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Sin cities: From prostitution to quickie divorces, exhibit details tawdrier side of Fargo and Moorhead

MOORHEAD - A new display at the Hjemkomst Center here shows that the twin cities of Fargo and Moorhead have a history as sin cities. "Taboo Fargo/Moorhead: An Unmentioned History" details the tawdrier side of life in the area, from 1871, when bot...

Gwen McCausland
Gwen McCausland places a revolver in a display last week in the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead for the exhibit "Taboo Fargo/Moorhead: An Unmentioned History." Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

MOORHEAD - A new display at the Hjemkomst Center here shows that the twin cities of Fargo and Moorhead have a history as sin cities.

"Taboo Fargo/Moorhead: An Unmentioned History" details the tawdrier side of life in the area, from 1871, when both towns were founded, to 1935, when prohibition ended.

From prostitution in Fargo to violent crimes in Moorhead, Fargo's popularity for quickie divorces and the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the area, the show examines the uncelebrated histories of the community.

The show was curated by a North Dakota State University museum studies class.

"There are interesting things in the region's history that we don't talk about much, but when you dig in, it's fascinating material," said instructor Angela Smith. "The students had fun with it."


A divorce mill

"I've lived up here for 20 years and I had no idea Fargo was a divorce mill," said Aaron Jones, an NDSU senior in the museum studies class that put the exhibit together.

Divorce laws in North Dakota were more lenient in the late 1800s than many other states and could be granted immediately, with Fargo becoming infamous for the "10-minute divorce."

In the 1870s, the laws were changed to demand someone seeking a divorce be a resident for 90 days, leading many to rent hotel rooms for the duration, even if they returned home immediately after checking in.

The opportunity proved to be a boon for businesses, particularly hotels.

"People came from all over the country and some European countries to get divorces in Fargo because there was only a 90-day wait period," Smith said. "They would come, establish residency and get a divorce. Before Reno was Fargo."

The students discovered that in one year, a single judge granted 350 divorces.

Not everyone saw the arrangement as good for business.


"The citizens of Fargo thought that the reputation was giving them a black eye," Jones said.

In 1899, the Legislature voted to lengthen the residency requirement to a year.

"That really took it down," Jones said.

A display in the taboo exhibit includes a photo of a large sign stating, "DIVORCE MILL CLOSED."

The Madame Massey

The star of the "Taboo" show is well-documented but never pictured.

In the 1800s, an area between First and Second avenues north and Second and Third streets in downtown Fargo, just to the east of where the Fargo Public Library and City Hall now stand, was the city's red light district, or as it was known, "the Hollow."

Of the madams at the time, Malvina Massey was one of the most popular.


"She is just fascinating," Smith said.

What makes Massey so interesting isn't just what she did but who she was: a black woman running a brothel in Fargo at the turn of the 20th century.

"There are not that many black people in the area (at the time)," said Smith said, who added that census records from 1900 to 1910 show "a handful" of blacks in the area.

Massey, a Virginia native, ran the Crystal Palace in the 1880s, an establishment sometimes referred to in reproduced newspaper stories as a "sporting house."

While the 1899 census had her listed as "housekeeper," her business was well-known, at least among the police who would monthly serve citations to the madams and "inmates" for "vagrancy." The offenders would simply pay their fine, from $25 to $75, and go back to work.

Indeed, in 1899 Massey was arrested, and The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican reported: "Madame Massey, a prominent public character, was arrested on the charge of running a bawdy house."

"Even though it's illegal, they don't shut her down," Smith said.

The display documents half-hearted attempts to drive the brothels out.


"The women of the Hollow are still there," a Forum story at the time stated. "Today they were supposed to vamoose, but those who own property in that section seem to refuse to be driven from their homes."

When other property owners in "the Hollow" tried to push prostitution out, the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican explained why there was no big rush to get rid of the "working girls":

"The commencement of this action confronts the city with a very serious proposition. The money derived by the city from this source constitutes its greatest revenue outside of the general tax, amounting as it does, to something like $7,000 annually. And this is but a drop in the bucket compared with what the landladies and their inmates of these houses spend with the merchants of the city."

The law finally caught up to Massey, though not for prostitution. Instead, she was convicted of selling illegal alcohol in her establishment and in 1901 served nine months of a yearlong prison sentence, the only woman in the State Penitentiary at the time.

Ten months after her release from prison, she was arrested again for the same charge. That complaint was later dropped in court when, according to the Bismarck Tribune: "The prosecuting witness forgot his lines."

"The newspaper reports about her are hysterical," Smith said.

Indeed, the papers got their shots in, referring to her as everything from "a prominent public character" to "the notorious Fargo dive keeper" and "The famous colored demi monde, 'Madame Massey.' "

Even the 1910 census listed her as, "proprietor, house of ill fame."


When Massey died a year later at the age of 73, the Forum headline announced, "Aging negress is dead."

Dry city, wet city

While both cities served alcohol initially, Fargo closed its saloons shortly after North Dakota became a state in 1889.

Moorhead business owners catered to the spirit-less Fargo residents by sending "jag wagons" over to pick them up and bring them back to the Minnesota side for their drinking.

Of course, sometimes where the liquor spills, trouble follows. The display illustrates the Wild West attitude as the railroads were being built in a Moorhead shootout "that is infamous in the history of the region," Smith said.

On April 25, 1872, an argument between gamblers following the railroad worker camps erupted in gunfire.

Edward Curran (also known as Shang Stanton) and Dan "Slim Jim" Shumway showed up at a saloon where the Moorhead Mall parking lot now sits. Curran shot, hitting Shumway in the abdomen, who then shot back five times as Curran ran to another saloon. One of Shumway's shots killed an innocent bystander.

Shumway later died from the shot, and Curran was initially charged with murder but was released after the killing was ruled justifiable homicide.


The temperance movement caught up with Clay County and in 1915 Moorhead went officially dry, though booze still ran. The show includes photos of confiscated stills and a report of a 640-gallon shipment of alcohol disguised as hair tonic seized at the Northern Pacific freight depot in Moorhead in 1923.

"Not all history is cookie-cutter," Smith says. "That's one of the things we end up showing in this exhibit. Things are not necessarily the way you think they would've been."

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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