“Seven Sister’s Row,” was mentioned by Asbury in Chapter IX, Section 1 as the “most celebrated single group of these places [bagnios]” in 1860s New York City. He lifted this piece of information from one of his listed sources, James Dabney McCabe’s 1868 book, Secrets of the Great City. It’s worth quoting McCabe’s text on this, considering that what he claims has been unconfirmed for over 150 years:
THE SISTER’S ROW — This is the name given to a row of first-class houses in West Twenty-fifth street, all fashionable houses of prostitution. A woman came to this city from a New England Village, and was enticed into one of the fashionable dens. She paid a visit to her home, dressed up in all her finery. Her parents believed her a Broadway saleswoman, but to her sisters, one by one, she confided the life of gayety and pleasure she led, and one by one the sisters left the peaceful village, until, at last, the whole seven sisters were domiciled in the crime-guilt palaces in West Twenty-fifth street. Thus, one sister ruined six in her own family; how many others in the same place is unknown.
Asbury embellished this somewhat, adding that each of the houses were adjoining and that they were “near Seventh avenue”; that they were the most exclusive and expensive bordellos in the city, accepting only gentlemen visitors attired in evening dress; and that they donated Christmas Eve proceeds to charity. Additionally, Asbury indicated the seven houses “were opened” by the sisters, implying that they were the proprietresses–an assertion not made by McCabe.
Despite all attempts at discreetness, one would think such a remarkable landmark would have become common knowledge. However, “Sister’s Row” isn’t mentioned in any New York newspapers either prior to or following McCabe’s 1868 book. It also isn’t mentioned in any other books until Asbury rediscovered McCabe in 1928. During the same period, many other notable houses of ill-repute were often chronicled.
The brownstone row-houses on the streets of the West Twenties were built in the 1840s, and by the 1860s were selling for between $4000 and $17,000 each. The odds that seven sisters coming to New York from a New England village would be able to afford such an investment (regardless of their talents!) boggles the mind.
Seven Sister’s Row, for these reasons, could be dismissed as a total myth…but there appears to be more than a little truth in the tale.
A row of adjoining houses-of-ill-repute did exist on West 25th Street. In 1864, a special council of physicians conducted a survey of the area, and their notebooks still exist at the New York Historical Society. The NYHS Reference Librarian, Mariam Touba, pointed out page 49 of one of the notebooks, on which it is noted that Numbers 55 1/2, 57, 59, 61, 63, 65, and 67, “The seven houses of ill-fame.”
The streets were renumbered in the late 1860s. In 1870, a little pamphlet called the Gentlemen’s Companion (a guide to bordellos, also held by NYHS) was published. In it, the same houses (minus one, No. 107), now re-numbered, are described, along with the names of the madams: 103 run by Mrs. [Jane E.] Prescott; 105 run by Mrs. Kate Wood; 109 kept by Nettie Smith; 111 kept by Mrs. Jolly; 113, Mrs. King, and 115, Mrs. Bennett.
Mrs. Prescott, 42, and Kate Wood, 40, were listed in the 1870 as both hailing from Connecticut. Mrs. Bennett, 26 from England, had two young women, Lillie Bennett (16) and Martha Bennett (19) living in her house. Mrs. Jolly was listed as Margaret Jull in the 1870 census. Mrs. King was Emma King, 40, of New York.
Very close, but not seven sisters. But there was a “Seven Sisters!”
On November 18, 1871, the New York Herald published a short piece, “The Infamous Dens of Twenty-Sixth Street.” Note that McCabe, Asbury, and all citations since their time have always mentioned Twenty-Fifth Street (between 6th and 7th), whereas this article speaks to the situation one block north:
Of all the streets in the city, neither Greene nor Wooster street excepted, West Twenty-sixth street is the worst in moral infamy and quiet dark crime. It was here the notorious Seven Sisters located after being hunted out of the Eighth ward, and here they still remain. Their success uptown has excited the envy of several brazen strumpets who traffic in the prostitution of young girls. Some time ago a woman named Adelaide Beaumont, residing in this street, was sent to the Penitentiary for enticing girls of ten years and under into her place for purposes of prostitution, and now another depraved female named Emma Walters, of 139 West Twenty-Sixth street, is arrested for a similar offence…
A more specific reference was made in 1872, during a heated political spat between Representative C. C. Bowen of South Carolina and the state’s Governor, Robert K. Scott. Scott was a former Union officer, and was viewed by former Confederates in South Carolina as a corrupt carpetbagger. Scott’s behavior as Governor–including an affair with actress Pauline Markham, questionable state contracts, and missing funds–provided Bowen with plenty of material. Speaking in a session at the State Capital, Bowen declared, “If you want to see moral nakedness, go to Williard’s Hotel in Washington. On the hotel books you will find Scott’s name in connection with a notorious woman, from Philadelphia, who occupied the same room with him. Follow him from Washington to New York and go to No. 112 West Twenty-sixth street, (a noted house called the Seven Sisters, or Palmetto House) and learn his doings there.”
[Bowen’s “Palmetto House” remark was meant to convey that Scott was such an enthusiastic patron of the establishment that it was unofficially renamed in honor of the State he governed.]
These two items place the Seven Sisters on Twenty-Sixth Street between 6th and 7th, a notorious section of the Tenderloin. Nearby were Adelaide Beaumont’s bagnio at No. 127; Dr. Henry D. Grindle’s abortion clinic at No. 120; and Mrs. Doran’s baby farm at 148, where infants carried to term were left for her to sell (and where unsold tiny bodies were found in the basement.)
No. 112 West 26th was sold by order to the NY Supreme Court in January 1874, and later became a Baptist Temple.
Was there ever a set of seven sisters involved? Sisters had been known to follow each other into the sex trade, but seven is an unlikely number. The phrase “Seven Sisters,” however, was high in the public consciousness in the 1860s. This was the title of a burlesque musical production presented by Laura Keene, which premiered in New York in 1860 and ran for years, before touring the country and experiencing multiple re-stagings. It was known for the singing and dancing of its titular figures, young woman clad in low-cut dresses, and dismissed by many as immoral.