The Infamous Madams of Water Street in Portsmouth, NH
Mary was born June 19, 1859 in Newcastle, New Hampshire. Her mother hailed from Nova Scotia, and her father, a New Hampshire native, descended from a line of Dutch, Greek, and Italian sailors, merchants, and pirates who arrived along the eastern seaboard in the 16th century. The archive doesn’t reveal much about her early years, but Mary married Allen Baker in 1889.
Together they opened the Gloucester House in 1897. Local real estate tycoon Frank Jones originally owned the building, and in 1902, Mary purchased it from his estate. Some local historians believe that Allen did not care for prostitution, yet he operated a famous ice cream parlor in front of the house. Neighborhood children loved visiting Allen’s parlor for ice cream, but also to catch a glimpse of Mary Baker and her extravagant clothing, jewelry, and, of course, the diamonds in her teeth.
Mary Baker’s brothel was one of a dozen in the red-light district. Madam Alta Roberts (1855 – 1940), who owned a brothel at 14-16 Water Street, referred to Mary as her “old friend from college” and was known as the “Black Mystery of Water Street” because of her penchant for wearing all black. Alta rarely left her Water Street residence, and although she didn’t share in the extravagance of Mary, Alta did don gold casings over her two front teeth.
Born in Maine in 1855, Alta moved to Portsmouth in 1897. She married Frank Roberts and they shared the vaudeville stage in the 1880s. After his death, Alta worked in a Massachusetts textile mill until she returned to Portsmouth in 1897. Known as “a tough broad, but pleasant,” town residents frequently spoke of her generosity.
16 Water Street served as Alta Roberts’ residence. The first two floors of her property at 14 Water Street served as the bordello and folks who had no other place to go found space on the third floor. She fed hungry families, supported local education, and when the Saint John Episcopal Church lost its golden chalice in a robbery, Madam Alta replaced it.
Portsmouth residents recalled the beauty of Mary and Alta’s well dressed working girls. Mary regularly loaded her girls into a carriage and paraded them through town for all to see. Both infamous madams were particular about worker health care. Alta enforced monthly health visits and Mary required weekly doctor visits for her employees. The working girls’ beauty and health consciousness attracted sailors, businessmen, police, and politicians to both brothels, which sustained the presence of the red-light district.
However, this political acceptance didn’t last long into the early 20th century. Police raids became the norm as Progressive Era reformers worked diligently to eliminate vice. Mary and Alta were arrested at least once for operating a disorderly house, and Mary was also charged with “recruiting minors for prostitution.” The court required both women to pay small fines, and a local judge once ordered Mary to leave town, but of course, she did not. Mary’s husband Allen (of ice cream fame) was arrested for “violation of license,” but local courts enforced no punishment.
Police raids in the light red-light district increased in 1911, and by 1912, all the brothels had closed. Buildings that once housed bordellos turned into grocery stores, other shops, and legitimate boarding houses. In 1936, Madam Mary’s Gloucester House was auctioned, sold, and eventually demolished to eliminate “seedy buildings” and restore the waterfront. Only a portion of Madam Alta’s home at 16 Water Street still stands (which is now listed as 57 Marcy Street) and a historic marker pays homage to the brothel that once was infamous.
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
Badger, James, Portsmouth Athenaeum Newsletter, Summer 2020. Link to Source.
Blair, Diane and Pamela Wright. “A Look Back on Portsmouth’s Naughty Past,” in Boston.com, April 9, 2019. Link to Source.
Dandurant, Karen. “Mayor Badger Runs Prostitutes Out of Town,” SeacoastOnline.com, December 16, 2010. Link to Source.
Ferland, David. Historic Crimes & Justice in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 2014.
Harriman, Arthur I. “Marcy Street Before Prescott Park,” Arthur I. Harriman Photograph Collection, Portsmouth Athenaeum. Link to Source.
Pope, Laura. Portsmouth Women Madams & Matriarchs Who Shaped New Hampshire’s Port City. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing Inc, 2013.
Seacoast New Hampshire, “Red Lights on Water Street,” SeacoastNH.com. Link to Source.
—– “Gloucester House of Ill-Repute,” Link to Source.
—– “Teen Abducted to Brothel,” Link to Source.