bulk of the white population on Puget Sound was young and
unmarried and masculine. Only one adult out of ten was a woman,
and rare indeed, was the girl over fifteen not spoken for. At
least three-fourths of the men in town had to be chaste or sinful
and even the latter course led to the question of whom to be
sinful with. With a population of less than two hundred in 1860,
the community was too small for adultery to be inconspicuous. That
left the lusty with the choice of marrying Indian girls, a
solution frowned on although practiced, or of taking Indian wives.
Indian girls were not unwilling, either way. The Salish culture
had a different sexual ethic from the white; men who wanted
relations with Indian maidens had little difficulty persuading the
girls or their parents. But there were other problems. The whites
had brought venereal disease, and it was ravaging the tribes. Nor
did the Indian habits of sanitation lend enchantment; some tribes
piled excrement around the house walls to add warmth in winter;
even the more fastidious girls reeked of smoked fish and washed
their hair with urine.
Although there is little reason to think that the bearded and
unwashed Anglos were much less noxious than the girls, the men
believed that they smelled better. In spite of smells
there was considerable intercourse between the settlers and the
tribeswomen, but much of it was desperate and impromptu.
plight of the Puget Sound male was indeed sad. The Herald,
upSound at Steilacoom, came out with periodic editorials bemoaning
the impossibility of adequate sexual activity. Where demand was so
sustained and so obvious, somebody was certain to try to hustle up
an adequate supply. That somebody was a Barbary Coast gentleman
named John Pennell.
Pennell came to desert San Francisco for Seattle is uncertain.
Probably some seaman from one of the lumber ships told him of the
yearnings of Puget Sound males; and with the supply in Pennell's
line almost exceeding demand along the Barbary Coast, he may have
decided to prospect the virgin territory to the north.
the summer of 1861 Pennell debarked from a lumber schooner on the
sand spit beside Yeslers Mill. A single glance at the pedestrians
on the dusty reach of Front Street, who were as predominantly male
as the crew of a ship, must have confirmed the reports he had
heard in San Francisco. An examination of Seattle's economic base
could only have made business prospects seem bright. Here was a
town of bachelors, a town with no commercial entertainment, a town
with an established payroll. Here was a town just waiting for the
likes of John Pennell.
Within a month of his arrival there stood on the shore of the bay,
not far south of the point where the logging road reached the
mill, a pleasure palace of rough-sawed boards, the pioneer of a
long line of establishments which were to give this part of town a
distinctive character. The lot on which this bawdy-house was built
was "made land," a fill created on the tide flats by
pouring in the sawdust from Yeslers Mill. It was not desirable
land, for the flats stank when the tide was out; but Pennell could
not be too particular, and the site had the advantage of being
only a few minutes, walk from the mill and in clear view of the
ships entering the harbor.
Ilahee, as Pennell named his house, was in the great tradition of
the Old West. The oblong building of unpainted boards housed a
large dance floor, which was flanked by a long bar. Along one side
of the floor was a hall leading to a number of small rooms.
Pennell imported three musicians (a fiddler, a drummer, and an
accordion player) from San Francisco; the rest of his help was
native. He traded Hudson's Bay blankets to local chiefs for a
supply of Indian girls. These recruits were vigorously scoured,
their long hair was combed and cut, they were doused with perfume
and decked out in calico.
girl would dance with anyone without cost, but her escort was
expected to buy a drink for himself and his companion after each
dance. (The bartender usually substituted cold tea for whiskey in
the girl's glass, though the charge was for whisky.) When a man
tired of purely social intercourse, he could always buy a couple
more and lead his partner down the hall to one of the little rooms.
There was no attempt to conceal what was going on at the water's
edge. One historian has argued that it was the establishment of
Pennell's place that led straight to Seattle's present-day
dominance of the Northwest, the scholar's thesis being that word
swiftly spread throughout the timberland about the "entertainment
offered at the foot of the skid road in Seattle. The town had,"
in that historian's words, "the best mouse trap in the woods;
hob nails and calks were deepening all the paths to its door."
While this economic argument gives more importance to sex than
even Freud would be likely to admit, there can be little doubt
that Pennell drew his clientele from all over the Sound country,
and that the men who came to town to enjoy the girls also spent
money on more legitimate trade. Some respectable members of the
Seattle community accepted Pennell's establishment as a non evil;
others deplored it but failed to convince Sheriff Wyckoff that he
should close the place as a nuisance.
