The Jackson Bordellos

Today’s Bank of America in Jackson.

Keep an eye peeled for a patch in the sidewalk outside Jackson’s Bank of America next time you visit.

If it looks like something once sat here and has since been removed, well, it did and it was. All that’s left now is a slightly darker square of concrete. But there’s a great tale that goes with it!

It was March, 1956 when four separate houses in Jackson were raided by agents from the State Department of Justice. Arrested were three madams and 15 “ladies of questionable virtue.” Establishments known as “Dixie’s” and “Jeanette’s” were located behind today’s B of A, where the parking lot now sits; the “Brookside” was at the end of Vogan Alley, just past the hotel; and “Ace’s Rooms” (aka the Drive-In) was near where Mel’s Diner is today.

The alley next to the hotel is still there — the brothel isn’t.

The raid came as an unhappy surprise to local law enforcement; nobody told them the State agents were coming. Gambling and prostitution had been long considered no big deal in town. Even local kids knew where the cat houses were located. Police chief Guido Tofanelli (who had side jobs as a barber and bartender) was said to confide to one undercover investigator that “the girls made this town” — a statement he later testified that he “just didn’t remember.”  His deputies, Gildo Dondero and James Fregulia, testified they were completely unaware of the existence of the three establishments and “wouldn’t walk through dark alleys at night for anyone.” Part-time mayor, part-time plumber Robert Smallfield had fixed faucets for the houses in the past.

Judge John C. Begovich was the brother of “Sharkey” Begovich (of Sharkey’s Casino fame), and a Justice Court judge in Jackson in 1956. He later would become a Superior Court Judge.

When one of the fifteen “working girls” was hauled before Justice Court Judge John Begovich on prostitution charges, she reportedly greeted the judge with grin and a cheerful: “Hi Johnny.” “Babs, is that you?” the judge is said to have responded.

A dozen years later, a local group calling themselves the “Filthy Five” decided the now-removed outposts deserved belated recognition. The site they chose for a plaque — today’s B of A sidewalk — had previously been home to the Bridge Cabin, and a cluster of “old frame dens” once stood just behind it near the creek. The group created a heart-shaped bronze plaque declaring:

The World’s Oldest Profession flourished 50 yards east of this plaque
for many years until this most perfect example of
free enterprise was padlocked by unsympathetic politicians
.”

Trouble was, they signed it with an acronym derived for their artfully-selected name: “Environmental Resources Enabling Committee To Investigate Our Necessary Services.”

Jackson Mayor Pete Cassinelli gave permission for the group to plant the plaque in the sidewalk, and a dedication ceremony was arranged, complete with band, program, and speakers. The plaque was cemented in the sidewalk awaiting its unveiling on February 14, 1968 — appropriately, Valentine’s Day — and temporarily shielded from view with a wooden cover.

Somewhere between 50 and 100 attendees showed up for the ceremony. The Filthy Five participated in festive frock coats and derby hats. Stockbroker Duff Chapman donned an eyepatch just for the occasion, and gave a speech nostalgically celebrating the “full and enlightened economy” of the old days. The President of the local PTA was said to have mused that the plaque might have something of an uncertain effect on local children, “but it sure will help tourism!”

The plaque enjoyed the bright light of day for all of about one week. Outrage quickly followed. The wording itself was tame enough, but the acronym from the group’s carefully-chosen title didn’t fly with the townsfolk in 1968. Local clergymen predictably led the charge, and a local judge termed it “vulgar.” The Sacramento Bee and other papers happily covered the controversy.

The City Council meeting five days after the unveiling was swamped with outraged citizens, expressing their unhappy opinions. Surprisingly, the council voted to let the plaque stay. But pushback continued. Red paint was splashed on the offending heart-shaped memorial by some unhappy citizen and the word politicians detest the most, “recall,” began to be bandied about.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the Filthy Five quietly exhumed the plaque under cover of night on February 20 — hence explaining the current patched square in the sidewalk. A brief attempt was made to reinstall it later with the offending acronym scraped off and a new attribution substituted: “Western Historical Organization” (WHO). The City considered okaying the plaque with this change, but eventually declined following rumors that two further letters (“RE”) were initially planned. And so the heart-shaped plaque remained quietly under wraps in the protective custody of its promoters for the next two decades.

Time went by, and the surviving members of the “Filthy Five” began searching for a final resting place for the historic plaque. They finally found it on July 30, 1993, a quarter of a century after the heart’s unveiling in the sidewalk:  Amador County’s Museum accepted the plaque as a donation to its permanent collection.

The original heart-shaped plaque is said to be safely stored, out of sight, in the Museum’s vault. Plaster-cast replicas, however, can be seen in the window of the Amador County Visitor’s Center and above the bar in the Whiskey Flat Saloon at Volcano, California.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Special thanks to Frank Tortorich, who kindly shared notes from a speech he prepared on the tale of the heart-shaped plaque. Also be sure to check out Larry Cenotto’s “Logan’s Alley,” Vol. V, which humorously recounts the plaque’s long and winding saga.

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