Remembering Roseville’s ladies of the night
Many longtime railroad towns have scandalous episodes in their pasts that don’t make it into the books on sale at visitor’s centers: One of the most common chapters of colorful history often left out involve red light districts. Archival newspaper accounts suggest that Roseville was not immune to “the oldest profession in history,” and some of the buildings that offered such salacious services long ago are still very much intact.
A string of stories published in the Sacramento Union newspaper in the early 20th century indicate that most of Roseville’s red light district was located in what’s known today as “Old Town” — Lincoln Street, Church Street and Main Street. Dens called the Page Room, Rex Room, Yellow Room and Lincoln Room were all famous as haunts for the city’s painted ladies. In 1916, a court case against a Greek immigrant to Roseville showed the scope of prostitution along the city’s rail yard.
The man in the center of the controversy was John Leles, the proprietor of the New Frisco House. Leles arrived to Roseville after the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. He originally purchased a blacksmith shop on Pacific Street before constructing a three-story hotel named the Frisco House. The building was located near the Odd Fellow’s Hall that still rises over Old Roseville. By 1911, the hotel had burned in a fire, along with most of the structures on the block. Leles rebuilt on the same site, this time reopening as the New Frisco Bar. He also erected houses in the back alley.
However, officers from the California District Court eventually got wise to what was going on in Lele’s properties, charging him in 1916 with fraud and “keeping an immoral house,” according to state records.
“As to the charge of fraud, the evidence strongly preponderates in favor of the government’s claim that for some time … the defendant had been conducting a place of bad repute in the community, a sort of combination saloon, restaurant, and lodging or rooming resort, some of the rooms being situated over the saloon and restaurant, and others in adjacent cottages in the rear,” the Court wrote in its official finding. “That the place was frequented by people of bad repute, both men and women, for evil and illicit purposes; and that the defendant himself was fully aware of the bad character of his resort and the class of people frequenting it.”
The findings against Lele were used as grounds by the U.S. Government to reject his application for citizenship. To this day, Lele’s hearing — officially referenced as U.S. v. Leles (D.C. Cal. 1916) 236 F.784 — is cited as case law for rejecting a citizenship application over the lack of “good moral character.”
Evidence suggests Leles eventually cleaned up his act and redeemed himself. He later invested in a butcher shop which was first located between Pacific and Church streets and then permanently established in 1920 on Lincoln Street in the Cassie Hill Building. Leles’ butcher shop remained open in Roseville for 30 years. Surviving documents from the U.S. Department of Naturalization show that Leles was finally granted citizenship in 1926.
Leles’ troubles with authorities may represent the best documented case of a specific brothel in Roseville, but he was not the first, nor the last, to make money on a local house of ill repute. Several accounts from the Sacramento Union newspaper between 1915 and 1921 mention attempts by Placer County authorities to close down brothels in the city. In 1917, the Placer County District Attorney’s Office arrested a woman named Rose Force for running “a Red Light House” in Roseville. An article in the Sacramento Union on March 23, 1921, reported that the Placer County Sheriff had raided and closed several houses of prostitution in Roseville, as well as a sizeable gambling operation run by Guy Boutdillier in the Barker Hotel.
The problem came back into the spotlight three decades later in 1951 when Roseville native Al Broyer was elected as Placer County’s District Attorney. Longtime residents remember the task of closing “cat houses” as one of Broyer’s top priorities. At the time, California Attorney General Pat Brown, a future governor and the father of a future attorney general and governor, was cracking down on brothels doing business in the open in small towns across post-World War II California. The Stockton Record published articles about Brown and his state investigators raiding prostitution dens in nearby Amador County in the early 1950s, but Placer locals told the Press Tribune they remember Brown also assisting Broyer by raiding “a house” on Roseville’s Lower Vernon Street in 1951.
Broyer went on to become Roseville City Judge, and his wife Evlyn lived to be 104, passing away in Roseville last summer.
Though “vice” is rarely discussed in conversations about Roseville’s glory days, local researchers and genealogists know that it left its scarlet mark on the pages of the city’s history, if one knows where to look.