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Seacoast Teen Abducted to Brothel


Ethel Duffy, 14, of Portland, Maine was kidnapped while staying with friends in Dover in the summer of 1912. She was apparently drugged by a woman named Constance Perry, 25, who delivered the girl to the infamous Water Street (now Marcy) in Portsmouth, NH. When the brothel owners refused to accept the underage girl, Perry offered Duffy to men passing on the street. (Continued below)




According to the Portsmouth Times, Perry and a local ironworker named Clarence Hudson took Duffy to a residence on Deer Street, pretending to be members of a family. There Duffy was “assaulted” by the ironworker. When police later raided the Deer Street home, they found Duffy in her room “in a pitiful condition” with a sailor named William Marlow. 

Police arrested both men and held them without bail. Perry was held on $5,000 bail for what reporters called “white slavery.” Ethel Duffy herself was held on a $500 bond to keep her available as a witness to testify against Perry and her two assailants at a grand jury.   

Legends, not facts 

Ethel Duffy’s tragic story, told in her own words, is rare indeed. Portsmouth tour guides eagerly recite tales of the city’s “red light” district that flourished openly in the South End until 1912. But despite the colorful legends, dramatically told, little documentation survives. Female prostitutes, often underage, were called "inmates" according to one news report. But without their shocking personalized stories, Portsmouth’s red light district is often portrayed with a wink, a nod, and even a comic tone.   

Like many gritty seaports, Portsmouth’s waterfront combat zone was well-known among mariners, sailors, shipyard workers, and fishermen, but was a hush-hush topic within the city itself. The anonymous “johns” didn’t talk. Clients reportedly included politicians, clergy, and even students from Phillips Exeter Academy. Houses of “ill repute” many located along the waterfront doubled as oyster bars, hotels, saloons, confectionary shops, and dance halls. Their owners left no written proof of the city’s thriving sex trade.   

MORE ON the murders of 1912

Police records and newspaper accounts also offer scant evidence. Despite public decency campaigns to close the brothels in the Victorian Era and the early 20th  century, local police reportedly conspired with bordello owners to keep the profitable business going. Policemen who attempted to clean up local vice sometimes met a violent response from their peers. But by the summer of 1912, following an explosive rise in crime and five unsolved riverside murders, the bordellos were officially shuttered. 



Boss Entwistle 

Marshal Entwistle on SeacoastNH.comThe hey-day of prostitution in Portsmouth is intimately tied to Marshal Thomas Entwistle, who was also a member the New Hampshire state governor's council. Best known for his capture of Louis Wagner, the 1873 Smuttynose Island ax murderer, Entwistle lorded over the city’s sex trade. New prostitutes, often rural farm girls, arrived by train almost weekly at the high point of the bordello business from 1897 to 1912. The young “fallen women” were moved to Boston and other cities as soon as their popularity faded in Portsmouth

“Working girls” submitted to regular checkups by a doctor who reportedly issued health certificates that were prominently displayed for customers to review. For the public record, brothel owners were ritually fined for running “a disorderly house,” but almost never arrested. When an honest local policeman decided to probe deeper into the world of local vice, he was allegedly beaten, stripped to his underwear, and left with a warning note.   

On September 21, 1912 the Portsmouth Herald announced the resignation of City Marshal Entwistle in large bold letters accompanied by a front page photograph, uncommon for that era. But Entwistle refused to leave his post and forced the newspaper to issue a retraction. Riding the wave of public outrage, Daniel Badger reluctantly made the Water Street bordellos a campaign issue in the upcoming city election. Portsmouth’s dirty little secret finally became a public issue. When Badger easily won the election as Portsmouth city mayor, Entwistle quickly stepped down. 

Red lights on Water Street 

Most of what we know today about the waterfront bordellos comes from three sources. First is a self-published novel by former Portsmouth bank president Robert Mclaughlin. Water Street: A Novel (1986), although reportedly based on stories the author heard from local residents, is fiction, and it’s impossible to tease fact and hearsay away from the author’s imaginary tale. 

Historian Raymond Brighton, a former Portsmouth Herald editor and owner,  culled through stacks of newspapers and drew on local interviews for his 1973 two-volume study They Came to Fish, still the reigning history of the city. Brighton’s chatty history includes an entire chapter dedicated to the closure of the Water Street bordellos. 

