First courtesans in Buenos Aires in the 19th century
In 1870 and following years, the importation of European women destined for Buenos Aires brothels intensified.
At that time, certain areas of the city of Buenos Aires, which today are absolutely central, were remote and dangerous suburbs. Because what used to be the corner of Temple (Víamonte) and Suipacha, used to become, on rainy days, an impassable river barrier since the passage of carts caused a difference of more than half a meter between the street and the sidewalk and that, in addition, the old channel of the Tercero del Medio ran through it, one of the streams of the city that flowed into the nearby coast of the river, in 1867 the residents raised a note to the Municipality asking for the installation of a swing bridge , similar to the one installed in Esmeralda crossing Córdoba. The cost was 6,000 pesos and the urgency they had was so great that they promised to collaborate with 4,000.
Once installed and since there were more than a dozen houses of prostitution within a hundred meters, the bridge began to be popularly known as the "Bridge of Sighs".
The city of Buenos Aires was an important center of this ancient trade, known in the main countries of Europe, where its officiants came from, to stay in the city or spread throughout its territory or in neighboring countries. It was a fact that no government ignored or could effectively regulate.
The buying and selling of European women for their exploitation in the brothels of Buenos Aires, clandestine trafficking and the arrival of these young women who, conscious or not of their future, were seduced with the certain promise of living in one of the most prosperous cities. of those days, it was for many an inexhaustible source of economic income.
By the mid-1870s, Buenos Aires was a bustling city with some 200,000 inhabitants. Until then, prostitution had been considered a minor problem.
The authority exercised its power in a discretionary manner, and any woman suspected of a licentious life could be imprisoned or sent to the border to serve the needs of the troops.
The growing immigration, and the large number of single foreigners who arrived in the city, made it essential to search for a means of social control that at the same time contained the development of venereal diseases.
For this reason, on January 5, 1875, the regulatory ordinance on prostitution was issued.
The casinos and sweet shops where prostitution was practiced, which up to that moment had operated by the authorization of the municipal president, had to be registered or they would be closed.
The registry included an annual patent of 10,000 pesos m/c per establishment and 100 pesos m/c for each prostitute. Many chose to go underground.
The new houses of tolerance had to be less than two blocks from temples, theaters or schools (art. 5).
Be run exclusively by women (art. 3).
These regents had to keep a book in which the personal data of the women who worked in the house were recorded (article 13).
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, a doctor would inspect all the prostitutes, noting the results in the book and sending a part of them to the Municipality. If the prostitute fell ill with syphilis, she had to be cared for in the house at the expense of the regent, and only in advanced cases were they referred to the hospital (articles 15, 17 and 18).
This differentiation between the stages of development of the disease and the scope of treatment caused many women to continue working even when sick. With reckless haste, women who had been diagnosed with venereal ulcerations the previous month were discharged as cured.
Others, like Juana Harr or Ida Bartac, were unable to offer their services since they were listed as venereal patients both in the books and in the medical reports.
This did not prevent the former from continuing to prostitute herself until she became pregnant five months after her illness was diagnosed, and the latter from doing the same, but after appearing eighteen consecutive months as a syphilitic patient.
The regulation, which suffered from many defects and in most cases was not respected, continued to order that prostitutes must be over 18 years of age, unless they proved that they had given themselves up to prostitution before that age (art. 9). This article was in conflict with the Civil Code, which gave the age of majority at 22 years.
The inconsistency went so far as to allow them to engage in sexual commerce, but denied them the possibility of marrying without parental consent.
White slave dealers (they were called that because of the color of their skin) and authorized houses were the biggest beneficiaries, since almost all of the pupils who entered were minors. They could not be displayed on the street door, or on windows, or on balconies. They had to meet at the house two hours after sunset, and take a photograph with their information and those of the tolerance house where they worked (art. 10). These women were the ones who had to carry the greatest repressive burden on their freedoms.
The regulation, which facilitated and proposed their registration in the prostitution registers, prevented them from leaving the brothel and the trade with the same ease. According to article 12: "Prostitutes who stop belonging to a house of prostitution will remain under police surveillance as long as they do not change their lifestyle...".
If they had escaped from their confinement, it would have been very difficult for them to dedicate themselves to another trade, since to the persecution by the police it was necessary to add that "everyone who knowingly admits into their private home or business as a tenant, guest, servant or worker, any woman who engages in prostitution, shall pay a fine of 1,000 $ m/o. Those who allow a prostitute to continue in their home three days after being warned by the authority will be considered knowledgeable (art. 24).
This fact, added to the high patents and medical controls, caused the Argentine, Spanish and Italian women, who until then had worked in the city's brothels, to prefer to continue their work clandestinely in bars, cigarette stores and inns and that foreigners from non-Latin countries, prostitutes or not in their homeland, but more naive, unaware of the laws and the language, were taken to the houses of tolerance.
By 1876 there were 35 authorized brothels, in which 200 women worked. Most of these were located in the San Nicolás neighborhood, and some were set up with great luxury, having a bar, meeting rooms, and musicians to animate the dances.
Around the same time, a campaign of denunciations began that criticized the Municipality for allowing the opening of these houses in the central streets, and in the same way pointed out the traffickers and the way in which they operated in Europe.
The previous year (1875) another requested one had been published, with a very similar wording, signed by the owner of the house at 509 Corrientes Street. the life of the neighborhood, and communicated that, due to the continuous scandals that occurred there, he was forced to abandon his property to save his family from such a disastrous influence.»
It is precisely in this house at 506 Corrientes (currently 1283) where months later one of the most famous brothels would settle, either because of the luxury and quality of its women or because of the brutal treatment that was given to them.
Others requested that were published with harsher terms and with an anti-Semitic tone, once again sought to arouse the reproach of society.
