A Century of Seattle Vice (Part 1)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 9/08/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22535
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Like all sizeable American cities, Seattle since its earliest days has attracted its share of prostitution, gambling, illegal drug and liquor sales, and a variety of other behaviors and activities that at various times in various places have been criminalized as "vice." Not all vice crimes are highly lucrative, but those that are have proven extremely difficult to control, far less prevent. Crimes related to gambling and commercialized sex (including pornography) are particularly stubborn, and those who profit from them, some greatly, have the motive, means, and often the opportunity to corrupt the agencies of government whose job it is to oppose them. An insidious system of bribery and graft began early in Seattle's history, and through the decades became progressively more sophisticated, widespread, and entrenched. It infected law enforcement of all ranks, some politicians, and agencies of local government. Street vice begot official vice, and it was not until the late 1960s that a long-complacent Seattle media, a few honest cops, federal prosecutors, and a group of mostly Republican political reformers ripped the veil from the system and brought to light the magnitude and pervasiveness of the Emerald City's corruption.

Frontier Sins

On November 13, 1851, the Denny Party -- seven adult men, five adult women (only one of whom was unmarried, but soon would be), and 12 children -- landed on Alki Point, the first settlers on Elliott Bay. This was the closest Seattle would come to gender parity for several decades. A surplus of young single men drawn to the frontier and the scarcity of young, marriageable women guaranteed behaviors that did not conform to consensus morality. Sex between unmarried male settlers (and no doubt some who were married) and local Native American women was not uncommon, and often took the form of prostitution. There also was interracial cohabitation outside of marriage. Henry Yesler (1810?-1892), who arrived in October 1853, having left his wife behind in Ohio, was soon living openly with a teen-aged Native American known as Susan. In 1855 their daughter Julia (1855-1907) was born. There was, of course, same-sex intimacy as well; Yesler's wife, Sarah (1822-1887), who joined him in 1858, is believed to have had at least two amorous relationships with other women.

In the mid-1850s the first hotel in Seattle, Felker House, also housed its first real brothel, both managed by Mary Ann Conklin, known as "Mother Damnable" for her volcanic temper and profane, polyglot vocabulary. Others followed, more overt but largely out of sight of "polite" society, relegated to the flats south of today's Yesler Way, called variously the Lava Beds, Skid Road, or the Tenderloin. And there was also gambling, illegal liquor, drug sales and use, and more -- pretty much the whole panoply of then-illicit behaviors. 

Other than occasional condemnation from the city's pulpits, there is little evidence of public concern, much less outrage, over the rather open sinfulness of others. Not so with the territory's first legislature, which at its inaugural session in 1854 (largely copying the laws of New York state) criminalized "seduction," "fornication," "polygamy," and "notorious lewdness" (1854 Wash. Terr. Laws pp. 95-97). Gambling, perhaps humanity's second oldest profession, was also unambiguously (and ineffectually) banned. Seattle was a long way by water from Olympia, sparsely populated, with no government of its own until 1865 and no police department until 1869. There the territorial vice laws were in a practical sense irrelevant, enforced rarely or not at all.

Between 1880 and 1890 Seattle's population ballooned more than 12-fold, to 42,800. Vice, primarily gambling and prostitution, was now big business indeed. The city's most famous madam, Lou Graham (1861-1903), caught the wave, arriving in 1888 and opening a sumptuous brothel that hosted a number of the city's business leaders and politicians. In 1899 even Wyatt Earp got in on the action with a short-lived "gambling house" in the Tenderloin ("Ex-Sheriff from Arizona ...").

In 1903 the state legislature made it a felony to operate any gambling venue, with violators to be "imprisoned in the penitentiary for the period of not less than one nor more than three years" (1903 Wash. Laws Ch. 50), a draconian punishment to say the least. Still, it had no measurable effect in Seattle; as the city continued to grow and prosper, so did vice. A running battle between those who wanted the city open to it and the moral reformists who wanted it closed would enliven Seattle politics through the first six decades of the twentieth century. Until the early 1970s, vice almost always won.

Victimless Crimes?

