WARNING: This article contains explicit language and subject matter that is not suitable for children. This is R-rated.
(Writer’s Note: This is the third in a series of stories that will concentrate on the organized-crime scene in and around Wheeling during the past century.)
Harlotry, Hustling, and Whoredom
Sometimes they’d wave at ya. You knew what they were. Sometimes I’d wave back. Just seemed polite even though they probably thought I was being a bratty kid making fun. Great hair, bright smile, and a giggly immaturity that had to be as obvious as the reason they were standing on the corner wearing a top-and-skirt combo that left little to the imagination.
The rumor was that they would go all the way for $40, or give you something different for $20, but that was in the 1980s, when I was in high school. And we were curious, too, because in those days the consensual “home run” wasn’t part of the game plan when we went on dates. Instead it was a movie, maybe Rax, Pizza Inn, or DiCarlo’s, and maybe even some parking up at Oglebay.
But some nights we ventured to Tony’s Pizza, a delicious eatery serving pie similar to DiCarlo’s but still different enough to provoke the occasional trek to South Wheeling. On those evenings, our travels always seemed to take us over the Main Street Bridge that connects the downtown district to Center Wheeling. At the time, decayed buildings stood rotting on both sides of the road, and nearby were the ladies who hung out around the My Club and Clover’s. Further down street were the market houses, and we could also cruise near the Pirates Cove disco and the back-alley Flossey’s before arriving at Tony’s for four with an inch-worth of extra cheese.
We heard you could see hookers on the streets of Center Wheeling, so we cruised them. We wanted to see what sex looked like, and we saw it. I think we wanted to be tempted, too, but at that time we didn’t care about why they were there. Some of us – at least I did – felt compassion for those women, wondering what path led them there, to that corner, waving away, just trying to get a trick.
The “My Club” was demolished, and so was the the last “Green Door” brothel in Wheeling; adult entertainment remains available.
What I didn’t realize, though, was the real reason for the solicitations. I’m told, in the “Crazy ’80s” and after, most hookers were hooked themselves. Cocaine was the most popular party favor beginning in the 1980s, and then later in the 1990s the abuse involved crack, pills, and heroin.
It wasn’t always that way, though. Seldom did the prostitutes of the Friendly City rely on drive-by traffic during the first seven decades of the 20th century, and while they may have been alcoholics then, it wasn’t often that a prostitute would need emergency care during an overdose incident. Instead such purchased pleasures took place in the back rooms of strip clubs or cooperating taverns, or in rooms within Mob-owned structures inside Wheeling’s unofficial “Red Light District.” Usually there was a bottle on the table, maybe some grass and rolling papers, but these sessions were about fornication first and foremost.
The history of prostitution in Wheeling really is true history, but it is never celebrated as such, despite the fact that many credit the profession for the city’s legendary “Wheeling Feeling” marketing slogan. Truth be told, the green-door dates and potential parking lot rendezvous were once as much an attraction to young folks from the tri-state region as were Jamboree USA and the race track on Wheeling Island to Canadian tourists. Downtown Wheeling was stoked with steak houses, theaters, and bars, and all of them were infiltrated by “organization.” It became normal. When most heard that “Wheeling Feeling” slogan, they immediately thought of hookers.
Former FBI special agent Tom Burgoyne explained federal investigators spent the majority of their time in Wheeling attempting to crack down on gambling and drug distribution, and allowed the local authorities to enforce state and municipal laws that covered prostitution. Burgoyne and his colleagues knew the illegal activities were taking place and often worked cooperatively with lawmen from Wheeling and Ohio County, but only because there existed a link between drugs and prostitutes.
“Beginning in the 1970s and then after, where those girls were, there were drugs because most of them were using, and the dealers were using those girls to sell,” Burgoyne said. “It was pills and cocaine, but then they got into the harder stuff for whatever reasons.
“It was rough back then, and it was no different for those women. I have no idea to this day how much of the money they actually got themselves, but it couldn’t have been that much,” he continued. “Once the drug dependency came into play, I’m sure most of their money went for their drugs.”
“Uncle Marion” is now this 70-some-year-old man with a gruff voice and a penchant for draft beer with the side of a saltshaker. He selected his own nickname for this story, and that’s because, while it’s not his real name, it is an alias that means much to him. As a member of the Paul Hankish family during the 1970s and ‘80s he described himself as the protection, the caregiver, the chauffeur, and the manager of several prostitutes. Do not suggest to him, though, that he was a pimp or a male-version Madame.
