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Kidnapped to a Portsmouth Brothel

Detail of girl in 19th century brothel, location unknown

For decades Portsmouth’s whispered secret was an evolving red light district on the waterfront. Famous worldwide, locals talked about it in whispers. But in 1912 a 14-year old girl briefly told reporters about her abduction to a local brothel by an older woman. Ethel Duffy tells her story here one more time.




SEE: Red Lights Out

14-Year Old Abducted in Dover

Although Portsmouth, NH had a thriving combat zone at the turn of the 20th century, it remained a hush-hush topic in the local media. Brothels on Water Street (now Marcy) in what is now the city’s gentrified waterfront were simply referred to in print as "houses". Female prostitutes, often underage, were called "inmates" according to one news report, or simply "women". The most explicit phrase of the era used in newspapers was "house of ill repute" Despite attempts to clean up the corrupt area in the Victorian era, local police conspired with bordello and illegal bar owners to keep the red light district open and profitable. Police who attempted to clean up local vice sometimes met a violent response.

In 1912 a series of murders drew public attention to the situation in the South End and led to the closing of most houses of ill repute. During that summer a rare interview with a 14-year old girl appeared on the front page of a Portsmouth newspaper. Ethel Duffy was kidnapped while staying with friends in Dover, apparently drugged and brought to a Portsmouth bordello.

Constance Perry, 25, her abductor, was held on $5,000 bail for what reporters called "white slavery". Unable to place Duffy in a local bordello, Perry chose to solicit men on the Portsmouth streets who "assaulted" the girl as she stayed with Perry in a room on Deer Street. Police arrested two men who had reportedly paid Perry for access to the girl who was in "a pitiful condition" when she was brought to the police station. Ethel Duffy herself was held on a $500 bond to keep her available as a witness against Perry.

Duffy’s published account, apparently in her own words, offers a rare glimpse inside the city’s flesh trade.

Excerpted from
August 17, 1912

"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. 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. 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." 

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Thursday, February 22, 2018 
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