Tremont Street: Lusty, boozy, bloody

By Joe Stumpe

  If you look at a map of Wichita today, you won’t find Tremont Street. In its time, though, it was one of the city’s best-known thoroughfares. 

Indeed, Tremont was notorious across the Southwest for commercialized vice – prostitution, liquor and gambling – plus the usual array of felonies and misdemeanors associated with those pursuits.

Along “The Row,” as the liveliest section of Tremont was called, working girls sat in front rooms with curtains pulled open, lazily puffing on cigarettes while clad in kimonos, pantaloons or other scandalous attire. 

The better class of brothels – the so-called resorts – featured a piano player and well-stocked bar in addition to the main attraction. Other houses were little more than shanties.

 City officials regularly pledged to clean up Tremont. But just as many were willing to look the other way or even take a cut of the action, which explains why Tremont enjoyed a long, lusty, boozy, bloody run. 

Tremont Street sat where South St. Francis Street is located today. The Row started a block or two south of Douglas, about where Intrust Bank Arena now stands. 

The Street’s working girls approached life with a mix of bravado and bad judgment. 

Maggie Plymell was latching the screen door of her brothel at 219 Tremont against an unwanted visitor one night in 1909 when the man suddenly pulled out a revolver and fired, sending two .44-caliber bullets through her dress skirt.

“I did not care for the dress skirt for it was an old one,” Plymell told a newspaperman afterward, “but if he had shot holes through the new petticoat I had on, I think I should have had him arrested.” 

Some gave in to despair, usually after reversals in love. Millie Light, a pretty 22-year-old, died after drinking carbolic acid at 301 Tremont in 1906. 

“Dear Sweetheart,” she wrote in a farewell note. “I know that in death you will forgive me. No girl will ever love you as I have. Goodbye forever. Millie.” 

The crime that brought the most attention to Tremont was the shooting of William Flynn.

Flynn, in his early 30s, was a tall, good-looking gambler and former racehorse owner. The man who shot him, Ralph Bain, ran the Santa Fe Hotel, which sat across the railroad tracks from the terminal of the same name. 

One evening in September 1903, the two spent several hours drinking and gambling at the Royal Saloon on West Douglas, which ostensibly operated as a restaurant. 

Flynn and Bain took a carriage to Inez Miller’s brothel on Tremont. As they were drinking with some of Miller’s girls, Bain took out his gun, a .44-caliber Colt revolver, and shot Flynn. 

Bain’s trial shined a light on a side of Wichita that many residents probably didn’t know existed. 

While sequestered in a nearby courtroom, witnesses from Tremont were reported to have conducted a “burlesque” trial of their own, complete with a pimp as judge, prostitutes serving as jury and a willing county official as defendant.

Jurors deliberated 26 hours before acquitting Bain. 

The first real change in Tremont Street’s character came in 1908, when the Santa Fe Railroad bought six blocks on the east side of the street to use for a new freight depot, sheds and yards. Properties from William Street south to the Wichita & Western railroad tracks were cleared. 

There had always been a few factories, warehouses and retail stores there. Gradually, more and more legitimate businesses replaced the brothels. 

In 1917, The Wichita Eagle reported that Tremont was “gone forever.” Time had “tinged Tremont Street with romance… But even the good old days have to go. Tremont Street had to go.”   

This chapter was condensed from the book “Wicked Wichita.” It will be available at independent and chain bookstores, Amazon and arcadiapublishing.com on Oct. 8. Recommended retail price is $23.99.

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