Nina Clifford, a child of immigrants who evolved into the “richest woman in the underworld,” made her name as a prosperous sex worker who helped build the Red Light District in downtown St. Paul in the late 1800s. She invited other women to establish their businesses in the area, while the police approved an environment for vice to thrive. Despite a lack of preserved records, standing buildings, and extant photographs related to her business, Nina Clifford remains a legendary Mrs. of St. Paul.
Nina Clifford was born Johanna Crow (aka “Hannah”) in 1851 in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, the daughter of Irish or German immigrants. Shortly after, her family moved to Detroit, where she later met and married Conrad Steinbrecher. Crow took the opportunity to move to St. Paul after becoming a widow. He bought two lots on Washington Street along the Mississippi River in 1887 and took the name Nina Clifford. No. 145 served as her personal residence, while No. 147 – just down the street from the city’s police station and morgue – was established as the site for a brothel run by Clifford himself.
A year later, Clifford commissioned the construction of a two-story luxury establishment on the lot for $12,000. Many sex workers active in the nineteenth century disguised themselves under the guise of working in “cigar shops” or as tailors. Clifford was relatively candid about 147 Washington Street operations, as she operated her brothel in the city’s vice districts. St. Paul districts were not as established as those in Minneapolis, but were concentrated downtown between Cedar Street and Sibley Street and “under the hill” near Eagle Street.
From 1865 to 1883, prostitution, which was illegal under both city and state law, was regulated in St. Paul through regular monthly arrests and fines on mistresses. After 1883, when Clifford was operating her brothel, madams appeared in court with only a fine. The O’Connor Layover Agreement, drafted by St. Paul Police Chief John J. O’Connor in 1900, allowed criminals to reside in St. Paul as long as they do not commit crimes in the city itself. Vice, including prostitution, gambling and alcohol sales, was not covered by O’Connor’s prohibition of crime, and it thrived within St. Paul.
In 1895, Clifford operated the largest brothel in the Red Light District of Washington, employing 11 women as sex workers (known as “sports”), two maids, and a cook. In 1900, six other addresses on Washington Street were used as brothels, with an average of 6.5 sex workers per location. Five years later, Clifford added a housekeeper, musician and doorman to the live-in staff. Clifford brought other madams (such as Ida Dorsey, who bought Clifford’s building at 151 South Washington Street) into her district and was paid accordingly. Clifford funneled the money he had received in conjunction with other ladies to city officials to protect their businesses. In 1914, she gained attention for paying city police to turn a blind eye to her surgeries.
Voted the “richest woman in the underworld” and credited with “above average business acumen,” Clifford operated her brothel at 147 Washington Street until her death on July 14, 1929, while visiting family in Detroit. In the 1930s, her building, like many others on the street, was demolished.
The crystal chandelier that hung in Clifford’s home or her brothel is said to have been moved and installed in the private offices of the St. Paul mayor after her buildings were demolished in the 1930s. There would be tunnels connecting Clifford’s brothel to the Minnesota Club, located on the corner of Fourth Street and Washington Street. The legend was bolstered by a portrait club members believed to be of Clifford hung on a wall. This myth of the Minnesota Club connection was debunked during a 1997 dig of the brothel site, which found no tunnels. The Science Museum of Minnesota was built there the following year.
Gossip surrounding Clifford’s brothel and the Minnesota Club highlights the type of clientele she attracted: men of high socioeconomic class, established and involved in the community. In the twenty-first century, Clifford’s fame survives through lore and continuous storytelling, rather than through remaining physical artifacts from her life.
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