Guy Louis Rocha
State Archivist
Nevada State Library and Archives

My presentation will not focus on the morality of adult, female, heterosexual prostitution in a regulated setting. I recognize its long-standing practice as a given when I discuss the public policy issues and land use implications associated with the history of brothel prostitution in Nevada.

Going back to the creation of Nevada Territory in 1861, Nevada has generally supported the regulation of brothel prostitution, and not suppression or prohibition, while making the regulation a matter of local option.

Municipal incorporation laws passed by the legislature gave the option to city governments such as Virginia City, Gold Hill, Carson City, Austin and others to regulate, prohibit, or suppress prostitution and “houses of ill fame”. Local ordinances were passed in most cities, which, in effect, zoned the location in which women could sell sex for money. The amended incorporation act for Virginia City in 1877 actually defined the boundaries of the red-light district in statute.

In 1871, a bill was introduced in the state legislature that would have legalized brothel prostitution statewide. Licenses were to be issued by the Sheriff to the operator of a bawdy-house, or place for the purposes of prostitution, at a cost of $10 per month, up to one year’s time. All prostitutes were required to submit to a health exam every two weeks by a physician selected by the county commissioners. All license money and fees associated with issuing certificates of health to the prostitutes were to be paid into the county treasury, and a bawdy-house fund was to be maintained. This money was to be used for prostitutes working at a licensed brothel, and maintaining a current certificate of health, who contracted venereal disease in order to pay her medical expenses. The bill, if passed, would have repealed the option for any town or incorporated municipality to regulate houses of prostitution. The bill passed the Assembly by a large margin, but was indefinitely postponed in the Senate. It is interesting to note that a primary concern in this piece of legislation was the public health considerations, particularly for prostitutes.

Except for Carson City, which incorporated in 1875, every city in Nevada disincorporated by the end of the nineteenth-century due to the severe economic downturn in the state’s mining economy. An incident on the Comstock in the mid-1880’s involving community concern over a brothel operation too close to a school, resulted in amendments in 1887 and 1889 to the local option law which prohibited the operation of a brothel, or other structures for the purposes of prostitution, within four hundred yards of a school or on a main business thoroughfare anywhere in the state. The Sheriff and the District Attorney were responsible for the enforcement of the law.

After 1900, Nevada boomed again with new mineral discoveries. Most of today’s cities, including Reno, Sparks and Las Vegas, were incorporated in the first two decades. The incorporation language is practically the same throughout the statutes giving the City Council the power “to license, regulate, prohibit or prescribe the location of saloons or bar-rooms, houses of ill-fame, hurdy-gurdy houses, or dance houses or houses have special attractions such as music.” Reno confined the brothels to a stretch along the Truckee River on the east end of town, and Las Vegas designated the notorious “Block 16” near the downtown as the red-light district. Other cities as well restricted, or zoned, brothels and cribs to specific parts of town, generally by ordinance.

The statute outlawing brothels on any business thoroughfare or main street, or within four hundred yards of a school, was amended in 1903 to prohibit the operation of a brothel within four hundred yards “of any church edifice, building or structure, erected for and used for devotional services or religious worship in the State of Nevada.” In 1911, two conflicting bills were passed regulating the location of brothels, both prescribed that houses of ill-fame could not be situated near a school, church or place of worship, one bill specified 400 yards, while the other specified 800 yards. A case involving a Chinese brothel owner in Reno was heard in the Supreme Court contesting the validity of the law specifying the 800-yard limitation. The brothel owner’s conviction of violating the 800-yard law was upheld although the 400-yard law became effective January 1, 1912 and superseded the 800-yard law. His writ of habeas corpus was denied, the court arguing that the petitioner was not deprived of any vested rights given him by a city ordinance regulation maintenance of houses of ill fame, i.e. the state law took precedence over a local ordinance even if the duration of the law was just a few months.

Under the Town Board Act of 1881, the county commissioners regulated brothel and crib prostitution where towns did not incorporate as cities. Tonopah, Goldfield, Rhyolite, Manhattan and other towns passed ordinances prescribing the location of the red-light districts. The sheriff and the district attorney were responsible for enforcing the ordinances related to regulated prostitution.

