Monthly Archives: June 2015

a reminder, on the 24th anniversary of the fbi raid

First of all, let me just say this: the FBI didn’t close down Wallace’s houses.

That’s the official story around town, despite the fact that the last brothel, the U&I Rooms, stayed open until just a few weeks prior to the raid. People say that the intervention of the federal government was just the final nail in the coffin, that the real reason the century of brothels ended was a result of AIDS and the lousy economy.

In a move that locals would later describe as “overkill,” the FBI sent 150 agents into the Silver Valley and raided almost every bar in Shoshone County (and, accidentally, one or two from Kootenai County as well) from Cataldo to Mullan on this day in 1991.

What most people here say is something like this:

It had nothing to do with the FBI. That’s why they went after the bars, because they’d come to town to put the whorehouses out of business, but they were going out of business anyway. The feds had to recoup their expenses, so they decided to go off in a different direction…. It had nothing to do with the FBI. It had to do with AIDS.                                    (Gnaedinger)

John Posnick, who used to run the Silver Corner, told me he thought the FBI was looking for a drug ring as well. John and Sue Hansen also agreed with this interpretation. Sue added that the way she understood things, an agent tipped off one of the women working at the U&I, “in a moment of weakness,” warning her that they should probably get out of town before the raid went down.

The official story from the FBI remains to be written, although judging from what appeared in the newspapers and the trial, the story is consistent there, too. Federal officials focused on gambling and racketeering rather than prostitution, and did “not so much [target] the machines as the local authorities who had allowed them to flourish” (Egan, “Gambling Raid”). Of course, it’s also not so simple as that…

During the raid, FBI agents took more than a half a million dollars in cash from the bars and “seized all the video poker machines” (Egan, “Gambling Raid”). Of course, locally we know that—as a result of the infamous yet informal “phone tree”—some of those slot machines didn’t actually make it into federal hands because some people were able to rush a few out before the agents could make it to all the bars in the Valley as they moved from west to east. The government kept the money and the rest of what they took unless the bar owners or operators could prove in court that the earnings weren’t the result of illegal activity.

About a month later, in an article titled, “Gambling Raid Angers Mining Town” (Special to the New York Times, 20 August, 1991, A18), Timothy Egan wrote:

it wasn’t exactly a surprise when, on the morning of June 23, Federal agents from all over the West raided virtually every bar here in Shoshone County and found more than 200 video poker machines.… What is so perplexing to residents of the panhandle of north Idaho, and to outsiders as well, is why the Federal Bureau of Investigation used such a show of force….

Not since the late 19th century, when Federal troops were sent here to battle union organizers, have so many Government agents moved so heavily against one community in the region.

The FBI’s interest was the result of disgruntled sheriff’s deputies going to the FBI with concerns about corruption. Sheriff Frank Crnkovich was tried twice for racketeering by the U.S. Justice Department’s well-funded Public Integrity Division.

When I asked Crnkovich’s defense lawyer, Sam Eismann, what his main argument was, he said:

They [the prosecution] had all this fancy gear. So the jury could listen to all the [surveillance] tapes, high-tech stuff. So in my argument I stood up and I said, “Well, I’m sorry I don’t have all this high-tech equipment, I can’t afford it, I guess the government can. But what this case is really about is,” and I wrote on the board that “Frank’s a scapegoat.” And it stayed there during the whole argument, you know, and a couple of jurors after the trial said, “That guy was nothing but a scapegoat.” So if you can put out a little keyword like that in some trials it helps.

Some others were prosecuted along these same lines. Terry Douglas, who began working for Prendergast Amusement in 1978, put his own case this way:

Now, I bought the business March 14, 1989. Three-fourteen-eighty-nine. And then on six-twenty-three-ninety-one, twenty-seven months later, the feds tried to blame me for a hundred years of gambling in Shoshone County.

And even though Crnkovich was not convicted (the first trial ended in a hung jury, while the second trial ended in acquittal), according to his lawyer, the whole episode

broke his spirit. You go through one of these graft and corruption cases, for some reason, it doesn’t matter if you’re found not guilty. It haunts them the rest of their lives. It’s just amazing to me. It just totally changes them. I think you go into a phase where you just want to be undercover because you’ve been through this whole public spectacle, and I bet you think everybody’s staring at you and talking about you, all this stuff, you know, even though you’re not guilty.