Crimes such as murder and rape are universally illegal in civilized societies because they are considered intrinsically evil. Most vice crimes are behaviors and activities that offend the consensus morality of a particular time and place, a very slippery and unstable standard. More often than not, vice crimes involve transactional exchanges between two or more willing participants, harmful if at all only to the individuals involved (gambling losses and buying adulterated drugs being obvious examples).

Public sentiment is ever-changing, and criminal laws often lag behind. Things once thought worthy of penal punishment may later become acceptable, as has happened in recent years with laws protecting LGBTQ+ communities and legalizing marijuana. When the law no longer reflects societal standards, some behaviors remain illegal simply because they are still prohibited, not because the wider society considers them wrong.

One enduring and pernicious consequence of criminalizing many types of vice is the threat it poses to honest government and honorable public service. Laws banning or severely restricting lucrative, often victimless, activities incentivize bribery, graft, and other forms of public corruption. Seattle's experience from its earliest days into the early 1970s provides a textbook case in point.

The 1940s: Vice Ascendant

For decades, illegal vice in Seattle successfully weathered all attempts at reform. Some mayors and police chiefs occasionally tried to rein it in, if only for appearances' sake, but the city remained more often open to vice than closed. Occasionally there were actual investigations. In 1947 Lloyd Shorett (1909-1995), King County's prosecuting attorney, convened the county's first grand jury in a decade. Among other things, it looked into illegal punch boards bearing false licensing seals. Not much came of it.

A number of factors (in addition to human nature) contributed to the persistence of vice in Seattle. License fees and taxes from gambling and other entertainments that were illegal under state law became a major component of municipal revenue. According to one source, "At one point in the 1880s, 87 percent of the city's general fund came from brothels, gambling, and liquor" (Bayley, 3). That percentage grew smaller as the city's budget grew bigger, but vice remained an important source of funding. Worse, many police and some bureaucrats and politicians profited by turning a blind eye to those who paid bribes and punished those bold enough to refuse. The payoff system spanned generations, so firmly entrenched that it became a part, if largely covert, of Seattle's (and King County's) political and law-enforcement cultures. Public outrage was tempered by ignorance of the magnitude of the corruption and the confinement of most of the prostitution, pornography, and other unlicensed activities to the Tenderloin south of Yesler Way. Out of sight, out of mind, or mostly so.

In 1942 a former police-court judge, William Devin (1898-1982), won a two-year term as Seattle's mayor. World War II was underway, and the city was in one of its more blatant "open" phases. Prohibition was gone, but state law still prohibited establishments from serving liquor by the drink. Many did anyway. Gambling, prostitution, and other illegal activities thrived almost unmolested. The army and navy bases in and around Seattle were full of young servicemen. Outbreaks of venereal disease brought a threat by the military to put 74 blocks of the city "off limits." A federal agent visited city hall, warning officials of a possible takeover of local law enforcement by federal authorities. The military's concerns largely were limited to prostitution, but Devin saw an opportunity to rein in other vices as well.

Devin was a reform-minded Republican, but stymied. Seattle's police chief, Herbert D. Kimsey (1887-1957), had some admirable qualities, but eagerness to enforce the city's vice laws was not one of them. Devin tried, but Kimsey, serving a five-year term at the pleasure of the city council, simply ignored unwanted instructions from a mayor who could neither fire nor discipline him. Devin documented specific instances of Kimsey's failure to investigate complaints of illegal activity and asked the city council to remove the chief. Kimsey stayed, but he did reshuffle some senior police officers and ordered a series of showily aggressive raids on a few brothels and other centers of illegal activity. This did not make them disappear, but for a time vice became less overt. While not overly impressed by the effort, the federal government backed off its threats.

Devin was reelected to another two-year term in 1944, and again in 1946. Kimsey's tenure had ended, and after a lengthy search a 33-year-old Seattle police sergeant, George Eastman (1912-1991), was appointed chief. To the police higher-ups, he was the least unacceptable of the candidates, some of whom were from out of state and had reputations as reformers. But Eastman worked in the records department, insulated from the day-to-day corruption, and he would turn out to be a willing partner in the mayor's fight against vice.