The federal government during World Wars I and II directed Nevada, and other states, to suppress all prostitution near military bases and installations. The federal government also excluded prostitution and brothels in and around Boulder City during and after the construction of Hoover Sam. In the early 1930’s, brothel prostitution operated openly in “Block 16” and was well patronized by dam construction employees despite the frequent protests by the Department of the Interior to the City of Las Vegas and Clark County.

“Block 16” was finally closed in 1942 following an adverse ruling in Kelly v Clark County. The county commissioners had directed the district attorney to close the red-light district, which dated back to the founding of Las Vegas in 1905, on the grounds that the operations were within four hundred yards of a church. A jurisdictional question was raised as to whether a county could police3 activity in an incorporated municipality. The preliminary injunction closing the houses of prostitution was dismissed in district court. In July 1942, the Nevada Supreme Court made its rulings, which declared, among other things, that the charter power of a city does not supplant the authority of the county commissioners to institute abatement proceedings against a bawdy house. During wartime, while brothels were closed, prostitution continued to flourish, but operated without the sanction of local government regulation and in a secretive manner. Locals were generally opposed to federal government intervention, but did not want to suffer the economic hardship of their communities being declared off-limits to military personnel.

In 1937, the State of Nevada inaugurated an aggressive venereal disease program, and in October the State Board of Health adopted rules and regulations, requiring that prostitutes have weekly medical exams for gonorrhea and monthly blood test for syphilis.

Except for the World War II period, the State of Nevada has been regulating the public health concerns related to brothel prostitution for almost sixty years, recently expanding that oversight to include testing for AIDS.

Following the end of World War II and the lifting of the war emergency, Nevada returned to the regulation of brothel prostitution on local option bases. The brothels in Carson City'’ red-light district on Ormsby (now Curry) Street did not reopen and there were no brothels in Douglas County. The emerging urban centers of Las Vegas and Reno, with their new population and expanded casino gamin industry found their local governments opposed to returning to regulated brothel prostitution.

A landmark case heard in Washoe County District Court and appealed to the Sate Supreme Court in 1949, “Mae Cunningham v Washoe County,” confirmed the legal basis for abating brothel prostitution as a public nuisance. Mae Cunningham, a madam, had reopened a brothel on East Commercial Row in 1948 and was closed down by order of the County Commissioners. When Cunningham challenged the order, the District Court issued a restraining order preventing her from operating a brothel. The madam lost her appeal to the Supreme Court, the court ruling that “statutes outlawing houses of prostitution within 400 yards of a school or church or on a main street of a town, do not by implication legalize such houses in other areas.” A brothel could be deemed a public nuisance and its operation abated by local officials.

Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling in early March, the 1049 state legislature passed SB 218, which delineated the “public policy of the State to allow houses of prostitution in compliance with county or city ordinance.” On March 22, Governor Vail Pittman vetoed SB 218 declaring “such legalization would result in sensational and sordid publicity throughout the Nation and the world, to the inestimable damage of the good name of our State and its citizens.”

Using the case precedent in Kelly v Clark County (1942), Cunningham v Washoe County (1949), and an attorney general’s opinion issued in 1951 which argued that the statute requiring houses of ill fame to be 400 yards or more from a school or church is a valid police power for the protection of public morals, Washoe County and Reno, Clark County and Las Vegas, and later other local governments passed ordinances against brothel prostitution and closed existing operations on the basis that the houses were common-law nuisances.

“Block 16” in Las Vegas never reopened nor did Reno’s controversial Stockade in the riverside restricted district. Roxey’s, on the Boulder Highway, in Clark County was finally closed in 1954 after considerable political intrigue and scandal.

Most other local jurisdictions continued to regulate brothel prostitution after World War II and the “Cunningham v Washoe County” decision. By the 1970’s, Nevada’s brothels were receiving national attention, particularly Joe Conforte’s Mustang Bridge Ranch in Storey County and Beverly Harrell’s Cottontail Ranch in Esmeralda County. An effective way to avoid a brothel being closed as a public nuisance was to officially legalize the operation by ordinance as opposed to just regulating the activity.

