Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pittsburgh's Unseen 'Queen of the Underworld'

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pittsburgh's Unseen 'Queen of the Underworld'

Article excerpt

A small classified ad appeared in the back pages of The Pittsburgh Press on Feb. 14, 1903. "Lost - A French poodle from 11 West Canal St.," it read. "Had shaggy hair partly shaved off on back. Liberal reward given if returned at once."

For those in the know, the ad certainly raised eyebrows. The Canal Street address in what was then Allegheny City was notorious as a den of vice, and the woman who placed the ad was none other than Nettie Gordon, then 28, and well on her way to becoming queen of Pittsburgh's underworld. Nettie's army of friends no doubt had already mobilized to find her beloved poodle.

Nettie came to Pittsburgh from tiny Frankfort, W.Va., sometime around 1900 and found work as a waitress, a profession too limiting for her ambition. Another business called, one that dominated entire blocks of Downtown and the North Side, one that offered real money to the bold and bright.

So Nettie Gordon, daughter of a carpenter, became one of Pittsburgh's estimated 5,000 prostitutes. And, boy, did the city offer opportunity. In the early 1900s, so-called "bawdy houses" lined First, Second and Third avenues, from Ross Street to the Monongahela River. In the Lower Hill, bordellos clustered around Colwell Street. But the biggest section of the metropolitan area given over to prostitution was a 20-block section on the lower North Side. That's where Nettie set up shop.

Reporters described Nettie as tall and attractive. We'll have to take their word for it. Nettie hated to be photographed. Newspapers published hundreds of stories about her, but they never obtained a decent photograph of the woman they called a "keeper of a disorderly house." Photographers made a few futile attempts - as you can see in the pictures accompanying this post, Nettie proved adept at shielding her face from the camera.

Reform-minded journalists like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Sprigle tried shaming Nettie in print, but she remained an unrepentant master of the craft of running an illegal business in a crooked city. And Pittsburgh in the 1920s was certainly crooked. At one time, Nettie ran three houses, each paying $1,100 a month for protection from police raids. …

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