A small classified ad appeared in the back pages of The Pittsburgh Press on Feb. 14, 1903. “Lost — A French poodle from 11 West Canal St.,” it read. “Had shaggy hair partly shaved off on back. Liberal reward given if returned at once.”
For those in the know, the ad certainly raised eyebrows. The Canal Street address in what was then Allegheny City was notorious as a den of vice, and the woman who placed the ad was none other than Nettie Gordon, then 28 and well on her way to becoming queen of Pittsburgh’s underworld. Nettie’s army of friends had no doubt already mobilized to find her beloved poodle.
Nettie came to Pittsburgh from tiny Frankfort, W.Va., sometime around 1900 and found work as a waitress, a profession too limiting for her ambition. Another business called, one that dominated entire blocks of Downtown and the North Side, one that offered real money to the bold and bright.
So Nettie Gordon, daughter of a carpenter, became one of Pittsburgh’s estimated 5,000 prostitutes. And, boy, did the city offer opportunity. In the early 1900s, so-called “bawdy houses” lined First, Second and Third avenues, from Ross Street to the Monongahela River. In the Lower Hill, bordellos clustered around Colwell Street. But the biggest section of the metropolitan area given over to prostitution was a 20-block section the lower North Side. That’s where Nettie set up shop.
Reporters described Nettie as tall and attractive. We’ll have to take their word for it. Nettie hated to be photographed. Newspapers published hundreds of stories about her, but they never obtained a decent photograph of the woman they called a “keeper of a disorderly house.” Photographers made a few futile attempts — as you can see in the pictures accompanying this post, Nettie proved adept at shielding her face from the camera.
Reform-minded journalists like the PG’s Ray Sprigle tried shaming Nettie in print, but she remained an unrepentant master of the craft of running an illegal business in a crooked city. And Pittsburgh in the 1920s was certainly crooked. At one time Nettie ran three houses, each paying $1,100 a month for protection from police raids. Civic-minded politicians attempting to shut her down were thwarted by Nettie’s deep bench of powerful friends. After a warrant was issued for her arrest in 1926, police declined to send her to court in a police wagon; they instead allowed her to make the trip in her chauffeured limousine.
Police sometimes performed unusual roles for Nettie. The PG observed in 1926 that an officer named John Haseman (badge no. 1269) sat on Nettie’s Canal Street stoop and puffed a cigar while laughing and chatting with Nettie. When a client drove up in an expensive car, officer Haseman served as greeter. “He’s one of my coppers,” Nettie said to a visitor.
Of course, Nettie’s skills and ambition soon led her into politics. She served several terms as a Republican ward committeewoman with a reputation for delivering votes from from the populous 22nd Ward.
By 1934, Nettie’s health had failed. As she lay on her deathbed, she asked a nurse to fold up her silk negligees and put them away. Nettie would die wearing a cheap flannel nightgown.
Hundreds of people packed the street outside Nettie’s North Avenue home for the funeral. It was a noisy, curious crowd that included school kids, old men, wise-cracking toughs and mothers with infants.
Inside the home and behind closed blinds, a Lutheran priest delivered the Lord’s Prayer over Nettie’s body, clothed in an orchid gown and resting in a $4,000 casket. Pittsburgh’s motorcycle police sent a wreath (Nettie’s brother was a member of the squad). Those invited were mostly elderly women, many wearing furs. They dabbed their eyes and listened while two vocalists sang Nettie’s favorite hymns over the wailing of a baby in a nearby apartment. A telephone rang, then a large electric refrigerator rattled and hummed. Peace was hard to come by on the North Side.
Photographers attending the burial service at Union Dale Cemetery in hopes of snapping a picture of the casket were disappointed — a 150-long canopy blocked the view. Nettie claimed one final victory over the camera.