Why you should care
Never mess with a man of God.
He slicked back his hair, shaved off his beard and pulled on ragged clothes, hoping no one would recognize him as a holy cleric as he headed out for a night of debauchery. But the Rev. Charles Parkhurst wasn’t looking for fun that Saturday evening in March 1892.
The holy man was plunging himself into New York City’s seedy, criminal underworld in a crusade to reform Satan’s Circus, a square mile of Midtown Manhattan notorious for gambling parlors, late-night saloons and bordellos.
There is not a young man so noble, nor a young girl so pure, as not to be in a degree infected by the fetid contamination.
Parkhurst, a little-known figure in the era of social reformer Jacob Riis and Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, sought to confront the “morass of corruption” that had overrun the Big Apple, writes Mike Dash in his true-crime book, Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption and New York’s Trial of the Century. Parkhurst wanted to expose the powerful local bosses whose payrolls included many of NYPD’s finest. So Parkhurst, a small-town guy thrust into big-city life as pastor of Madison Square Presbyterian Church, initiated a three-year campaign that would ultimately lay bare the police department’s misdeeds and the crooked political machine running the city — and usher in an era of dramatic urban renewal.
Throughout his sermons, Parkhurst preached — in a deliberate but thin voice — about an atmosphere in New York that had become so toxic that “there is not a young man so noble, nor a young girl so pure, as not to be in a degree infected by the fetid contamination.” According to documents obtained by Daniel Czitrom, history professor at Mount Holyoke College and author of the upcoming New York Exposed: How A Gilded Age Police Scandal Shocked the Nation and Launched the Progressive Era, Parkhurst rarely lifted his eyes from the lectern during a sermon but “delivered his clear, carefully written words with a quiet fire that kept audiences on the edge of their pews.”
The authorities’ disregard for the brothels — some of which were located around the block from Parkhurst’s church — and suspected collusion with Tammany Hall, New York’s main political organization at the time, fueled the preacher’s rage. With the help of private detective Charles Gardner and a local parishioner, Parkhurst undertook a four-day tour of the vice district. There he found sex workers playing games like naked leapfrog (which inspired a new version of the popular song “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay”: “Doctor Parkhurst on the floor, Playing leapfrog with a whore, Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay, Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay”) and dancing the can-can nude, accompanied by a blindfolded piano player, while madams introduced them as their “daughters.” But it wasn’t until Parkhurst reached the Golden Rule Pleasure Club in Greenwich Village that he hit a breaking point. There he saw boys, some appearing as young as 10 years old, “heavily made-up in women’s clothing,” speaking in falsetto and answering to female names like Sally and Gloria, according to Dash in Satan’s Circus.
For Parkhurst, this served as a battle cry for New York’s soul, seized by dirty politicians and law enforcement who were extorting vast sums of money from a flourishing vice industry. And it was about much more than prostitution, says Timothy Gilfoyle, author of City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920. “Parkhurst was more interested in political corruption,” he tells OZY. But Tammany Hall’s habit of looking the other way on prostitution was “the most visible form of corruption, which he believed infused all of New York City politics.”
The preacher was attacked by the media and politicians for being uptight and puritanical, but his push to shut down the brothels and smoke out dishonest cops was a watershed moment for the Progressive Era, and the first sensational political investigation of modern times.
“He was the first guy to say ‘organized crime,’” Czitrom tells OZY. “The first to say ‘these are the people running the city, the managers of the vice economy.’” Parkhurst made small but significant strides and saw one particularly angry letter published in The New York Times, which led to the indictment of a high-ranking police captain, William Devery, on charges of corruption. Parkhurst’s anti-vice crusade also exposed voter fraud and triggered a major state Senate probe into police corruption called Lexow Committee.
Fast-forward a century, and sex is no longer peddled on Manhattan streets quite so openly. Ironically, however, Parkhurst’s war against political graft didn’t rid the city of prostitution as much as drive commercialized sex further underground, as we see today. At the very least, though, Satan’s Circus has left town and prostitutes can no longer solicit outside the Metropolitan Opera House, as they did in the 19th century. Thanks to Parkhurst, Gilfoyle can ask: “Have you ever seen prostitutes in Radio City Music Hall, the Philharmonic at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall?”