In an era when cheap prostitution was rife in San Francisco, Tessie Wall’s brothel in the then fashionable Tenderloin district was a beacon of elegance and good taste, making her the best known and most successful parlor-house madam in town.Teresa Susan Donohue was born south of Market Street of Irish Catholic parents in May 1869. A “flamboyant, well-upholstered blond” with blue eyes, she weighed 250 pounds, neither uncommon nor unpopular for a lady in her profession at the time. She was a ribald, hard drinker with a big heart and is alleged to have outdrunk boxer John L. Sullivan.
Her first husband, a fireman, died in the early nineties, leaving her to support herself and a young son. To make ends meet she entered the household of wealthy banker Judah Boas as a domestic servant, graduating to a dance hall girl.
In 1898 she opened her first brothel at 211 O’Farrell Street but this was destroyed by one of the many fires triggered by the earthquake of 1906. Undaunted she reopened it in a three storey brick building with terracotta facing at 337 O’Farrell Street. It was a grand affair with the first floor comprising a saloon whilst upstairs was a large, mirrored ballroom, dining room, kitchen, twelve bedrooms and several parlors.
She usually had between ten and fifteen girls, most under twenty years of age, on call at any one time, charging around $20 a “trick”. The brothel’s proceeds were doubled by the sale of liqour and champagne.
Clients were met at the back door by a black maid who ushered them into the parlor to meet Tessie. As he entered the main receiving room he would be confronted by a needlepoint motto that read “If every man was as true to his country as he is to his wife – God help the USA”.
Tessie would invariably call out “Company, girls!”, heralding the sedate entrance of several prostitutes. Whilst the client made up his mind he was expected to buy drinks for the company and put coins into an automatic music box. Tessie had strict rules on manners and bad language.
She astutely befriended many in the police department. Indeed, her fame and popularity were never better displayed than at the annual Policeman’s Ball held in the Civic Auditorium. Bejeweled and elegantly attired, she would hang on the arm of Mayor “Sunny” Jim Rolph before she made her grand entrance by planting herself at a table reserved for other ladies in her profession, slapping a $1,000 bill on the bar and exclaiming “Drink that up boys!”.
Although earning $5,000 a month, her penchant for horse racing, and antiques to furnish her establishment, prevented her from ever becoming rich.
The city’s brothels were closed in January 1917 on the orders of the Navy Department in an attempt to prevent sailors fighting in the war from enjoying themselves on leave.
She had married her second husband, gambler, pool hall owner and Republican boss of the Tenderloin‘s vice activity, Frank Daroux, in 1906, but after he had been unfaithful to her and sought a divorce, she shot him twice in 1917 because, she claimed, “I Loved Him, Damn Him”. However, she was released when he refused to press charges.
She retired to a small apartment in the Mission, which, unsurprisingly, became a speakeasy at Prohibition. She died in 1932, leaving many of her most prized antiques. The massive gold-plated Napoleon bed that Daroux had bought her in 1900 for $1,000 was sold at auction for just $105.
She once claimed that she would rather be a lamppost on Powell Street than own all of San Mateo County. Well, San Francisco does get you like that doesn’t it?