Saint Paul, MN

Nina Clifford (1848 - 1929)

The Streets of St. Paul
Nina Clifford Home,147 South Washington, St. Paul.Photo byMNHS

“It was said that three powers had divided St. Paul among them — Bishop Ireland took ‘the Hill,’ Jim Hill took the city for his trains, and Nina Clifford took all that was below ‘the Hill.’” ~ Meridel LeSeur (author)

ST. PAUL, MN - Nina (NINE-ah) Clifford's story began years before she came to St. Paul. However, her legend was born within its city limits. It was here she became madame to the city and one of its most influential residents.

She was born Hannah Crowe on August 3, 1851, in Ontario, Canada. While she was still a child, her family relocated to Detroit, Michigan. There are few details about her time in the state, but as a young adult, she fell in love and married Conrad Steinbrecher. Sadly, in March 1886, her husband passed away, leaving her a widow in her early 30s.

Clifford cared for her mother before eventually leaving for St. Paul. She opened a brothel in the city's lower town district. On April 23, 1887, she completed the purchase of a property in Upper Town. The large parcel was below the downtown bluffs in the Washington Red Light District. It was near the Mississippi River and a short walk from the police department.

In 1888 Clifford hired local architect Walter Ife to design a building on the land. The completed structure, located at 147 Washington St., cost twelve thousand dollars—more than three times that of similar-sized buildings. The finished building stood out among the residential district's small homes and shacks.

Initial permits showed the building's intended use was as a 'dwelling house' and 'seminary.' But, with Clifford's professional background and several women living there by its 1889 opening, its actual use seemed crystal clear.

Patrons who climbed the stairs to the brothel's front door were treated to a high-class experience that similar local establishments lacked. The multi-level, carved brownstone building delivered an air of respectability that likely brought out politicians and members of high society as clientele. Clifford's business was so popular she had to keep two phones in the house.

Those who entered were greeted by a beautiful crystal chandelier hanging from one of the brothel's many high ceilings. Plush carpeting covered the floors, and music played continuously in the dance hall. Well-dressed servants offered drinks to waiting customers. It had marble fireplaces, and food was served on hand-painted porcelain plates.

At first glance, everything was the best of the best.

However, artifacts discovered in a 1997 archaeological dig showed significantly less luxurious working conditions for the brothel's back rooms employees. The opulent plates in the front of the house were replaced with simple-looking, basic flatware in the back. Many medicine vials were discovered, leaving the impression that an employee's life at Clifford's brothel differed vastly from that of her clientele.

While a young woman working at Clifford's could likely make more money in a night than she would in a week of "regular" work, the physical and mental strain of the job probably made her life incredibly difficult.

Brothel work was quietly accepted in the city, so much so that the brothel's neighborhood became overrun with 'boarding houses' (at one point, an average of 6.2 people lived in each of the residential area's homes). However, it was privately scorned, and the women involved — save for the proprietors, were often belittled in public.

The inequalities her 'boarders' experienced did not extend to Clifford. She was bucking the era's belief that women only came into money through her husband's death. The brothel owner was wealthy, and her intimate relationship with the city's elite made her a powerful voice in local affairs.

She had a softer side and a willingness to give generously to those that had less than her. Clifford anonymously gave hundreds of donations to local churches and charities. Many children that may not have received a formal education did so because of her generosity. She chartered a car each Christmas and hand-delivered holiday baskets to those less fortunate.

St. Paul's long-running knack of indifference to criminality (for the right price) helped keep Clifford in business. While prostitution was illegal in Minnesota, city officials understood its financial benefits. Local brothel owners had to come to the police station every other month and pay a fine to continue their business. Everyone, from newspapers on down, recognized the charge as little more than an unofficial license fee.

Authorities had always looked the other way regarding minor vices like alcohol and prostitution. While the growing Temperance Movement made it more difficult to ignore the ills of alcohol, officials felt prostitution remained a victimless crime. Also, some of the city's leaders were likely customers.

During a 1914 corruption trial, Clifford testified against the city's acting police chief and his co-conspirator. Both men were found guilty. Afterward, Clifford became a "former" brothel owner. That consideration, however, probably reflected a change in local values more than Clifford's actual retirement. Local police could no longer accept license fees from brothel owners to look the other way.

Prostitution was forced back into the shadows.

Little was written about Clifford between the trial's close and her death. In the early summer of 1929, she went to Detroit to spend what she considered to be her final days with family. According to her obituary, she hoped to be buried next to her husband at Mount Elliott Cemetery.

On July 14, 1929, she suffered a stroke and passed away. Her final wish was soon granted.

While people don't always consider the unsavory aspects of her life in retelling her tale, Nina Clifford's story continues to resonate with the people of St. Paul.


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Writing about the history of St. Paul, MN.

Hugo, MN

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