Today In Gay – June 1, 1899: NYC Tammany Hall Investigation Focus’ On Paresis Hall, “Fairy Sexual Degenerate” Hangout
In 1899 and 1900, a New York state special legislative committee was formed to investigate the corruption of Tammany Hall. The city’s Democratic bosses’ corruption notwithstanding, the Republican-led state investigation took on a decidedly partisan tone, with committee members taking every opportunity to portray New York City as a den of filth and degeneracy. Among those called to testify was Joel S. Harris, a police investigator, who told of the goings-on at Paresis Hall, a popular hangout for “sexual degenerates”:
I was with Mr. (John R. Wood, another investigator) last night at Paresis Hall, No 392 Bowery. I observed the actions of the persons congregated there. I saw and heard immoral actions and propositions by degenerates there. Captain Chapman came in about five minute to 1, as we stepped out. … We had been in the place about an hour or so; plenty of time for information to get from Paresis Hall to the stationhouse. Captain Chapman didn’t say anything to us, but I overheard him say to the proprietor … that he would not tand for any dancing on souvenir night, and he wanted it shut up. I have been in that place before, recently, three or four times, and I have on each occasion noticed the same conduct as I have just testified to. That is a well-known resort for male prostitutes; a place having a reputation far and wide, to the best of my knowledge. I have heard of it constantly. I have never had any trouble in going in. You go in off the street with perfect ease. These men that conduct themselves there — well, they act effeminately; most of them are painted and powdered; they are called Princess this and Lady So and So and the Duchess of Marlboro, and get up and sing as women, and dance; ape the female character; call each other sisters and take people out for immoral purposes. I have had these propositions made to me, and made repeatedly. There is not difficulty in getting into that place.
George P. Hammond, Jr., also testified:
I know this place called Paresis Hall, and under your directions I have visited it a number fo times. I have been in the place since April 1st to the present time fully half a dozen times. I knew of it before, as an officer of the City Vigilance League. I am in the produce business. When this committee began its sessions I took a vacation on the produce business and came in to help you. The character of the place is such that what we call male degenerates frequent the place, and it is a nightly occurrence that they solicit men for immoral purposes. They have one woman who goes there they call a hermaphrodite. These male degenerates solicit men at the tables, and I believe they get a commission on all drinks that are purchased there; they get checks. I have observed five or six of these degenerates frequent that place, possibly more; the last we were there we saw a greater number than we did previously. Those five or six are always to be found there; almost invariably you will find them there .hey go from there across the street to a place called Little Bucks, opposite, and from there to Coney Island. I have never had any difficulty in getting in; not the least; I have been received with open arms. There are two ways of going in, one way up through the barroom, the other through a side entrance; any way at all that suits you can walk in … They have a piano there, and these fairies or male degenerates, as you call them, they sing some songs.
Paresis Hall, located in the Bowery on 5th Street near Cooper Union was opened by James T. (‘Biff’) Ellison. Ellison (a gangster affiliated with the Five Points Gang, and then the Gopher Gang) apparently made no attempt to disguise his establishment as anything other than a ‘fairy resort”.
Paresis Hall much like bars of the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, functioned as an important social center, providing a sense of community and support. For a population crowded into tenements with no privacy available, saloons and halls like Paresis Hall were places where they could meet, socialize, organize, and ‘enjoy one another’s company.’ Many working class men and youths in the tenement districts met in places like this, where they could hold unsupervised gatherings, create informal social clubs, and even sponsor larger dances or balls. A few men of the Paresis Hall men organized a club called the Cercle Hermaphroditis, which permanently rented a room above the bar. At the time, laws against transvestsism, as well as the antagonism of other men, made dressing in women’s attire on the streets dangerous. Paresis Hall gave them a space where they could gather without fear, and store some of their personal things in a place more private than their living areas.