Alta_Roberts_courtesy_Kim_CrispIn 1996 Kimberly E. Crisp of York, Maine completed an 80-page thesis at the University of New Hampshire entitled “Water Street Remembered.” Crisp, whose great, great aunt Alta Warren Roberts was the last of the Water Street madams, found the research to be a “formidable task” due to the lack of documentation. She relied on interviews, city directories, deeds, censuses, newspapers, and insurance maps to pull together the most scholarly account currently available. 

SEE: Adiitional photo of Alta Roberts

Water Street bordellos could be fancy, most thinly fronted as legitimate saloons or dance halls. There might be elegant furniture, indoor plumbing, costly wallpaper and gilded chandeliers.  Alta Roberts’ place reportedly had erotic pictures that disappeared into the wall at the push of a button. A local barber was widely known to house two prostitutes above his barber shop. Bordello owner “Cappy” Stewart, later a city antiques dealer, boasted an establishment with 16 ladies and 27 rooms that could be rented by the night or by the hour. 

Boarding homes used for prostitution dotted the city from Maplewood Avenue to Porter Street. Their names were usually innocuous – Elm House, Assy House or ‘The Home,” Commercial House, The Union House, America House. But Water Street was the hub and madam Mary Baker’s Gloucester House was best known. 

Unlike bordello owner and neighbor Alta Roberts, who constantly wore black and was rarely seen in public, Mary Baker advertised her presence around town, wearing a high red wig, exorbitant clothes, furs and hats, always with a velvet choker and a large broach.  When new girls arrived, Baker paraded them through Portsmouth in her fancy carriage and took them shopping downtown.  Legend says that Baker had diamonds embedded in her front teeth, while Roberts had a mouthful of gold caps.  

Crisp writes that her great great Aunt Alta supported many down-and-out characters and that local madams were known for their charity an hospitality. Brighton notes that women were allowed to keep half of their two-dollar fee. Both report on the strange goings-on at The Four Tree Island House owned by Charles E. Gray. Gray’s “museum” boasted a stuffed alligator, a stuffed cow that dispensed beer from its udders, and a pair of boots that once belonged to outlaw Jesse James. A ticket to Gray’s dance hall was recently obtained by the Portsmouth Athenaeum. But bordello daily life was far from amusing or glamorous.    

Most of the Water Street buildings are gone, replaced by the family-friendly Prescott Park and Strawbery Banke Museum. Some were purchased and destroyed starting in the 1930s by the wealthy Prescott sisters. Using a fortune inherited from their brother, Mary and Josie Prescott worked to rub the scarlet stain from their childhood neighborhood. With their lawyer Charles Dale, also a Portsmouth mayor and NH governor, the Prescotts  wanted Portsmouth’s seamy image “wiped from the face of the Earth.” They would not be pleased by today’s tours of the city’s dark side. 

Only the brick building once owned by Crisp's ancestor Alta Roberts survived the scourge of the Prescott sisters. It stands at 57 Marcy Street, once 16 Water Street. A rare 1933 photograph shows former-madam Alta Roberts at age 78 posing in the doorway of her brick home. Squinting in the sun, hands on her hips, she stares at the camera defiant and unrepentant.  

Miss Duffy’s testimony  

There are still details hidden between the lines of local newspapers. This is one.

Ethel Duffy’s public testimony in the Portsmouth Times Is significant, not only because it is rare, but because it was transcribed in the voice of the teenaged victim herself. Wearing a “neat white dress” and a large hat, 14-year old Duffy spoke to a reporter on August 17, 1912. 

DUFFY: “Mrs. Perry came to the house that I was living in in Dover and wanted me to walk to the post office with her, and not thinking she had anything bad in store for me, I went. When we got down town she asked me if I did want a drink of water and I answered yes. She had a small drinking cup with her, and we got a drink at a fountain. It was then that my head started to whirl around; I could hear the woman talking. It seemed away off, and that is the last I remember until I reached Portsmouth that night.”  

DUFFY: “The next day she took me to a house and talked with a woman there about me, but the woman kept shaking her head and saying that I was too young. After a while we left the house and the woman that I had come from Dover with kept muttering to herself. When we got on the street where the stores are, she met a man and said ‘Hello’ to him. He stopped and they talked to each other for a while, and he said ‘Sure,’ and walked off.”  

DUFFY: “That day we were in a restaurant and all the time the woman kept talking to me that if a man came to see us that night, I should do what he asked me to. I asked her when I was going back to Dover, and she said that, if I was a good girl and did what she wanted me to, she would send me back Monday.” 


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Robinson is editor and owner of the popular history Web site This column also appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald.

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