The Incredible Tale of Nina Clifford and Her Brothel
A widow who came to the city with nothing and became one of its most powerful residents
“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)
Nina (NINE-ah) Clifford’s story began many years before she made the journey to St. Paul, MN. However, her legend was born and flourished within its city limits. It was here that she became the madam to the city and one of its most influential residents.
She was born Hannah Crowe in Ontario, Canada, on August 3, 1851. While still a child, her family moved to Detroit, Michigan. Very little is known about her time in the state. At some point, she fell in love and married Conrad Steinbrecher. Unfortunately, in March 1886, her husband passed away, making her a widow in her early 30s.
After his death, Clifford spent time caring for her mother but eventually moved to St. Paul. Soon after her arrival, she opened a brothel on Cedar Street in the city’s lower town district. On April 23, 1887, she finalized the property sale for a new site in the city’s upper town district. The large parcel was below the bluffs of downtown. It was near the Mississippi River and a short walk down the hill from the St. Paul Police Department.
147 South Washington Street
In 1888 Clifford commissioned local architect Walter Ife to build the structure. Located at 147 Washington St., the completed complex cost $12,000. That price more than three times the cost of similar sized buildings. Constructed in the Washington Street Residential District, the large structure stood out among the other structures and shacks.
Initial building permits listed the intended use of the structure as a ‘dwelling house’ and ‘seminary.’ But with Clifford’s professional background since arriving in the city and several girls in the building shortly after its 1889 opening, the brothel’s intentions were crystal clear from the outset.
Despite its location so close to the police station, Clifford’s brothel became a ‘hot spot.’ At one point, her business was going so well that she had to keep two phones in the house. Interestingly, Clifford’s establishment’s public and private perceptions played out much like the other houses of ‘ill fame’ throughout the country.
Patrons who walked up the steps to the brothel’s front door were treated to a high-class experience lacking at the other local establishments. The multi-level structure made of carved brownstone blocks delivered an air of respectability that likely brought out politicians and members of high-society as clientele.
All that entered were welcomed inside by a beautiful crystal chandelier hanging from one of the many high ceilings. Plush carpeting covered the floors, and music was played continuously in a dance hall. Well dressed servants served drinks to waiting customers. It was a place with marble fireplaces and hand-painted porcelain plates — the best of the best.
Artifacts discovered in a 1997 archaeological dig showed a less than opulent life for those that lived the back of the house. The hand-painted plates in the front of the building were replaced with simple-looking dishes and flatware. Also, many medicine vials were found, leaving the impression that the life of a sex worker at Clifford’s brothel was vastly different from that of her clientele.
A girl could make more money in a night at Clifford’s than she could in a week or longer at a regular job. However, the physical and mental risks associated with working at the brothel likely made the life of the sex worker a difficult one.
The work was quietly accepted in the city, so much so that the brothel’s neighborhood became a ‘red light district’ of ‘boarding houses’ (at one point, an average of 6.2 people lived in each of the homes in the residential area). However, it was privately scorned, and the women involved — save for the proprietors, were often belittled in public.
Local police presence (or presents)
State law made prostitution illegal in Minnesota, but St. Paul authorities understood the benefit of allowing them to exist. The city’s brothel owners were forced to come to the police station every other month and pay a one hundred dollar fine to continue their business. Everyone from the newspapers on down recognized the fine as little more than a license fee.
St. Paul authorities had always tended to look the other way when it came to minor vices like alcohol and prostitution. While the growing Temperance Movement made it more difficult to look away from the ills of alcohol, prostitution remained a victimless crime in the eyes of the police. Also, some of the city’s leaders were customers.
The inequalities that her ‘boarders’ experienced did not extend to Clifford herself. She was bucking the understanding of the era that said that the only way women came into money was through their husbands’ death. The brothel owner was wealthy, and her intimate relationship with the city’s elite made her a powerful voice in local affairs. She was ‘the richest woman in the underworld.’
Clifford was known to accept diamonds as payment from down-on-their-luck customers. She removed the stones from their setting and placed them into a series of cigar boxes. The brothel owner then threw the evidence into the nearby Mississippi River to keep the former owners from being identified.
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 due to her generosity. She also chartered a car each Christmas and hand-delivered holiday baskets to those less fortunate.
Her public life was relatively non-existent until a 1914 trial for corruption that saw the imprisonment of the city’s Acting Chief of Police. Ida Dorsey, a madam from the neighboring city of Minneapolis, was moving her business next to Clifford’s. She paid money to Nina to enter the neighborhood as well as appease the local police.
At this point Clifford was considered a ‘former’ brothel owner, but this likely had more to do with the changing values of the city than an actual change in vocation. Local police could no longer publicly accept license fees from brothel houses, and prostitution — once a publicly accepted institution, was forced to move into the shadows.
In the end she testified against both men, who were each found guilty by a jury of their peers and the police chief was sentenced to prison. Clifford and fellow proprietor Mary Burke each emerged unscathed for their part in the crime.
Little is written about Clifford between the end of the trial and her death in 1929. It is said that her brothel closed after the trial, but there are conflicting reports on whether that was the case.
In early summer 1929 she traveled back to Detroit to spend what she considered to be her final days with family. According to her obituary, her wish was to be buried next to her husband at Mount Elliot Cemetery in the city. On July 14, 1929 she had a stroke and died. Her final wish was granted.
The legend of Nina Clifford continued
Her legend continued to flourish after her death, and the story of her passing brought out a number of rumors and tall tales:
- Immediately following her death, St. Paul pranksters contacted prominent men in the city to let them know that Clifford had requested they be a pall bearer at her funeral.
- Rumors persisted for some time that Clifford had kept a ‘black book’ filled with the names of the men that visited the brothel. Nothing ever came of it, but there were likely a number of nervous men of high status within the St. Paul city limits.
- There was a persistent belief that a tunnel had been dug between Clifford’s brothel and the nearby Minnesota Club, a social watering hole for men of high society. The 1997 archaeological dig proved that to be false.
- Finally, there was a belief that the brothel held untold riches. Clifford’s diamonds were relatively common knowledge, and residents believed that they remained in the building after her death. They were never found — and were probably long gone well before Nina’s death. The 1997 dig found knick-knacks of affluence, but nothing equating to any significant monetary value.
Her brothel and home were both razed in the 1930s to make room for a county morgue, only to be unearthed years later before the construction of the Minnesota Science Museum.
While the unsavory aspects of her story aren’t necessarily considered in the retelling of her tale, Clifford’s history continues to resonate with the people of St. Paul. Just like railroad magnate James J. Hill, she came from nothing to find success in the city. She found success on her own terms.
Nina Clifford’s brothel sat well below the Hill house on the revered Summit Ave., but her story — much like his — remains an important part of St. Paul history.
Bibliography available here.