Sonora Once Had a Seamier Side

Like many Gold Rush communities, Sonora was known for its seamier side as well as for a more civilized society. Prostitution was practiced somewhat openly from the city’s founding until the 1950s when the federal government instructed the city fathers either to clean up the town or the federal government would.

The first official reference we have of the city trying to control prostitution, but not abolish it, was when the City Trustees passed Ordinance Number 12, on August 17, 1853.

  • Section 1. That all houses of ill-fame, within the limits of this City, shall either keep their front doors closed, or have good and sufficient blinds or screens in front thereof, to hide anything transpiring within from the view of persons passing on the street.

  • Section 2. Any keeper or keepers of said house, failing to comply with the first section of this ordinance shall upon conviction before the Recorder, be fined in a sum not less than Fifty Dollars.

Because prostitution was quite open in Sonora’s early years, many residents remembered the “girls.” Bemis Fitch Grant’s family owned the City Hotel at the corner of Washington and Theall Streets. Her maternal grandmother, Rebecca Lick, owned a candy store next to the hotel. In the early 1900s, Bemis remembered the prostitutes buying candy at her grandmother’s store, and then renting a room in the City Hotel for a few days to rest up.