Eismann explained that he’d told one of the prosecuting attorneys,

what you really ought to do is get up there and get to know these folks. Get to know why they do what they do. Get to know the history of the community. Get to know why they have to have poker machines in their bars to survive. You know I said, ‘It’s a different world up there, and maybe that will help you understand this, and maybe we can get this case dismissed.’

“I don’t need to do that,” the Justice Department’s lawyer responded, “I’ve tried these cases [before] and I’ve never lost one.”

Apparently the trial didn’t discuss the women who worked in the brothels in too much depth, but they did talk about the houses as a part of the community’s willingness to accept illegal activity:

We went into what the gals did—the community accepted them up there. They served a purpose, I think, in the old mining days. And they gave band uniforms. They bought the police department a new police car. But it wasn’t the result of any graft, it was just being good to the community, really, for allowing them to be there. The madams did good public relations. I think something like that probably was necessary in the old days, you know, it kept the local gals safe. That’s what some of the old-timers told me.

Regardless of whether or not there was money exchanged, the graft allegation was not confirmed, and the interpretation more in line with the local community understanding is this: yes, the madams and the gambling contributed a lot of money to the community, in both official and unofficial ways, but it didn’t amount to corruption. Many people confirm the existence of a “golden fund” for the city that came from illegal activity, but it was a consensual sort of thing—there was no extortion nor secrecy about it. It was just the way things had always been done, and it was the expectation of the community that it would continue to go on as long as there was money in it.

During their two year surveillance investigation, the FBI apparently bought one of the brothels and was operating it themselves. The rumor is that this is how they caught one of the supposed pay-offs, that there is someone on video accepting an envelope from one of the madams. I don’t know if this is true or not, because I don’t yet have a copy of the trial transcript (if it exists) nor any of the FBI’s evidence or investigative documents.

The trial was well covered by the local papers, and I’ve been able to learn a lot from the people who were personally involved locally, but I’m trying to obtain a copy of the trial transcript and investigative records so I can discuss this whole episode with a bit more accuracy. In closing, I’ll share some of my Freedom of Information Act Request I submitted today:

This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The date range of this request is January 1987-December 1995….

On June 23, 1991 there was a large FBI raid on the bars in the Silver Valley in northern Idaho. According to New York Times reporter Timothy Egan, it was the largest ever federal raid in the rocky mountain region. The raid, which had been preceded by a prolonged undercover investigation, involved 150 federal agents and targeted the towns of Wallace, Kellogg, Smelterville, and Mullan, Idaho….

I would like the opportunity to improve the historical accuracy of my book project and enrich its discussion of these events. Please search the FBI’s indices to the Central Records System for the information responsive to this request related to:

All available records and documentation leading up to the June 23, 1991 federal raid and two subsequent trials of Sheriff Crnkovich. Judge Edward Lodge presided over the trials, which took place in Moscow, Idaho. Dan Butler and Nancy Nukem were the prosecuting attorneys for the Department of Justice, and the late Sam Eismann was the defense attorney for Crnkovich.

When I interviewed Eismann in 2010, he told me that the investigation began sometime between 1987 and 1989, after five sheriff’s deputies took records from the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office and brought them to the FBI’s office in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho or Spokane, Washington. Eismann claimed that the FBI conducted a two-year investigation prior to the raid. I am particularly interested in following up on his assertion that the FBI “bought a tavern” and “bought a whorehouse up there…. And they had that all with videotape and were catching pay-offs and stuff…. And there were some people on there that shouldn’t have been, like law enforcement people…. a couple guys rolled over and said there was graft and corruption and payoffs….”

Eismann further claimed that “a few days before the trial, they [Butler and Nukem] brought in like 60 or 70 audio tapes and probably 40 or 50 video tapes and I had to review all those at the last minute to see what was on them.” Eismann recalled listening to these tapes, especially “some of the phone calls on the day of the raid. Like one person would call somebody: ‘Oh the FBI’s in town.’ And the other person would say, ‘Well don’t say anything, this might be taped,’ and then he’d still blab on, you know, it was really something.”

[Name omitted here], who pleaded guilty in an associated case, told me relevant names of informants for the prosecution in connection with the investigation include: [names omitted] (“confidential informant number 5”)…. If copies of their depositions and/or the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office records they provided are available, I would like to see these as well.