Somehow the name Illahee - which meant homeland in Chinook didn't
catch on. It may have been among the strait laced that the
establishment then came to be known as the Mad House, but the
nickname stuck and was later applied to other houses whose
stock-in-trade was of Indian origin. Those who did not call the
brothel the Mad House sometimes referred to it as the Sawdust Pile
or Down on the Sawdust The inhabitants were known as Sawdust
During a depression period in San Francisco at the end of the
Civil War, Pennell rounded up a handful of out-of-work Barbary
Coast girls and shipped them north. They were the first white
women north of the Columbia to ply the oldest profession. Though
it is doubtful that prostitutes unable to prosper in San Francisco
were unduly attractive, their presence in the Illahee, according
to a chronicler of the period, "had a powerful imaginative
effect on the whole nude population of the Puget Sound country,
and old-timers still relate fabulous legends from those happy
legends were the standard ones of the red-light district. There
was the tale of the ladylike whore who murdered the men she
learned were carrying large mounts of money. There was the legend
of the girl who fell in love and demurely denied her swain the
favors she still sold, albeit unwillingly, to everyone else. And,
Of course, there was the story of the girl who married a client
and moved into one of the white clapboard houses on the hill.
That some Seattle families grew out of love affairs in the Mad
House is not inconceivable. Women were few and a man could not be
choosy, especially a man who patronized the establishment. There
were, however, many who considered such marriages undesirable, and
among them was a righteous and energetic youngster named Asa
Mercer, fresh from the midwest.
Young Mercer was the brother of Judge Tom Mercer, a solid citizen
who had arrived in 1852 with a team of horses and had prospered as
Seattle's first teamster. Asa worked as a carpenter on the new
Territorial University building, which was going up on the hill
northeast of the skid road, and when the building was completed he
moved inside as president and faculty of the institution.
day during a conversation on the territory's topic of shortage of
maidens worthy to become the wives of pioneers Judge Tom remarked
that in the name of posterity the territorial government should
appropriate public funds to bring west a party of acceptable young
ladies. The idea had an understandable appeal to the
twenty-two-year-old university president, who was unmarried and
moral; he took it up with the governor. William Pickering,
Washington's fourth governor," was a husky, spade bearded man
in his mid-sixties; he agreed as to the need but sadly called
Mercer's attention to the lack of public money. Asa decided to
carry off his venture as a private enterprise.
talked to a number of Seattle's frustrated young men and, after
pocketing an unspecified amount of contributions, caught a ship
for Boston. The daughters of that sedate community were not to be
talked into venturing west but in Lowell the young proselyter
found more attentive listeners. Lowell was a textile town, racked
with depression since the Civil War had cut off Southern cotton
from its looms, and there Mercer found eleven virgins willing to
forsake the land of the cod.
They traveled from New York, crossed the Panama Isthmus, rested
briefly in San Francisco (where some enterprising Californians
tried to talk the maidens into easing that region's shortage of
pure females) and went by schooner to the Sound. They debarked at
Yeslers wharf about midnight, May 16, 1864, and were welcomed by a
delegation headed by Doc Maynard.
With the exception of one girl who took sick and died unwed, all
the girls soon found husbands. The details of the courtships am
unknown, and it is uncertain whether the maidens married the men
who had financed Mercer's trip. As for Asa, his grateful
contemporaries elected him unanimously to the upper house of the
The young legislator thought less of laws than lasses. He wanted
to import young women not by the short dozen but by the hundred.
Soon he was circulating through the territory, talking
confidentially to lonesome bachelors. His proposition was simple.
For three hundred down paid in advance, he would bring a suitable
There were several takers, how many only Mercer knew, but enough
so that he started east in high spirits and with great confidence.
He talked of bringing back enough girls to provide mates for every
single man west of the Cascades.
Everything went wrong. Lincoln was shot, and Asa, who had known
him slightly, lost a potential ally. Mercer didn't know President
Johnson, but General Grant, who knew from personal experience how
lonely a man could get among the rain forests, promised to lend
Mercer a transport, but the Quartermaster General quickly pointed
out that such use of federal property was illegal.