The Tolerance Policy

In a 1947 message to the city council, Mayor Devin more or less acknowledged that law enforcement had been corrupted by those engaged in lucrative illegal activities in Seattle: "Give me a police department which is efficient and clean and I will give you a city where law is respected and obeyed" ("Devin Outlines Police Program ..."). He wrote, "as mayor I am not responsible for the morals of our people but I am responsible for the conduct of our police officers." He then described his and Eastman's plan, which would come to be known as the Tolerance Policy:

"... large-scale gambling, slot machines, prostitution and other highly lucrative and corrupting vices are being repressed. Police strength is not being wasted against small card games, cigar-store dice games, merchandise punchboards and similar law violations, except on a complaint basis. No promises or deals are made or permitted. It is my policy to have the law enforced the way a reasonable man would expect to have it enforced ("Delvin [sic] Outlines Police Program ...").

Devin was reelected again in 1948, this time to a four-year term, and the Tolerance Policy was put into effect. In a series of three articles in July 1948, Ross Cunningham of The Seattle Times labored mightily to explain the policy to the public. Its main purpose, he wrote, was "to remove the incentive for anyone to pay protection to the police" ("Policy of 'Tolerance' Limits ..."). Licensed card rooms with very low-stakes games, licensed punch boards that paid off only in merchandise, licensed pinball machines that rewarded winners only with free games, licensed raffles and bingo, and various other activities, all illegal under state law, would be left alone unless specific complaints were lodged. Card rooms could not be house-banked (i.e. winning hands could not be paid from a house-owned chip bank controlled by a professional dealer; players played against one another, not against the house). Nor could the house profit from a share of each pot, but had to charge players based on the time spent playing, or by the game. Wrote Cunningham:

"It isn't hard to find a place to gamble in Seattle. A person can walk into a licensed card room and play poker, pinochle, pangini or gin rummy. A policeman may look over the player's shoulder, and if the game is being run according to the rule-of-thumb tolerances, he will walk away" ("Policy of 'Tolerance' Limits ...").

It is perhaps only with the benefit of hindsight that it is apparent just how naive the policy was, and how it would over time exacerbate the corruption it was intended to end. There was an essential flaw in the reasoning. The "lucrative" gambling that was not to be tolerated was what attracted professional gamblers and avid amateurs, and it was where the money was. Prohibiting the house from taking a rake from high-stakes pots (sometimes as much as 10 percent) would cut deeply into profits. The same was true of such things as punch boards and bingo games. Bribes formerly paid to operate at all would simply continue to be paid, but now to ensure that the profit-sapping restrictions were not enforced, and the police would simply "walk away" as before.

Nonetheless, the Tolerance Policy was credited with some successes in its early years. Slot machines, long illegal under state law, were confiscated. Some brothels were closed (often soon to reopen), and Seattle stayed free of the organized-crime numbers rackets that plagued inner cities nationwide. Chief Eastman reassigned a police captain who had done nothing to fulfill an assignment to shut down illegal liquor establishments. What was not known, except by those directly involved, was how many card rooms and places offering other gambling opportunities were operating within the policy's strictures. As later became obvious, many weren't, nor were brothels and other "highly lucrative and corrupting vices" much affected.

The Pinball Problem

The dilemma of attempts to ban, or even seriously restrict, gambling activity was exemplified by pinball machines. In 1948 King County's commissioners appointed Charles O. Carroll (1906-2003), a former University of Washington football All American and conservative Republican, to fill the vacant position of county prosecutor. At first he seemed reform-minded. In October 1949, near the end of his first full year in office, the state supreme court ruled that pinball machines were "gambling devices," and therefore illegal under state law (Miller v. Spokane). In response, Carroll announced on December 18, 1949, that all licensed pinball machines in Seattle and King County "must go" by January 21, 1950 ("Carroll Orders Pinball ..."). Eleven days later he seemed to have a change of heart. Seattle's ordinance on its face allowed pinball players to win only free games, but it was common practice for pinball operators to redeem those games for cash. Carroll wanted the city to close that "loophole" ("City's Pinball Law Evasive ..."). An odd request, more style than substance, given that he also said that even if the loophole were to be closed, "We'd still have the same pinballs and the same payoff as before, because we haven't enough police officers to keep check on whether cash payoffs were being made" ("City's Pinball Law Evasive ...").

