John Pinnell builds a Seattle brothel in 1861.

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2738
In 1861, John Pinnell (or Pennell, in some sources), the proprietor of several lucrative brothels in San Francisco, arrives in Seattle, Washington Territory, and establishes a brothel. He builds it just south of present-day (2014) Yesler Way. Seattle is a rough logging town with few women among the non-Indian population, and Pinnell's first prostitutes are Indian women. This marks a significant moment in Seattle's becoming an "open town" -- open, that is, to saloons, brothels, and gambling -- which will define local controversies and politics for many years to come.

In Those Naughty Ladies of the Old Northwest, Gary Meier and Gloria Meier write:

"Soon after his arrival, John built a large rectangular building of rough boards, housing a dance floor, a long bar, and a number of small private rooms where the primary business would be conducted."

Pinnell called the bordello Illahee, a Chinook Jargon word meaning "Home Place." The 1870 U.S. Census of King County designated the 11 inmates of John Pinnell's establishment in the following way: "Occupied by Indian women kept by one John Pinnell as Hurdy-Gurdies" (Rhodes).

A few years later he imported a dozen filles de joie from San Francisco. They stepped off the boat and headed for the Illahee, rather a shadow version of Asa Mercer's "Mercer's Belles," who were marriageable young schoolteachers brought by ship from New England in 1864.


Sources: Gary Meier and Gloria Meier, Those Naughty Ladies of the Old Northwest, (Bend, Oregon: Maverick Publications, 1990), 107-108; Murray Morgan, Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle (New York: The Viking Press, 1951), 59-61; King County Censuses: 1870 U.S. Census and 1871 Territorial Census for King County, Washington Territory ed. by Marjorie Rhodes (Seattle: Marjorie Rhodes, 1993), p. 33.
Note: This essay was corrected on February 9, 2014.

Related Topics:   Firsts | Society | Women's History

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