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During the Civil War, the city was filled with soldiers and the brothels they kept busy. Afterward, civic leaders tried to reduce prostitution and the spread of disease by putting it under police supervision.

Borrowing ideas from Paris, the City Council adopted a "social evil ordinance" in March 1870. It required prostitutes and brothels to obtain operating licenses. Working girls had to submit to medical exams to screen for venereal disease.

To treat infected prostitutes, the city built the Social Evil Hospital at Arsenal Street and Sublette Avenue, near the domed St. Louis County mental asylum (part of which stands today). It opened on Sept. 26, 1872.

Many prostitutes, especially street walkers, never bothered to register, and the number of licenses fell by half during the second year of operation. Reformers, led by Unitarian Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot, protested that the ordinance didn't curb prostitution, gave police corrupting leverage and included no sanctions against men who patronized prostitutes.

The ancient trade had many faces. Girls from the city's poorest neighborhoods worked the streets roughly where America's Center is now. High-class bordellos operated openly, including Kate Clarke's boarding house at Sixth Street near Chestnut Street. Clarke reputedly had been the wife or mistress during the Civil War of William Quantrill, notorious Rebel bushwacker, who was killed in 1865.

The city formally ended its experiment in April 1874. The Social Evil Hospital became the Female Hospital, tending to venereal disease and unmarried expectant mothers.

The city demolished the building in 1914. The site is part of Sublette Park.