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Case Study: Lorena Upper the Female Barber

We have been ramping up our research here at The Bureau of Historical Investigation. Kolby LaBree, one our Investigators, found some articles that intrigued us about a female business owner who was accused of being a prostitute in 1922. Here are Kolby’s summaries of the Bellingham Herald Articles that reported on the case:

 

1922 Apr 18 Tues – “Red Light” Statute Is Invoked Against Woman  

“Charges under the “red light” statute filed by prosecutor against ‘Jane Doe’ Upper, a woman said to be conducting a barber shop at 309 West Holly Street.  On the allegation that she was using rooms in the building for immoral purposes… asked that she be fined $300 and injunction placed prohibiting use of building for six months.”


1922 Apr 25 Tues – Woman Alleges Tailor Gave Her Black Optic…

“Spilling neighborhood affairs freely, Mrs. Lorena Upper, lady barber at 309 West Holly Street, was in superior court late yesterday to answer why her shop should not be closed for six months and why she should not be fined $300 in accordance with the request of prosecuting attorney Loomis Baldrey, who is seeking to invoke the ‘red light’ abatement act of injunction on grounds that the shop has been used for immoral purposes.

Mrs. Upper alleged that James O. Bennet, a tailor who occupies part of the building where she has a shop, gave her a ‘black eye’ and accused him of being a ‘troublemaker.’  She stated they made trouble for her ‘from the first’ and shouted ‘insinuating things’ through the partition while she was shaving customers.

Situation culminated in personal encounter… fracas in which Bennett allegedly ‘landed a strong wallop on one of Mrs. Upper’s eyes’ … Mrs. Upper denies her shop ever used for any immoral purposes.”


1922 Apr 28 Fri – WOMAN IS ON TRIAL  Defendant blames “Enemies”

“Swearing that James Bennett, tailor, at 309 W Holly Street, his wife, Harriet, and their employees had been trying for weeks ‘to get something on’ Lorena Upper, lady barber, in the same building, so that she could be forced out of the neighborhood, Tufus B. Hampel, salesman for Bennett himself told many damaging things in superior court… ‘I stood on a trunk… and looked through an old window into her back room and saw things that were decidedly raw.  The partition was thin between the Bennett’s shop and the barber shop.  Between the back rooms was a window that had in the past been papered over…’

Hampel said he worked for Bennett only six weeks… described two men he saw in the room with the defendant.  One was a logger, a ‘a big rough fellow,’  and the other was an old man ‘in the naughty age’ swore Hampel.


Mrs. Upper is small and dainty, has hair of a reddish cast and wears nose-glasses.  Someone said she did not appear to be over 25, but it was stated she had a daughter 19 years of age who kept the shop with her.

Mrs. Upper was cited by the court and show cause why she should not be fined $300 and her shop closed…Prosecuting attorney Loomis Baldrey, charged the place had been used for immoral purposes.  Mrs. Upper denied the charges.

Noel Provanche, nearby tobacconist, swore from the talk he heard in his store from traveling men and others gave him to understand the general reputation of the shop was ‘pretty bad’… also testimony from electric company businessman from across the street, and a tailor who passed by regularly.

Dick Drain, deputy sheriff, told of persistent surveillance… gave damaging evidence.  Swore he saw a traveling man in a Paige car and Mrs. Upper drive away from the shop one evening.”

 

1922 Apr 29 Saturday – Injunction Granted – Closing of Woman’s Barber Shop Ordered by Court….

“Judgement against Mrs. Lorena Upper in the ‘red light’ abatement case on in superior court yesterday and today.  In accordance with the application of Prosecuting Attorney Loomis Baldrey a permanent injunction on her barbershop at 309 West Holly street, and the fine of $300 were allowed.  The contents of the shop will be sold to pay the costs…   Mrs. Upper, on the stand this morning, said that she had learned the barber trade at Vancouver fourteen years ago, and that she had worked at the chair in that city, Calgary, Astoria, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and at Aberdeen for several years.  She said her daughter is seeking a divorce from her husband, named Cannon, and that she plans to marry Ellsworth Sperry, formerly of this city.  Sperry, it was indicated, was the girl’s ‘Tall’ friend.  Mrs. Upper denied misconduct at her shop and said she had never done or said anything ‘out of the way.’

Dr. Connor O. Reed, the family physician, said on the stand that the mother and Mr. Upper had asked him to try to influence the daughter to “keep more sensible hours.”

Witnesses called by the state yesterday were J.E. Dorr, former chief of police; G.W. Evans, police patrolman, called to the shop after there had been an affair in the street at the time Mrs. Upper claimed that Bennett had given her a black eye; and Bennett himself. … who said there had been rough and unbecoming talk and conversations and practices in the shop for the last six months…. He swore he heard the door being locked when customers went there for barber work.… there was some kind of public physical altercation with Mr. Bennett, his wife, and Mrs. Upper.

Mrs. Upper’s daughter, Thelma Cannon, 19 years of age, worked at the shop, Williams said.  He declared that persons had at times slept in the barber shop back room at night.  Twice, he said, he had seen a ‘tall man’ leave of mornings, after hearing the occupants arise and get breakfast. Mr. and Mrs. Upper swore they had frequently stayed all night in the shop, but the state pointed out that Upper is not a tall man.  Mrs. Upper admitted her daughter had remained away from home several nights.”

