Good Times in Dutch Town
It’s no secret that the Holy City has a rich history of both virtue and vice, and sometimes it’s hard to avoid the shady side of the street in Charleston. Shall we go for a stroll?
Port City Calling
The tiny settlement of Charles Town embodied the rowdiness of a port from the very beginning, earning alcohol censures from the Grand Council as early as 1672. Less than half a century after its founding, it was one of the busiest ports in the Colonies with ships from all over the world docked in the harbor, spilling hundreds of men into the streets. Naturally, enterprising souls provided diversions and entertainment for the merchants and seamen with a booming business of taverns and bordellos. Charles Town’s first red light district was conveniently located in the then-waterfront area we now call the French Quarter; perhaps you’ve heard the stories about The Pink House on Chalmer’s Street?
Before the outbreak of the Revolutionary war, city officials became concerned that the level of drinking and debauchery on the edge of the harbor would interfere with the protection of the city, ordering the prostitutes to move several blocks inland. The new red light district was resettled amongst the streets flanking St. John’s Lutheran and the Unitarian churches, an area known as Dutch Town settled primarily by Germans. During the British occupation of Charles Town, the area comprised of Beresford (now Fulton), Clifford, Magazine, West, Beaufain, Mazyck (now Logan) and Archdale Streets warmly welcomed soldiers with coats of any color.
Throughout the years, vice has somehow survived and thrived in Charleston--sometimes hidden, but always there. The middle of the 19th century saw Charleston in her prime, with all manner of business flourishing, including bars and brothels. According to Mark Jones’ Wicked Charleston, business was so good for one lady of the night that she was able to save enough money to build her own brothel.
Born sometime in the late 1700s, Grace Piexotto is said to be the daughter of Selomoh Piexotto, a music leader at Beth Elohim Synagogue, but this has not been confirmed. Other accounts hold that she was raised in a brothel and didn’t know who her parents were. Either way, she grew up to be a bold and brazen businesswoman, bribing officials for building permits to raise her brothel from the ground up in 1852. Called the Big Brick after its appearance, this is the only building in Charleston planned and constructed for use as a bordello. Grace had the foresight to include features in her establishment that others in the area lacked. For instance, the upper floors were partitioned into small rooms with single beds so that her exclusive clientele could be granted privacy, a rarity even in the finest establishments. Downstairs were parlors where gentlemen could relax with cigars and brandy and read newspapers and magazines. Grace taught her girls to be well-mannered, stylish, and amiable conversationalists to suit the southern genteel they entertained. Anyone was welcome at Grace’s--as long as they could pay. She wrote to the faculty of the College of Charleston imploring them to keep their students away, presumably because they couldn’t pay.
Evidently, police and civil leaders turned a blind eye to the operation, probably because they were frequent customers themselves. Madam Grace became very wealthy and well-respected as she listened to and kept the secrets of Charleston’s most influential gentlemen. In fact, the Charleston Redcoats convened at the Big Brick--away from Union soldier’s eyes--to plan Wade Hampton’s election to governor in 1876. Legend has it that Margaret Mitchell used Grace as the model for the fictional character Belle Watling in her book Gone with the Wind. Love it!
When Grace died, the churches in the area argued over who was going to have to bury her--no one wanted to be responsible for burying the most notorious madam in the South. In the end, the fine folks at the Unitarian Church paid for her services. Unfortunately, no one came. Her girls had to work (someone had to console those poor men), and of course the gentlemen that were fond of Grace could not be seen attending her funeral. However, local custom dictated that it was proper to send an empty carriage to a funeral in the case that one could not attend. Therefore, Grace Piexotto had the second longest funeral procession in the history of Charleston--the longest was for John C. Calhoun. Wow...what a gal.
- The beautiful Big Brick still stands at 11 Fulton Street and now houses a coffee company.
Dutch Town Today
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, shoppers at the Colonial Grocery (where the Canterbury House stands today) could still get quite an eyeful if they looked down West Street, which was considered the heart of the red light district. Lincolns and Cadillacs could be seen double-parked on adjoining streets as early as noon. By the end of the 1960s, the houses of ill repute had scuttled up the peninsula to the Neck area near the Navy Base. Today, West Street is one of Charleston’s most desirable addresses in Harleston Village. Have a look!