Thank you very much for any information you can provide regarding these subjects, which I am exploring for scholarly and educational purposes…

updates and progressive era reform tidbits

Well, I took a hiatus from blog writing during April and May, mainly due to my professor responsibilities and work on related scholarly publications. One of these projects includes a twelve-minute movie that offers an overview of the history of sex work in Wallace from 1891-1991, complete with pictures and maps. If all goes according to plan, I’ll have physical copies available at the Wallace All-Class Reunion and Slippery Gulch next month!

Here in Wallace (where I’m hiding out in a cabin to write for the next two months), it’s the 74th annual Gyro Days, which one of those strange small town festivals when people “party at the drop of a ball.” The Gyro club drops a big rainbow-colored beach ball into the river and floats it from Mullan to Wallace to raise money for scholarships. My young nieces have been looking forward to the carnival and games.

These past couple weeks, I’ve been going back through relevant primary and secondary sources and have updated my bibliography to reflect the range of research for the book project, so check that out. It needs to be updated further with a few more recent items, but I probably won’t update it again until this fall. Some of the material is not widely available—is there anything in particular that you would like to learn more about in subsequent posts?

Further reading from the updated bibliography: If you are interested in finding out more about the historic connection between sex work and mining cultures on the rocky mountain frontier, I recommend Mary Murphy’s social history of Butte, Montana and Paula Petrik’s community study of Helena, Montana. Those who are interested in reading a more sociological discussion should see Marion Goldman’s Gold Diggers and Silver Miners, a thorough overview of social dynamics and prostitution on the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. If you’re looking for something a little less scholarly and more narrative, try Jan MacKell’s book, which offers stories about Colorado’s women and houses. And finally, Ruth Rosen’s Lost Sisterhood focuses on the Progressive Era reform period from 1900-1918.

Wallace’s houses obviously survived this reform period, but it was not immune to the threat of closure during World War I, which was when most restricted districts in the U.S. closed down. I’ve been going back through some of the primary source documents from this reform period and thought it might be worthwhile to share some of that information in the rest of this post….

As Americans prepared for WWI, everyone was expected to support the war effort: newspapers published articles encouraging people to buy bonds, conserve resources, and help keep morale high. The government singled out vice districts as a special part of the preparations. The War Department launched a massive campaign that they called a “war on prostitution.”

Letter from the War Department soliciting businesses to help eradicate prostitution

Letter from the War Department soliciting businesses to help promote social and moral health during World War I

Working with Brown Manufacturing Company and the American Social Hygiene Association, the War Department distributed propaganda meant to educate potential soldiers about the risks of venereal disease. Some of these materials are available in the Potlatch Papers at the University of Idaho Library’s Special Collections and Archives. One pamphlet warns:

A venereal disease contracted after deliberate exposure through intercourse with a prostitute is as much of a disgrace as showing the white feather.

A soldier in the hospital with venereal disease is a slacker.

His medicine and care cost money that could be otherwise used to win the war.

He has lost the self-respect which is the backbone of every true soldier.

If you go with a prostitute, you endanger your country because you risk your health, and perhaps your life. You lessen the man-power of your company and throw extra burdens on your comrades. You are a moral shirker.


No matter how thirsty or hungry you were, you wouldn’t eat or drink anything that you knew in advance would weaken your vitality, poison your blood, cripple your limbs, rot your flesh, blind you, and destroy your brain. Then why take the same chance with a prostitute?

(Keeping Fit to Fight)

Federal authorities targeted restricted districts and the women within them by rallying employers and community members as the enforcers, calling upon everyone to do their part to “protect” the soldiers and the “sisters, wives, and future mothers of the race we are fighting for” (Fit to Fight pamphlet). “Loose women, on the other hand,” were framed as morally degenerate and disease-ridden, and sometimes referred to as “feeble-minded.”


(Potlatch Papers, MG 96 Box 4, UI Library Special Collections & Archives)

These materials discussed women as though they were pests on par with mosquitoes, spreading disease and contagion wherever they were found. As one government authority put it: “To drain a red-light district and destroy thereby a breeding place of syphilis and gonorrhea is as logical as it is to drain a swamp and destroy thereby a breeding place of malaria and yellow fever” (quoted in Allan Brandt’s No Magic Bullet 72). This sort of language invoked old stereotypes of women’s bodies as mysterious and dank incubators capable of unleashing disease. The Fit to Fight pamphlet also included “educational” information about sex:

The mere fact that famous boxers and wrestlers, explorers and athletes who want their bodies in perfect condition for a great struggle keep away from women during the long period of training proves that the use of the sex organs is not necessary to health. Even the ancients knew this in training their gladiators and athletes.