Carroll would remain in office for 22 years and became a central figure in the corruption that penetrated county and city law enforcement to the highest levels. One of his strongest supporters (and apologists) was Ross Cunningham of The Seattle Times, who became the paper's long-serving editorial-page editor and was also "a staunch Republican conservative" ("'Times' Change ...").

The 1950s: More of the Same

In 1951 the U.S Senate's Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce and its special counsel, Robert Kennedy (1925-1968), investigated ties between Seattle's gambling interests and the Teamsters Union, and through the union, to organized crime. Like Shorett's 1947 grand jury, nothing much came of it.

One year later, on June 1, 1952, Allan Pomeroy (1907(?)-1966), a former assistant U.S. attorney, had succeeded Devin as mayor. Pomeroy campaigned in part on a pledge that the laws against gambling would be strictly enforced. More easily said than done -- by the end of his first full year in office, The Seattle Times reported that poker, while supposedly now banned, was still being played in licensed card rooms, and that, "The official eye-winking at poker is indicative of a slight opening of the city in recent months" ("Poker, Pomeroy's Election-Campaign ...").

In June 1953 a state legislative committee headed by future Democratic governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011) investigated crime conditions in Seattle (and other cities). Rosellini accused Devin, who had been out of office for a year, and his ally Eastman of having "defied" state law, and of holding "the fatalistic view that the suppression of gambling is impossible" ("Inquiry Into Crime ..."). Again, nothing much came of it except some headlines. Many observers believed Rosellini was being more political than helpful, including a future chief justice of the state supreme court, William Goodloe (1919-1997), who was ejected from the hearings for saying so.

In 1954 the Seattle City Council raised the annual license fee for pinball distributors to $500, plus $25 for each machine, increasing the city's revenues. Local ordinances still prohibited cash payouts, but the restriction remained almost universally ignored. Vice was more widespread than ever, and its grip on law enforcement, politicians, and licensing authorities was getting tighter.

A War, of Sorts

Peace had largely reigned within Seattle's vice underworld, but in the late 1950s two of the city's main providers of pinballs and jukeboxes -- Amusement Association of Seattle (AAS) and Colacurcio Brothers Amusement Incorporated -- started to slug it out. The Colacurcios, who had entered the business in mid-1957, used threats and strong-arm tactics to persuade businesses to rent their machines. But AAS was more established, and it had the support and muscle of the powerful Teamsters Union and its local president, Frank Brewster (1897-1996). It appears that licensing authorities also preferred doing business with AAS, given the Colacurcios' more thuggish reputation and tendency to attract bad publicity.

Between late 1957 and July 1960 there were five bombings of businesses or cars in Seattle, three in 1960 alone. There were no injuries, and it appeared that none were intended, but among the targets were businesses that worked with AAS, and the car of its secretary, Fred Galeno (1895-1991).

Given the targets of the bombings, which remain unsolved, the Colacurcios were obvious suspects, and by the time of the last explosion the city council's licensing committee had refused pinball license renewals to the brothers, or new licenses to anyone having significant associations with them. Some family members were far from done with vice, however, particularly Frank Colacurcio (1917-2010). He would spend the next 50 years in and out of a range of dodgy activities and a variety of courtrooms, jails, and prisons. He was as close as the city ever got to a Mafia-style godfather, but no solid connections to the true Mafia were ever discovered. 

Perhaps because of their ubiquity and profitability -- in bars, restaurants, arcades, stores, and other places -- pinball machines attracted the most attention from would-be reformers and the city's newspapers. In September 1960 The Seattle Times ran a five-part series on the pinball industry in Seattle. The hypocrisy of allowing gambling in violation of state law was roundly criticized, but there was not a word about the possibility of police payoffs. Other forms of illegal vice -- street- and brothel-based prostitution, certain sexual behaviors and practices (sodomy was not decriminalized in the state until 1976), virtually all gambling (except parimutuel betting on horse racing, made legal in 1933), liquor violations, the sale and use of illicit drugs, bribery and graft, police shakedowns of businesses, and other crimes -- were mostly, although not entirely, ignored by the press.

