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#LGBTHerstory: NYC’s Paresis Hall Shows Up in “The Alienist” & Was a Turn-of-the-Century “Fairy Resort”

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Posed photo of Paresis Hall boys

‘Biff’ Ellison was homosexual in “The Alienist”. Whether he was in real life or not, the nature of his establishment, Paresis Hall, was no secret

Are you watching the new series, The Alienist? I read the book 25 years ago and I loved it but I must say, some of the details escaped me.

Episode one of the series begins as the book does, with a gruesome discovery of a boy, mutilated, wearing girls clothing. This young boy was evidently a prostitute and would hang out a a real-life turn of the century place in New York City, Paresis Hall. It was a popular hangout for those described as “sexual degenerates”. Male prostitutes there, acted much as female prostitutes did at other establishments: working the tables, soliciting the men sitting at them, and getting a commission on all the drinks sold. According to one officer, they acted in an ‘effeminate’ manner, painting and powdering their faces, and calling each other by feminine names…

“Princess this and Lady So and So and the Duchess of Marlboro…”

According to Back2Stonewall, Joel S. Harris, a police investigator at the time told of Paresis…

I was with Mr. (John R. Wood, another investigator) last night at Paresis Hall, No 392 Bowery. I observed the actions of the persons congregated there. I saw and heard immoral actions and propositions by degenerates there. Captain Chapman came in about five minute to 1, as we stepped out. … We had been in the place about an hour or so; plenty of time for information to get from Paresis Hall to the stationhouse. Captain Chapman didn’t say anything to us, but I overheard him say to the proprietor … that he would not tand for any dancing on souvenir night, and he wanted it shut up. I have been in that place before, recently, three or four times, and I have on each occasion noticed the same conduct as I have just testified to. That is a well-known resort for male prostitutes; a place having a reputation far and wide, to the best of my knowledge. I have heard of it constantly. I have never had any trouble in going in. You go in off the street with perfect ease. These men that conduct themselves there — well, they act effeminately; most of them are painted and powdered; they are called Princess this and Lady So and So and the Duchess of Marlboro, and get up and sing as women, and dance; ape the female character; call each other sisters and take people out for immoral purposes. I have had these propositions made to me, and made repeatedly. There is not difficulty in getting into that place.

Paresis Hall was located off the Bowery on 5th Street near Cooper Union. According to Back2Stonewall, it was opened by James T. (‘Biff’) Ellison, a gangster affiliated with the Five Points Gang (remember Gangs of New York?) Ellison no attempt to disguise his establishment as anything other than a “fairy resort.”

George P. Hammond, Jr., also testified:

I know this place called Paresis Hall, and under your directions I have visited it a number fo times. I have been in the place since April 1st to the present time fully half a dozen times. I knew of it before, as an officer of the City Vigilance League. I am in the produce business. When this committee began its sessions I took a vacation on the produce business and came in to help you. The character of the place is such that what we call male degenerates frequent the place, and it is a nightly occurrence that they solicit men for immoral purposes. They have one woman who goes there they call a hermaphrodite. These male degenerates solicit men at the tables, and I believe they get a commission on all drinks that are purchased there; they get checks. I have observed five or six of these degenerates frequent that place, possibly more; the last we were there we saw a greater number than we did previously. Those five or six are always to be found there; almost invariably you will find them there .hey go from there across the street to a place called Little Bucks, opposite, and from there to Coney Island. I have never had any difficulty in getting in; not the least; I have been received with open arms. There are two ways of going in, one way up through the barroom, the other through a side entrance; any way at all that suits you can walk in … They have a piano there, and these fairies or male degenerates, as you call them, they sing some songs.

Paresis Hall, much like the later bars of the ’50s, ’60s & ’70s, was an important social center. For a population that was crammed into tenements, bars and salons like Paresis Hall were places where they could meet, socialize, organize. Working class men met in places like this and a few men of the Paresis Hall men organized a club called the Cercle Hermaphroditis, which had a room above the bar. At the time, laws against transvestism, as well as the antagonism of other men, made dressing in women’s attire on the streets dangerous. Paresis Hall gave them a space where they could gather without fear.

The hall also served as an entry point into a much larger ‘gay world,’ where men just beginning to identify as ‘fairies’ could learn subcultural styles, and ways of speaking and behaving. They could exchange information about developments affecting them, from news of police raids to upcoming balls or social events. Here, they could build and express solidarity, and provide the kind of emotional support needed to reject the views of a largely hostile world beyond Paresis Hall.

(via Back2Stonewall)


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