Conforte, after years of battles with local officials going back to 1955, and particularly Washoe County District Attorney Bill Raggio, was able to convince the Storey County Commission to legalize the Mustang brothel effective January 1, 1971. Lyon County followed suit in March 1972, legalizing its brothels in Mound House. Later in the 1970’s Churchill, Mineral and Nye counties legalized brothel prostitution in restricted areas following favorable public referendum votes. Lander and Esmeralda county commissioners legalized brothels in restricted areas as well.

Jack Anderson, a nationally syndicated columnist, stirred up a substantial controversy in the Department of the Interior in a column in 1971 that described the leasing of land for Beverly Harrell’s brothel in Esmeralda County by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). After having received approval from the Esmeralda County Commissioners and the BLM in July 1970, Harrell leased five acres of land near Lida Junction under the Small Tract of 1938. Anderson observed that the renting of federal land to the madam for one hundred dollars a month made Secretary of Interior Rogers Morton landlord of a brothel. Morton promptly took legal action in federal court to evict Harrell from BLM land. The federal government’s attorneys argued the Cottontail Ranch was a public nuisance. Harrell countered that there was no one to offend in or near Lida Junction. Her brothel housed the only residents.

On November 17, 1973, in Las Vegas, District Judge Roger Foley Sr. ordered Beverly Harrell to close the Cottontail Ranch. Using the precedent set in Cunningham v Washoe County, the brothel was deemed a public nuisance and Foley argued that “just because prostitution has been declared illegal in Washoe and Clark Counties did not make it legal in other counties.” Beverly Harrell moved her brothel, a structure mainly composed of mobile trailers, two thousand feet onto private land in June 1974. Her licensed operation complied with the Esmeralda County ordinance that brothels be in uninhabited areas at least five miles from a city, town, mobile home park, or place where people normally dwell. Harrell then ran for the State Assembly in 1974 winning the Democratic primary, but losing the November general election by a small margin in a runoff with former Mineral County Commissioner Don Moody.

While the counties of Elko, Humboldt, Pershing and White Pine prohibit brothel prostitution in the unincorporated areas of each county, these counties allow houses of prostitution in the incorporated cities of Elko, Wells, Winnemucca, Lovelock and Ely. Eureka County has no ordinance either prohibiting or regulating prostitution, it also has no brothels. Lincoln County after a number of referendum votes for and against brothel prostitution finally outlawed it; the county has a substantial Mormon population. Carson City and Douglas County have also outlawed brothel prostitution by ordinance.

Only in Clark County is brothel prostitution prohibited by state law. In 1971, after some talk of legalized brothels near the Las Vegas Strip, and mention of Joe Conforte’s involvement, the state legislature amended the local option provision to exclude counties having populations of more than 200,000 from legalizing brothels. The law is periodically amended to increase the population figure, now 400,000, to exclude Clark County, without specifically mentioning the county.

In a 1978 case, Nye County v Plankinton, the Supreme Court stated that counties having a statutory licensing scheme for houses of prostitution as provided for in NRS 244.345, such houses were not a public nuisance per se. The Administrator of Nye County had invoked Cunningham v Washoe County and filed a complaint against the “Chicken Ranch” brothel in Pahrump. Following nuisance hearings conducted by the county commissioners, the operation was ordered abated. The owners of the Chicken Ranch contested the order in district court and were upheld. Nye County appealed the ruling but lost.

There have been numerous attempts by state legislators, mostly from Clark County, to make brothel prostitution illegal over the last fifteen years, but no effort to date has proved successful. Concerns are expressed over the state’s image, moral questions continue to be raised, and now the possible transmission of AIDS in a brothel some would argue calls for the outlawing of brothels in Nevada (since testing began in the mid-1980’s no woman working in a brothel has tested positive for AIDS, although prostitutes applying for jobs have tested positive and prevented from working in a brothel).

The some thirty-five-brothel owners in the state, to lobby for their interest and to educate the public and policy-makers, created the Nevada Brothel Association in 1987. The future of legalized brothel prostitution is unsure, as issues dealing with human sexuality seem to make most people uncomfortable in our society and generate strong emotional positions, secular or religious. While Nevada has pioneered the efforts to legalize prize-fighting, liberal marriage and divorce laws, and casino gambling in the face of great hostility in the past, it is difficult to predict whether America can ever embrace legalized prostitution in any setting despite the compelling public health and public safety issues confronting us today, much less dealing with the safety and welfare of women working as prostitutes.

Return to Previous Page