In July 1863, a riverboat bearing important cargo sailed into Louisville on the Ohio River. It was a shipment from the Union Army—not unusual in the days of the army’s occupation of the Kentucky city during the Civil War. But the Idahoe’s cargo was anything but ordinary, and the city refused to let the ship dock on its shores.
The ship wasn’t carrying weaponry—its cargo was human. Inside were over 100 prostitutes from Nashville, women who had been forced onto the ship at the behest of Union Army officials trying to stem a public health crisis of sexually transmitted diseases. They blamed the prostitutes for causing and spreading the diseases, which were nearly impossible to treat in a time before modern contraceptives or medical treatments, so they banished them from Nashville.
The women’s failed trip north on the Idahoe, a chartered boat known forever after as the “floating whorehouse,” was just the beginning of a strange period in the city’s history. When nobody would allow the ship to stop at their shores, Nashville officials had to devise another solution to their city’s crisis. In response, the city legalized prostitution in an attempt to prevent women with sexually transmitted infections from passing them along to large number of soldiers.
Modern research has shown that when sex work is legalized, sexually transmitted diseases fall—but over a century ago, the potential benefits of regulated sex work seemed clear even without those studies. The brief but successful experiment only lasted through the end of the Civil War. But it proved the benefits of allowing sex workers to practice their trade publicly.
“In the realm of unmarried sex,” writes historian Thomas Power Lowry, “Nashville remains America’s first experiment with legalized, regulated prostitution. Even with the primitive medical treatment available then, it seems to have been a remarkable success.”
Nashville had been occupied by Union soldiers since February 1862, and served as a large garrison for soldiers from the North. They didn’t come alone. Though there were about 200 prostitutes in the city before the Civil War began, the profession flourished and grew along with the Union occupation.
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Smokey Row, in what is now downtown Nashville, went from an uncomfortable city secret to a thriving red-light district with some 1,500 prostitutes. Many of the women were Southerners who became sex workers to earn a living after their male family members went to war. With the increased numbers of both prostitutes and clients came diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis.
“There was an old saying that no man culd [sic] be a soldier unless he had gone through Smokey Row,” wrote Benton E. Dubbs, a Union private. “The street was about three-fourths of a mile long and every house or shanty on both sides was a house of ill fame. Women had no thought of dress or decency. They say Smokey Row killed more soldiers than the war.”
In a time before modern condoms and antibiotics, venereal disease was both seen as an inevitable consequence of war and the fault of prostitutes. One in 11 Union soldiers contracted a sexually transmitted disease during the war. But in Nashville, the problem was seen as particularly bad. A Union officer complained that he heard about venereal diseases “daily and almost hourly” from surgeons who begged him to rid the city of “diseased prostitutes.”
And so, in July 1863, the Union provost marshal, George Spalding, began rounding up prostitutes and forcing them onto the Idahoe. But when the ship was denied safe harbor in Louisville, Cincinnati and every other port it attempted to enter, it returned to Nashville, trashed by the women who had been living there in abject conditions. The Union Army would have to try another tactic.
Starting in August 1863, Spalding launched a multi-pronged fight against sexually transmitted diseases. He ordered the creation of a hospital for prostitutes who had venereal diseases. To pay for it, prostitutes had to register for a license to practice their trade; some of the proceeds went to the hospital. The prostitutes were required to submit to regular health inspections and enter the hospital if they contracted a disease. A special hospital for soldiers with syphilis was also established in the city.
The program was a success: Not only did the numbers of Nashville-garrisoned soldiers with sexually transmitted diseases fall, but hundreds of prostitutes registered for licenses. Soon, the city’s reputation for obscene, coarsely dressed prostitutes “gave place to cleanliness and propriety,” according to a report on the program. Though medical treatments for sexually transmitted diseases were primitive at best at the time, oversight and prevention had proven to be a much more effective cure in Nashville.
The program was so successful that it spread to Memphis. But as historian Danielle Jeannine Cole notes, few outside of Tennessee knew about it at all, a fact she attributes to how quickly it was dismantled when the war ended.
The United States’ brief flirtation with legalized prostitution didn’t outlast the war, nor did it catch on afterward. Prostitution is still illegal in every state except Nevada, which has some counties that allow regulated brothels. Today, decriminalizing prostitution has been linked to lower rates of sexually transmitted infections. But in many ways, the stigma against sex work is as alive and well as it was in the days of Nashville’s floating brothel.