Kolby also found a mention that 1926 Lorena filed divorce against her husband Louis Upper for nonsupport in Seattle Daily Times Feb 12, 1926, and it looks like her daughter Thelma Cannon never married that guy, who was a musician, and she seems to have dabbled in vaudeville.

Mrs. Upper's Barber Shop was located in the second building to the left of the White House Building in this picture. The small building directly to the left of the White House is now Fourth Corner Frames. In the later 20s, the upstairs was known as the “Tama Rooms,” a popular spot to which the police were called regularly but was allowed to operate as a brothel for over a decade.  

 

It is impossible for us to know all the details about this case, it is hard to say exactly what happened. Whether this Mrs. Upper was actually using her Barber Shop as a front for sex work, or her daughter was, or her daughter was using the shop to carry out brief affairs (casual sex as we know it today has it’s roots in the youth culture of the 1920s), OR James Bennett made it all up so he could get rid of his neighbor, we don’t know. What this case seems to highlight, however, is the extent to which sexism affected the lives of women and female business owners in particular in 1920s Bellingham.

From these articles, it appears that Lorena was harassed while she was with customers, peeped-on through a spy hole, beaten by her accuser, and the case against her relied entirely on eyewitness testimony that itself relied heavily on euphemism and innuendo. The city brought forth witnesses who were almost entirely local business men and whose testimony is dripping with hearsay.

“Noel Provanche, nearby tobacconist, swore from the talk he heard in his store from traveling men and others gave him to understand the general reputation of the shop was ‘pretty bad’ …”

“Pretty bad” you say!?! Thank you Mr. Provanche, you have been pretty helpful.

There doesn’t seem to be anything said about the male-customers that seems out of the ordinary. Saying that men went to a barber shop isn’t exactly damning testimony. Even if those men weren’t someone the witness wanted to hang out with.

“Hampel said he worked for Bennett only six weeks… described two men he saw in the room with the defendant.  One was a logger, a ‘a big rough fellow,’  and the other was an old man ‘in the naughty age’ swore Hampel.”

Female barbers were very rare in the 1920s. Some barber colleges refused to train women. The motivations of any woman who wanted to be a barber were suspect. Sensationalized accounts from New York and Chicago reference women starting to pop up in barber shops in the late 1870s. These stories emphasize the sexuality of the professionals and imply that their participation in the trade was a gimmick to bring in more customers.

“The author of one article, written in 1879, admitted experiencing some secret pleasure at having a young woman, around 26 years of age, give him a shave. He notes with appreciation the ‘elegance of her figure’ but then has visions of Judith, the Jewish hero from the Book of Judith who saves her people by ingeniously gaining access to the tent of the enemy’s champion fighter and then cutting off his head while he slept. Other men are much less conflicted about having female hair stylists. ‘Look at the advantages of coming here,’ stated one man when interviewed at a salon. He then turns ‘to focus on a blond in white pants, white sweater, and high heels,’ stating, ‘You don’t get scenery like that in a barber shop.’ While a woman will typically make less in barber shops then [sic] in a salon, ‘a girl’s gonna get more customers than a guy barber, especially if she’s voluptuous, if you know what I mean,’ one barber stated.”

By the 1920s, after the first-wave of feminism brought suffrage to women in the U.S., ordinary women started to challenge traditional gender roles. Flappers, bobbed-hair, birth control, drinking in public; these things might fly in big cities, but in Bellingham a woman working in a profession thought of as a traditionally male occupation may have ruffled some feathers. An attractive and young looking married woman wants to own a business where she is going to compete with male-owned businesses and where she is going to be alone with her male clientele!?!?

Skank.

Not to mention that the city’s policy towards sex-work in Bellingham at this point was pretty laissez faire. Brothels were mostly tolerated through the 1940s unless they employed or catered to people of color. The problem with Mrs. Upper, from the city's point of view, may have been that if she was working as a prostitute, she was doing so while acting as her own representation. She didn’t have a madame. The statutes that had allowed prostitution within a restricted or "red-light" district until 1910, had required all sex-workers to be operating under the supervision of a madame. The madames weren’t supposed to be seeing clients themselves. This groundwork seems to have been the basis for later unwritten rules about the sex trade in Bellingham that continued until after the end of WWII.

Evoking the red-light laws as a mode of maintaining the status quo might have been the last resort for local businessmen and law enforcement who were already notorious for using anti-pimping statutes to keep unemployed black men out of town.

Again, we don’t know for sure what Mrs. Upper actually did, but it is pretty clear that no specific proof was used to convict her and that the treatment of her case in the court and the local media was pretty sexist by our modern standards. Maybe the judge felt justified and declared a writ of “If it looks like a slut, walks like a slut, acts like a slut…” but I can’t shake the feeling that these accusations were pretty unfounded, and that the press could have been a little more aghast at the fact that Lenora was punched in the face by a man than at the supposition that she may have had consensual sex for money.

We will look into the court documents for this case and try to see if any charges were ever brought up against Mr. Benett. Until then, I am going to try to decide how much things have changed around here since 1922.

 

As I typed that, two young men walked by our door at The Bureau of Historical Investigation, giggling, “Good Time Girls?!?!” one of them read from our sandwich board advertising our guided tours with a voice that echoed raised eyebrows.

There is still work to be done.