Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Craft: Research, Research: Iowa History

Des Moines Redlight District (1937)

Official Map and Guide of Des Moines. Midland Map and Engineering Company, 1920, Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, Inc.

The Des Moines River in 1937 divided its namesake city into halves. White collar businesses and the wealthy resided on the west. The state Capitol and manufacturing occurred on the east (see Des Moines redlining map for a better look). Vice, mainly prostitution, centered in the city’s industrial hubs such as breweries, meatpacking, and railroads.

White Chapel District:

The district of slum houses along Elm St to Fourth St & Pelton Avenue near the Racoon River, was named after the vice area of London. Saloons and breweries kept the bordellos busy. The area was home to Des Moines’ most famous madam,  Jeanette Allen who was often referred as the “queen of Pelton Avenue”. Rumor had it she moved to Alaska once the red light district closed to make way for the Burlington Railroad switch tracks.

Police enforcement of prostitution was lax. A john arriving in the city could instruct their cab driver their desire for a prostitute and arrive at a bordello’s door. Unbeknownst to the john, the cab driver received a cut of what the john handed over to the house. Hotels such as Fort Des Moines or the Chamberlain did not allow prostitution. However, there were ways around the rules. A john could rent a room and the woman come up later or use the back entrance. Some hotels were stricter and had inhouse detectives to keep out vice.

White Chapel District, Des Moines, Iowa, c. 1930. Courtesy of Des Moines Register.

Black and Tan District:

If one was brave enough, one could venture out alone in search of vice. By 1937 the old White Chapel District had been razed. Vice moved north of city hall, east of the police station, and half a mile from the Capitol. The neighborhood was rank and noisy from the near constant railroad activity and the meatpacking plants. Most prostitution occurred in derelict homes on East Des Moines Street from East 2nd to East 5th. There, prostitutes solicited customers by sitting on front porches or tapping on windows to get their customers’ attentions.

The statistics for V.D. rose to such an alarming rate, the State Health Inspector requested the aid of the American Social Hygiene Association with the hope of getting the infection rates of syphilis and gonorhea below the 6,834 reported cases in the city.


  • Behind the Badge: Stories and Pictures from the DMPD. Des Moines, Iowa: Des Moines Burial Association, 1999.
  • Churchill, G. W. “City Moves to Wreck Grim Reminder of Old Red Lights.” The Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 14 Oct. 1928, p. 13.
  • City Map of Des Moines, Iowa. Des Moines, Iowa: American Lithographing and Printing Co., 1931.
  • “Gone Is White Chapel District But Old Signs Recall ‘Glorious’ Days.” The Des Moines Tribune-Capital. Des Moines, Iowa: 21 Aug. 1929, p. 13.
  • Landeck, Kendyl. “The Legacy of Redlining and Segregation on Des Moines, Iowa.” 01 January 2019. Iowa State University Digital Repository. Accessed: 19 December 2021.
  • Mills, George. Looking in Windows: Surprising Stories of Old Des Moines. Ames, Iowa: Iowa University Press, 1991.
  • “Passing of Old White Chapel District Recalls Palmy Days of Late Nineties.” The Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 31 Oct. 1931, pp. 1, 11.
  • “Old White Chapel District Being Leveled.” Des Moines Tribune-Capital, Des Moines, Iowa: 30 Oct. 1931, p. 1.
  • Redlining Map.” Redlining Des Moines. 2020. Accessed: 19 December 2021.
  • “Signals ‘War’ on Vice and Disease Here.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 05 September 1937, Section 6, 1, 4.
  • “White Chapel Homes Defended in Council.” Des Moines Tribune-Capital. Des Moines, Iowa: 18 Oct. 1928, 1.
  • “White Chapel Faces Destruction.” The Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 16 Oct. 1928, p. 10.

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