Graw Alley. Red Onion
art - Ezra Berger
words - Brian Goodman
It’s a Friday night in Prohibition era Havre de Grace, when a young man, with money in his pocket and a hunger on his mind, steps into the brick-faced building with a double-decker porch on the north side of town.
He’s offered a bourbon and a smoke, but the menu item in which he’s most interested is the company of a woman – available in the $1 or $2 variety, according to the sign out front.
From a smoky corner of the room, above the din of music and barroom chatter, a man named Willie calls out, “Welcome to the House of Pleasure.”
This is the Red Onion.
During those dry days of the early 20th Century, Havre de Grace, with gambling at The Graw horse racetrack, free-flowing booze at a slew of speakeasies, and women working late nights at the bordellos, was nicknamed “Little Chicago” and became an infamous waystation for infamous travelers.
There were several colorfully-named brothels in town at the time – the White Onion, the Pink Elephant, the Old Ordinary – but, in a town of many vices and many places to enjoy them, the Red Onion is remembered the most frequently and most fondly.
There’s an old story that it was at the Red Onion where legendary American gangster Al Capone contracted syphilis – the sexually transmitted disease that later played a role in his early release from Alcatraz. Whether or not the story is true almost doesn’t matter; the reputation of the town and the brothel were such that it’s at least plausible. And if it could have happened, it likely would have happened at the Red Onion.
Within the brothel, which was perhaps provocatively named in reverence and resemblance to the female form, several of those female forms are at work – entertaining visitors, having a drink at the bar, listening to the tunes of a traveling musician while awaiting their next client. Prostitution was not legal, but it wasn’t exactly illegal either. For the most part, police looked the other way. Some of them may have even been patrons.
For a few dollars a man could take a lady upstairs, after Willie got paid, of course. Willie was the manager, but he also was allegedly funded by other sources. Some of these local brothels were discreetly financed by prominent Havre de Grace families, who have worked hard over the years to keep those affiliations buried.
But the Red Onion was a normal operating business with a regular clientele. The local beer distributor supplied them with refreshments. Laundry services were available, so patrons could have a clean change of clothes awaiting them when they finished their business. And the customers came from all walks of life. The only thing out of the ordinary was what was for sale.
One of the local hairdressers did not want to offend her clients, but she also wanted to accommodate the workers at the Red Onion. So the hairdresser brought the ladies of the night in after normal working hours for their styling.
Though the working women of the Red Onion and other local brothels were looked down upon by some because of their profession and endured side glances and small-town whisperings, they were as much a part of the local economy as any other business and surely did more than their fair share for the local tourism industry.
If walls could talk, the Red Onion would have untold chapters in Havre de Grace history to tell.