“Naw, that’s not what I was. Not in the least,” Uncle Marion said. “Not all the houses back then had a woman who looked after the girls, and those pimps were scumbags. Pimps don’t care about human beings. They only care about the money. It was true then, and it’s true today.
“Those sons-a-bitches hurt the girls themselves. They’d smack them around if they didn’t make enough money some nights, I guess, but they’d never hit them in the face because no one wanted a bruised-up hooker,” he continued. “And those idiots fed them those drugs so those girls didn’t even know what day it was let alone if they had their clothes on. I know that because some of them came to me and wanted to live with us because they wanted away from those stupid goofs.”
Centre Market is thriving today with several new businesses and many staple shops. This area, however, was classified as “seedy” by city government a decade ago.
Back in the 1970s, it was easy. Finding love-for-cash, Uncle Marion insists, was as basic as going to the right place any night of the week. You either knew or didn’t know, and if you didn’t, you asked and found out almost effortlessly. Those who wished to pay for in-person porn did so in bedrooms, backrooms, back seats, and even bathrooms. When you were with one of them, the clock was always ticking because time meant money. Anyone wishing for longer than the five or 10 minutes had to dish out more.
In our conversations, Uncle Marion referred to the brothels he managed as “stables” and to the women as, “broads.” “Old school” is how he defines himself; he’s retired now, and for whatever reasons he enjoys recollecting what he calls “the heyday.”
“They were whorehouses; that’s all they were. Guys came and went, if you know what I mean,” he said. “Those girls made their decisions to do what they wanted to do, and so did the ‘Johns.’ I mean, I’m not trying to be disrespectful or anything, but I know I didn’t make anyone do what they were doing. I just had to make sure the broads were where they were supposed to be, and to make sure they stayed alive.
“That shit seemed normal at the time, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but when I think about it these days and look around at how it is today, it’s amazing what we got away with,” he continued. “We ran those girls right in the face of the cops back then. And the drugs had to be obvious. I know it was to me.”
At times, Uncle Marion admitted he was forced to intervene during services inside rooms within his assigned brothel because of time constraints or unruliness. Initially he would knock on the door. If that hint was lost on the customer, he would enter the room.
“I never liked doing that. It always seemed rude, but there were guys who got aggressive sometimes with some weird shit, and if the girl didn’t agree to it, that’s where I had to step in. After a while, you know what sex sounds like, and you learn the girls and how they go about it,” he said. “There were times when the guy was having a hard time, but he just wanted her to keep trying for a lot longer than what was agreed upon. Those guys were never happy when I had to step in there, but if I did, it was all business.”
Uncle Marion repeated several times during our conversation that he made sure the ladies were, “OK.” Over and over. He shared a lot of stories, like the one time at a truck stop when two of the women disappeared, and he had to brandish his handgun to a few people before finally finding the females in a sleeper cab. When the prostitutes emerged, he could tell they were frightened, so Uncle Marion believes the trucker was trying to abduct them.
“That kind of shit happened sometimes; maybe not much around here, but we would hear about it from other areas. Some of those truck drivers were pretty f-ed up, and when they took the girls no one ever saw them alive again. Those assholes would rape them, kill them, and then dump them along the highway,” he said. “Taking care of those broads was a priority of mine. No one told me that, but I wanted to make sure they were OK,” he said. “They had shelter and food – all the girls’ stuff they needed, ya know? And when they needed to go to the hospital, I took them to the hospital.
“Sometimes those girls got dirty down there because of the scum they were doing. And other times the guy got rough and hurt them and they needed stitches or something. But I took them, and they didn’t have to pay anything. Never. That stuff was all taken care of by the family back then. I feel sorry for those girls now.”
According to “Uncle Marion,” the construction of W. Va. Route 2 erased several houses that once served as brothels.
Uncle Marion’s duties, though, were not limited to housesitting. There were often times when the prostitutes were “working locations” like those truck stops, and bars, and restaurants, too. They walked those lots and worked those crowds, and there were the occasions when gamblers would get in on the action during breaks from high-stakes card games staged in steak houses.
“That stuff kept me on my toes because some of those boys in those bars would get pretty messed up on whatever they were doing. I could tell because their eyes were usually spinning in their damn heads,” Uncle Marion explained. “It was difficult to keep track of three or four of the broads all at the same time. They were usually all going in different directions trying to drum up some business.