Likewise, the intervention of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the pastor of the German Reformed Church, and the consular authorities were requested to put an end to this immoral trade. Together, requests began to appear asking for the closure of cafes, casinos and other places where clandestine prostitution was practiced.
In a short time, a war of denunciations was generated that made it clear that it was a duel of interests between conflicting groups that were added, perhaps deceived in their good faith, by some honest citizens.
In an extensive request, loaded with information, it was documented how a trafficker (Jacobo Hónig) invested 600,000 pesos m/c to set up two new brothels, one at Corrientes 506 and another at Temple 356 altos.
Other facilities were also denounced at Libertad 309, Corrientes 509 and Temple 368, properties of Ana Goldemberg, Carlos Rock and Herman Gerber, respectively.
From another request we know that "in June 1875 Adolph Honing (sic,) domiciled at 506 Corrientes Street, brought 18 deceived young women from Europe whom he exploited in his work, which after six months he sold to one of them, named JB, to a certain Isidoro Wolf, resident in Montevideo, in the. sum of 17,000 $.
In December of the same year, Adolph Weismann deceived seven women, four Hungarians and three Germans, by telling them they were going to Milan and directed them to Marseilles, from where he shipped them to Montevideo.
There they were expected by Adolph Honing, who bought the four most beautiful. The rest were bought in Buenos Aires by Herman Gerber. It is estimated that the sale of the women earned the broker 150,000$ m/c.
Gerber himself, residing at 368 Temple Street, had brought 12 women in June 1875. Two had been sold to another Rosario merchant.
Another, called NW, after five and a half months of staying at Gerber's house, was sold to Isidoro Wolf for 14,000 pesos, and after two months he resold it for 18,000 to Carlos Rock, domiciled at Corrientes 509.
As a result of the treatment she received, NW fled from the house, accompanied by another woman, jumping off the roof. After this, the roof was surrounded by an iron fence.
Some of these women escaped from their confinement went to the Austro-Hungarian consulate to file their complaints, but it expressed its inability to intervene.
Since civil marriage did not yet exist, in many cases a religious marriage was forged between the exploited and her exploiter, who put her to work for himself or sold her to another ruffian.
In this way, the woman was prevented from claiming the consular authorities of her country, given that when she married a foreigner she lost her nationality rights.
The conditions in which these women lived were certainly inhumane. They were bought and sold at the whim of their exploiters.
Upon arrival, they were made to sign a contract in which they agreed to pay for the trip, clothing, food, room and everything they received.
The prices they had to pay were five or ten times the real value, and the debts they always had with the house were used as another retention instrument.
They remained locked up all day, and if they went out for a walk one afternoon a month, it was under the supervision of the manager or a supervisor.
If any of them refused to accept these conditions, they were punished or sold to another lower quality brothel in the interior of the country.
Coming from peasant families, -subjected to vassalage and sexual customs that in some cases included premarital relations and pregnancies as a sign of fertility- it is possible that they have accepted the sexual commerce as one more stage of their previously unfortunate experience.
Clandestine prostitutes, who worked for a ruffian, suffered a similar exploitation, with the aggravating circumstance that the sanitary conditions were more deplorable and the clientele, less select, much larger.
In 1878, El Puente de los Suspiros made its appearance, a newspaper whose declared objective was to end the houses where prostitution was practiced clandestinely or authorized. He spared no criticism of municipal corruption, nor of the way in which the ruffians managed to evade police action.
However, in its first issue of March 28, 1878, several casino owners, closed by the Municipality for considering them premises where clandestine prostitution was practiced, asked the police chief to revoke the order and deny the Municipality the assistance of the public force.
Also, in a column that appeared the same day, the arrival of 12 new European women was mentioned. “Consigned to Pepa la Chata, Libertad 276 and Cármen la Gallega from Temple, a dozen white slaves uglier than Doctor Agrelo himself who has the face of a poorly embalmed plover have arrived led by the Savoie. Pepa has five of them, mounted in the air, that is, mounted on heels longer than the fingernails of certain municipal employees, and except for one that isn't pretty at all, the poor things are horrible. Carmen has seven, and I'm not telling you anything about the ugliness of those wretches, because it would be a matter of running away.”
These concepts seemed to want to scare away potential customers from these establishments rather than fight against prostitution. The four-sheet edition came to appear twice a week. There, the police action and the work of the Municipality were criticized. But what spread the most were the adventures of a group of pimps who had arrived in the city a few years before.
The Municipality considered it an immoral product, written by other ruffians who competed with the former. The attempts to censor it were delayed and those responsible for the edition presented complaints to the Supreme Court of Justice of the Province.
Published in Spanish, it was accompanied by a column in German where women were urged to abandon their ruffians and seek help in the newsroom. Shortly after, two girls escape from the House of Tolerance of Corrientes 509 (current 1283). Gabriela Kirch, a 23-year-old German, and Elena Bezembajer, of a similar age, were able to flee by jumping with sheets from the terrace. In the next issue they publish a letter encouraging other women to do the same. (The facts are certified by the municipal doctor and by the section 5 commissioner).
Other numbers included drawings and the life and work of the 5 or 6 Jews who up to that moment have been engaged in the white slave trade in the city.
Although the biographies were true and did not skimp on details, for the morality of the time, the dissemination of these stories implied a greater scandal than the very existence of the denounced facts.
Finally, the Supreme Court ruled that, within its powers, the Municipality could prohibit the sale or appearance of obscene writings or drawings, in a few months it was prohibited, and its entire campaign was disrupted. The last issue of the Bridge of Sighs was published on June 17, 1878.
More than 50 years and thousands of crimes will pass before the authorities investigate and punish this new form of slavery.
Source: Todo Es Historia Magazine No. 342 Year 1996 – Part of a note by: José Luis Scarsi