolis but were concentrated downtown between Cedar Street and Sibley Street and “under the hill” near Eagle Street.

From 1865 to 1883, prostitution, which was illegal under both city and state law, was regulated in St. Paul through regular monthly arrests and fining madams. After 1883, when Clifford was operating her brothel, madams appeared before courts only to be fined. The O’Connor Layover Agreement, established by St. Paul police chief John J. O’Connor in 1900, allowed criminals to reside in St. Paul so long as they did not commit crimes within the city itself. Vice, including prostitution, gambling, and alcohol sales, was not subject to O’Connor’s ban on crime, and it thrived within St. Paul.

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By 1895, Clifford operated the largest brothel in the Washington Red Light District, with eleven women operating as sex workers (referred to as “sports”), two maids, and a cook. In 1900, six other addresses on Washington Street were operating as brothels, with an average of 6.5 sex workers per establishment. Five years later, Clifford added a housekeeper, a musician, and a porter to the live-in staff. Clifford brought other madams (like Ida Dorsey, who purchased Clifford’s building at 151 South Washington Street), into her district, and was paid accordingly. Clifford funneled the money received in affiliation with other madams towards city officials to protect their businesses. In 1914, she garnered attention for paying city police to turn a blind eye towards her operations.

Named the “richest woman in the underworld” and credited with having “business shrewdness above the average,” Clifford operated her brothel at 147 Washington Street until her death on July 14, 1929, while she was visiting family in Detroit. In the 1930s, her building, as well as many others on the street, were demolished.

The crystal chandelier that hung in either Clifford’s home or her brothel was purported to have been moved and installed in the St. Paul mayor’s private offices after her buildings were demolished in the 1930s. There was alleged to be tunnels linking Clifford’s brothel to the Minnesota Club, located on the corner of Fourth Street and Washington Street. The legend was intensified by a portrait club members thought was of Clifford that they hung on a wall. This myth of the Minnesota Club connection was debunked during a 1997 excavation of the brothel site, during which no tunnels were found. The Science Museum of Minnesota was built there in the following year.

Gossip around Clifford’s brothel and the Minnesota Club illuminates the type of customers she attracted: men of a high socioeconomic class, established and involved in the community. In the twenty-first century, Clifford’s notoriety survives on lore and continued storytelling rather than on remaining physical artifacts from her life.

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