“I remember that those boys really didn’t like the rules, and some of those gamblers really thought they were some big shit, like they were untouchable or something. Let’s just say that didn’t always work out that good for them,” he said. “The rules were the rules. They followed the rules, then we had no problems. That changed when they didn’t follow the rules, though. I never cared who they were.”
Everyone wants to know how much the girls made.
“It was embarrassing to me what those girls got for what they did, but that wasn’t my decision. People higher up than me made those decisions. I just did my job, but that part of it always did make me feel bad. They didn’t even get half of what those guys paid to have their way with them,” Uncle Marion admitted. “I never understood that, but I didn’t ask any questions. I was quiet about stuff like that. I had my own bills to pay.
“They didn’t get what they deserved, but no one did; I know that now that it’s been so many years ago,” he said. “Some people were addicted to the sex or the drugs, and people like me got addicted to the money. I did what I did to survive. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Wheeling Police officers conducted raids on occasion, emptying establishments and houses where they believed the hookers lodged. When officers did apprehend a prostitute, the addresses the women offered law enforcement always led them to vacant lots. They wanted to be anonymous, and they were.
“Always,” confirmed Don Atkinson, a current Wheeling council member representing Ward Five and a long-time employee at Ace Garage. “I had to work some of those raids with Wheeling PD because they usually needed at least one tow when it was all said and done. And every single time they arrested one of the girls, their address came up as a vacant lot.
“It was amazing how all of those people scattered so quickly after the very first person yelled, ‘RAID!!’ Those people went in every single direction possible, and if it was a brothel, there were sometimes as many as 40-some people inside,” he continued. “The officers would be lucky to grab maybe half of them, and the others would just vanish into the streets. Poof and they were gone.”
Robert Delbrugge, a 25-plus-year veteran of the Wheeling Police Department, patrolled the Center and South Wheeling neighborhoods often enough to investigate alleged activities and make the resulting arrests. During the day these sections of town were bustling industrial areas, but at night the nature of these neighborhoods darkened with nightfall.
Wheeling Downs, now known as the Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack, has been a popular “working space” for prostitutes for more than 60 years.
“Those areas of Wheeling were known for what took place down there, and that was a lot of partying and all the other stuff involving prostitution and drugs,” Delbrugge said. “I know we made a lot arrests in that area for a lot of different reasons, but in those days it was difficult to prove that prostitution was taking place because most of the time it was behind closed doors. They were very good at keeping that staff out of sight.
“I don’t think anyone looked the other way back then like a lot of people want to believe these days. I know I didn’t,” he added. “They hear all these stories, and most of them are true. But so many people hear them and immediately think the police had to just let it all happen. But that wasn’t true at all. At least no one said a word to me about it. I did my job and then went home to my family, and there were some nights when I was real happy to get home.”
And then there were the times when people got whacked over prostitution, and Burgoyne shared his memories from a murder case he investigated involving a Madame known as “Carla” who had history in Wheeling. Once she decided to cooperate with authorities, she moved away to Stark County in Ohio.
“Hankish was afraid we had got to her and that she was going to talk to us about everything else he was up to,” Burgoyne said. “This woman who was murdered in Canton, Ohio, was a Madame here in Wheeling for a number of years, so she knew a lot about a lot. She knew how everything worked.
“But when the coroner’s report was released, the cause of death as suicide, so we knew after everything we had heard that the medical examiner had to be on the take. That happened a lot back in those days,” he said. “We had to exhume her, and when we did, the examination proved what we had learned. She was murdered. Her neck was broken just like we thought. She was silenced.”
It wasn’t the murders, or the raids, the jail time, or the herpes that led Uncle Marion to the decision to make his escape from prostitution. He left his “management” position several years before Hankish was convicted, so for him, anyway, it was morality that finally guided him away from the racket.
Just over the Main Street Bridge was located the “Land of Opportunity” for those seeking love with an immediate price tag.
“Listen, when I started in that business the girls drank for sure, but then the coke, the acid, and the pills come into it, and those things changed everything,” Uncle Marion said. “It was the guys those broads were hooking up with that first brought the drugs into it. Those assholes were trying to get the girls more f-ed up so they’d do stuff for free.
“I used to ask those broads how high they had to be, for Christ’s sake,” he said. “Some of them would look right at me after I asked them that, and they would say, ‘High enough not to feel.’
“That ate at me so much I had to go. It made me think about what I was doing. I knew I couldn’t watch that anymore and thank God I did quit because I only saw it get worse after Paul went to prison.”