The Early 1960s: First Cracks in the Facade

Pomeroy was ousted from the Seattle mayor's office in the 1956 election by Gordon S. Clinton (1920-2011), who would serve for the next eight years. Reviewing his life in a 2011 obituary, The Seattle Times noted that Clinton's pre-mayoral résumé "fairly screamed Mr. Clean" ("Former Seattle Mayor Gordon Clinton Remembered ..."). Shortly after being sworn in, Clinton used his office's investigative fund to probe police corruption, but never made his findings public.

Upon his reelection in 1960, and in the immediate wake of three of the pinball bombings, Clinton decided to tackle the city's Tolerance Policy head on. He warned that if the police did not solve the latest (and last) bombing by August 15 that year he would end the city's licensing of "minor" gambling. When the deadline expired with the crime unsolved, Clinton asked the city council's licensing committee to follow through on the threat. The Seattle Times reported that the loss of tax revenue if pinballs were banned would be approximately $325,000. The machines grossed about $5 million a year, and "hundreds of cafes and taverns are subsidized by their share of the profits" ("Mayor Labels Bombings ..."). The licensing committee, "aghast at the possible revenue loss" (Bayley, 40), rejected the idea out of hand.

A similar Clinton effort in 1962, with the Seattle World's Fair coming up, fared no better. But this time he struck back hard, announcing that as of January 1, 1963, the police would bust illegal gambling everywhere it was found, license or no license. The threat's primary effect was to erase the distinction between illegal licensed and illegal unlicensed gambling. The city's revenue took a major hit, but gambling, more of it now unlicensed, went on pretty much as before. In 1964 James d'Orma "Dorm" Braman (1901-1980) replaced Clinton as mayor. He had promised during his campaign to reinstate the Tolerance Policy, and promptly did so.

Also in 1963, the Washington State Legislature, tacitly acknowledging that using the state's criminal code to outlaw local gambling had not worked for more than a hundred years, enacted a "local option" law. This allowed municipalities to do what they had been doing all along -- permit, license, and tax many forms of gambling that had been illegal under state law since 1854. Rosellini, who 10 years earlier had harshly criticized the view that "the suppression of gambling is impossible" ("Inquiry Into Crime ...") was now governor. He vetoed a couple of paragraphs, then allowed the remainder of the law to take effect without his signature.

The Beginning of the End

In a succinct overview, one local historian wrote:

"The culture of corruption began with a pervasive payoff system that had been in place, in one version or another, since the 19th century ... Vice-related taxes, fees, bribes and protection money had been flowing through city and county politics from almost the beginning. Call it trickle-up economics. Prostitutes, the proprietors of clubs that catered to gay men, taverns and bars, and gambling operators paid bribes and protection money to the police, who, in turn, passed it up the departmental chain of command. In return, law enforcement looked the other way, cracking down on those who wouldn’t play the game" ("Police Reform in a City ...").

By the mid-1960s the payoffs to police on the beat were so pervasive as to be hard to miss by anyone who looked, but the full contours of the system were less obvious. Not just beat cops, but also the detectives of the vice squad, were taking bribes. It seems likely that rumors of multi-level institutional corruption reached reporters for Seattle's two daily newspapers and other media outlets, but if so there was little follow-up. The fact that some media executives and journalists moved in the same circles as the city's political and law-enforcement elite probably didn't help, and in the early 1960s true investigative journalism -- fearless in-depth probes rather than mere scandal-mongering -- was in its infancy.

Somewhat surprisingly, the first small ding in the payoff system's heavy armor was published in the uber-establishment Seattle Times in September 1966. Perhaps less surprising, given the times, the article's primary concern was the perceived threat posed by the city's growing number of gay men, and the taverns and clubs they frequented. Despite that unfortunate focus, this single minor exposé led to further investigations by its authors, and kick-started a competition between the city's two major newspapers that would in time help bring many of Seattle's deepest secrets to light.

