Vice in the Big City! San Antonio’s Sporting District

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Tony Maples Photography


Thanks to Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, many people are familiar with the Texas Chicken Ranch, a brothel in La Grange which ran from 1905 to 1973. Less familiar are the areas in major cities that revolved around the same type of business category. One example was found within a ten-block area of downtown San Antonio, and it was known as the Sporting District. The term sporting was a commonly used 19th-century euphemism for prostitution, as well as gambling.

The District was established by the city council in 1889 to regulate and contain the various vice industries. Overall, the area held brothels, saloons, dance halls, gambling parlors, and other vice-oriented trades. While activities were not officially condoned by the city, they were unofficially regulated. The Sporting District also held a multitude of legitimate businesses such as restaurants and hotels. The city’s hand in the area assisted with its tolerance and growth; by the early 20th century, the District was one of the largest in the United States.

Considered one of the most civilized, some brothels included ballrooms adorned with orchestras. A tourist guide was even published for visitors! The 1911-1912 edition lists 106 vice entertainment venues. Fannie Porter was a famous madam here, and she had proven ties to Butch Cassidy, as well as other figures of the Wild West. Additionally, San Antonio’s red-light district was not segregated by race. Despite the notion growing in practice, here African American men received equal attention as white men.

Vice in the Big City! San Antonio's Sporting District

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The city of San Antonio also benefitted, as Sporting District businesses brought in licensing fees totaling $50,000, which is $1.37 million in today’s terms. Each house was required to pay an annual fee of $500 and pass a health inspection. The profits came to an end, however, in 1941, when Dwight D. Eisenhower recommended a shutdown of the Sporting District while in command at Fort Sam Houston, and the police commissioner and mayor agreed. Today, all that remains are old maps and some buildings, repurposed for today.