Then, out of nowhere, appeared an angel, a wartime speculator
named Ben Holladay, who offered to buy the surplus transport and
carry Mercer's five hundred charges around the Horn to Seattle "for
a minimum price."
Mercer quickly signed a Contract. The trouble was he didn't have
five hundred passengers; he didn't have half that many; he didn't
even have a hundred. For this Mercer blamed the New York Herald
and its cross-eyed editor, James Gordon Bennett. The drive had
been going well, Asa wrote his backers, until it attracted the
attention of the Herald, which ran an "exposed" of the
expose implied that most of the girls were destined for waterfront
dives on Puget Sound and if anyone did gain a legal mate, she must
steel herself to the fact that he would probably be ugly,
unnumbered, illiterate, and probably diseased.
Massachusetts authorities investigated too, though hardly
thoroughly. Since no politician is likely to admit that young
women would do better to leave his state, the report implied that
Mercer's girls might be headed for a fate worse than Mormonism.
Besides getting a bad press, Mercer was up against the fact that
it was easier for his prospects to say they'd make the voyage than
it was for them to walk up the gangplank leaving behind them all
that was home.
When the day came to sail, January 6, 1866, fewer than a hundred
nubile passengers appeared. Mercer sold passages reserved for
girls to men and married women, but he was far short of filling
his five hundred reservations. Holladay demanded payment in full.
He didn't get it, but he got every cent Mercer had. Once at sea,
Asa figured his financial worries were over.
Three months later the ship docked at San Francisco. The captain
ordered everyone ashore. This, he said, was as far as he was
Mercer argued and lost. When they put him ashore he rushed to the
telegraph office and wired Governor Pickering: "Send two
thousand dollars quick to get party to Seattle. Pickering wired
back his best wishes, collect. In desperation Mercer appealed to
the skippers of the lumber schooners that plied between Seattle
and San Francisco; these gentlemen, pleased at the prospect of
feminine companionship on what was usually a dull voyage, took
them fare free.
few of the girls decided to stay in California and who can blame
them? Mercer must have been tempted to stay. He had spent every
cent that had been given to him; he had brought back fewer girls
than he had promised, and those not on schedule. He must have
known the home folks weren't going to elect him to the legislature
for this performance.
Seattle woman who has been working on the Mercer expedition for
some years tells me that she has been unable to find the Herald
Mercers return to Seattle rumors spread, wild and ugly. On May 23
the Puget Sound Daily had a front-page story saying that "Honorable
A.S. Mercer will address the citizens of Seattle and vicinity, at
Yeslers Hall this evening, for the purpose of refuting the
numerous stories that have been circulated in regard to himself,
in connection with his immigration enterprise. The editor urged, "Turn
out, everybody, and hear the other side of the question."
report of the meeting is irritatingly incomplete. Rev. Daniel
Bagley was called to the chair, who briefly stated the object of
the meeting, which was to hear an address by Mr. A.S. Mercer in
regard to his experience while in the East conducting the famous
immigration enterprise. Mr. Mercer then addressed the audience, to
which a marked attention was paid, the speaker being frequently
audience was composed, in part of the fair immigrants who had so
recently arrived, and it is a fact that has no little weight in
the vindication of Mr. Mercer's reputation against the assaults
that have been made upon it, that those immigrants place the
utmost confidence in him. At the close the immigrants made a few
very appropriate remarks, after which the meeting adjourned,
apparently with the best of good will towards Mr. Mercer and all
night after Mercer's speech a "Marvelous Magical
Entertainment" was held at Yeslers. No matter how impressive
the legerdemain and the paper also gave it a rave notice - it
could hardly have been as remarkable as Mercer's feat of pacifying
with words the angry men who, after waiting almost a year for
delivery of the women they had ordered, found themselves without
brides and minus a hundred down.
Mercer himself married one of his imports, Annie Stephens, a few
weeks later. They soon removed to the Rocky Mountains area, where
Asa lived out his days as a rancher, as far from ships as he could
John Pennell faded from the Seattle scene at almost the same time
as Asa. He left for parts unknown. But the type of institution
that he had founded on the sawdust fill south of Yesler Way did
not vanish with him. Other entrepreneurs built bigger and better
houses. The honky-tonk was there to stay.
Skid Road had been born.