Further Reading: In Part 2, a Seattle tradition of entrenched corruption disintegrates with surprising speed.


"1857 Census: King County Population By Name" (by Greg Lange), and "1859 Census: Territorial audit of King County finds 55 horses, 255 white persons, 1 church, etc. in 1859" (by Greg Lange), "1860 Census: ..." (by John Caldbick); "1870 Census: ... (by John Caldbick), "Conklin, Mary Ann (1821-1873) aka Mother Damnable" (by Junius Rochester), "Madame Lou Graham arrives in Seattle in February 1888" (by Priscilla Long), "John Pinnell builds a Seattle brothel in 1861" (by Priscilla Long); "Quick Information About Seattle -- Population Statistics," Seattle Municipal Archives website accessed July 9, 2022 (http://www.seattle.gov/cityarchives/seattle-facts/quick-city-info#population1870present); Thomas W. Prosch, "A Chronological History of Seattle from 1850-1897" (typescript, 1930s), available at The Seattle Public Library Special Collections (https://cdm16118.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15015coll2/id/5209); "Ordinances of the Town of Seattle," Seattle Weekly Gazette, March 4, 1865, p. 1; Don Brazier, "History of the Legislature 1854-1963," Washington State Legislature website accessed July 10, 2022 (https://leg.wa.gov/History/Legislative/Documents/HistoryOfTheLeg.pdf); "An Act Relating to Gaming and Gaming Contracts," 1855 Wash. Terr. Laws, pp. 23-24, "Lotteries and Divorce," Constitution of the State of Washington (1889), Article II, sec. 24; "Prohibiting the Maintaining of Gambling Resorts," 1903 Wash. Laws Ch. 50, "Mechanical Devices, Salesboards, Bingo Equipment and Cardrooms," 1963 Wash. Laws Ch. 37; Carl L Cooper, "Delvin [sic] Outlines Police Program in Message," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 17, 1947, p. 14; Stub Nelson, "Inquiry into Crime in Seattle Closes on Political Tone," Ibid., May 3, 1952, p. 1; "Nine More Called for Grand Jury," The Seattle Times, January 1, 1947, p. 2; Ross Cunningham, Ibid., "Policy of 'Tolerance' Limits Gambling Here," July 3, 1949, pp. 1, 3; Ross Cunningham, "Gambling 'Tolerances" Explained by Officials," Ibid., July 4, 1949, p. 24; Ross Cunningham, "Most Card-Room Operators 'Play Ball,' Say Police," Ibid., July 5, 1949, p. 3; "Carroll Orders Pinball Machines Out by Jan. 21," Ibid., December 18, 1949, p. 1; "City's Pinball Law Evasive, Says Carroll," Ibid., December 19, 1949, p. 1; "Poker, Pomeroy's Election-Campaign Target, Continues," Ibid., December 24, 1953, p. 1; "Jukebox 'War' Curbed, Say Officials," Ibid., January 10, 1958, p. 10; Marshall Wilson, "The Pinball Problem -- Mayor Labels Bombings Start of Racketeering," Ibid., September 4, 1960, p. 1 (first of a seven-part series); Craig Welch, "Former Seattle Mayor Gordon Clinton remembered as 'decent, honorable' - Obituary," Ibid., November 23, 2011, p. B-1; "Ex-Sheriff from Arizona to Open Gambling House," The Seattle Star, November 25, 1899, p. 4; Knute Berger, "Police Reform in a City Known for Police Corruption," December 2013, Crosscut website accessed August 3, 2022 (https://crosscut.com/2015/12/police-reform-in-a-city-known-for-police-corruption); James Bush, "'Times' Change," October 9, 2006, Seattle Weekly website accessed August 5, 2022 (https://www.seattleweekly.com/news/times-change/); HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Pinball in Seattle" (by Brad Holden), "Conklin, Mary Ann (1821-1873) aka Mother Damnable (by Junius Rochester), "Madame Lou Graham arrives in Seattle in February 1888" (by Priscilla Long), https://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 3, 2022).

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