On the other hand, over-exercise or excitement of the sex glands may exhaust them, and weaken a man. (Footnoted here: “If this is done by a man himself it is called self-abuse or masturbation. It does not make a man insane, but it is so weakening both to the body and to the will-power that many boys and men worry themselves sick over the habit, when they might have cured themselves by athletics, fun, and their own self-respect and will-power. Most boys who masturbate quit the habit before lasting injury has been done. Going to a prostitute (whore) instead will not really break the habit and makes matters worse.”)

Many a champion boxer has found this out to his cost. And thinking about things which excite the sex feelings makes it hard to control the sex organs, just as thinking about food makes the mouth water, or thinking of a sorrow may bring tears to the eyes in spite of a man. (And another footnote here reads: “Booze makes it easy to lose control of the thoughts and get into trouble with loose women, and it makes the body more likely to catch their diseases. That is one reason why the government prohibits liquor to soldiers.”)

Even though much of this information is obviously wrong (“most boys who masturbate quit the habit,” haha), it was actually correcting Victorian Era misinformation about male sexuality. During the 19th century, it was commonly thought that if a man didn’t have sexual release, he would explode with lust or rage. This kind of thinking is also behind the rationale that prostitution was a “necessary evil” required to protect young women from being raped.

Social and moral hygiene sex “education” materials

The War Department’s propaganda repeatedly claimed that 70-90% of “professional prostitutes” were infected with gonorrhea or syphilis “all the time.” These materials add, “that kind of girl is likely to lie” so the soldiers were instructed to “Just remember this—all loose women are dirty. Therefore, any man who joins his body with the body of a prostitute or loose girl runs the risk of catching one of these terrible diseases” (Fit to Fight).

Another pamphlet, Your Job and Your Future, advises all men to prevent the spread of syphilis and gonorrheal “germs” in the following way:

you’ve got to keep away from the kind of women who are willing to “give you a good time,” whether they want money for it or not.

Don’t forget it: Keep away from prostitutes, whore, hookers, chippies and so-called ‘private snaps.’

The government provided ready-made speeches with notes for the speakers, which they delivered to industrial plants alongside the pamphlets, posters, and pay stub enclosures. Sometimes the War Department also sent people to present these lectures in person. Local historian and former Judge Richard Magnuson told me that in Wallace, by 1916 or 1917, someone from the military came to town and made a speech about how the houses were ruining the workforce. During an address at the Methodist church, a U.S. Army lieutenant pleaded with the citizens to understand that soldiers would be “useless if debilitated by venereal disease,” citing “the fall of Rome as an example of what Wallace could expect if it let prostitution thrive in its midst” (Hart and Nelson 138).


Example of ready-made anti-prostitution speeches provided by War Department in 1917-1918

Despite the federal government’s rhetoric lamenting the houses’ negative influence, the reality is that sex work and the government—especially the military—have been interdependent throughout American history. And in Wallace, the economic symbiosis of the brothels and local government would ultimately increase as a result of this propaganda campaign. The obstacle to eradicating sex work was common logic during this time that countered the government’s rhetoric: if the restricted districts were shut down, the thinking went, prostitution would scatter throughout the community and as a result the problem would become worse. Or, as the late former mayor Moe Pellissier told me in an interview last summer, “If you shut down the upstairs, it just moves to the bars and the streets. You can regulate venereal diseases if you regulate prostitution.”

The town chose to “license” sex work by charging the houses operation fees and so the War Department’s war against prostitution ultimately ended up strengthening the connection to local government because “the community felt better leaving that particular element in that particular place rather than having it be pervasive all over” (Amonson). So it was during this time that we first see doctor’s visits and regulation by public health officials (Wallace City Council Minutes, September 1917). While it is true that syphilis was a serious public health problem during this pre-penicillin era, the health exams also improved the image of prostitution in Wallace, which was needed to effectively counter the federal government’s arguments. Madams and Wallace citizens would continue to emphasize cleanliness and regulation in both discursive and ritualized practice from this time onward.