Minnesota Then

Clifford, Nina (1851 - 1929)

Nina Clifford's Washington St. brothel.

Nina Clifford’s brothel at 147 South Washington Street MNopedia

Nina (NINE-ah) Clifford’s story began to unfold years before arriving in St. Paul. But it was within the city limits where she truly rose to prominence, not only becoming an acclaimed madam but one of St. Paul’s most prominent residents.

She was born Johanna Crow on August 3, 1851, in Chatham, Ontario (Canada), to Irish Canadian parents Patrick and Ann Crow. The family emigrated to the United States when Johanna was nine, settling in Detroit, Michigan. Years later, she married Conrad Steinbrecher, but was widowed in March 1886. She cared for her mother until her passing and soon after relocated to St. Paul.

Crow adopted the name Nina Clifford while in the city. On April 23, 1887, she completed the purchase of two lots “under the hill” on Washington Street. The parcels were located in the Washington Red Light District, directly below the police department and near the Mississippi River.

In 1888, she hired architect Walter Ife to design a building on the land. The completed structure became her brothel. Located at 147 S. Washington St., it cost twelve thousand dollars—more than three times that of similar-sized buildings. The finished structure stood out among the residential district's small homes and shacks. Clifford lived next door at 145 S. Washington.

Patrons who climbed the stairs to the brothel's front door were treated to a high-class experience similar establishments lacked. The multi-level, carved brownstone building delivered an immediate air of respectability other establishments lacked. In fact, Clifford's business was so popular that she needed to maintain two phones.

Those who entered were greeted by a crystal chandelier hanging from one of the brothel's many high ceilings. Plush carpeting covered the floors, and music played continuously in the dance hall. Well-dressed servants offered drinks to waiting customers. It had marble fireplaces, and food was served on hand-painted porcelain plates.

Despite a quiet acceptance of brothels in St. Paul, a glaring hypocrisy existed. While establishments like Clifford's operated openly, tolerance didn't extend to the women who worked there. These sex workers faced public scorn and belittlement.

In stark contrast, Clifford herself flourished, becoming a wealthy businesswoman. She defied the era's belief that women could only acquire wealth through their husbands' deaths. Her brothel's success and her close relationships with the city's elite made her a powerful voice in local affairs.

She had a softer side and a willingness to give generously to those who had less than her. Clifford anonymously gave hundreds of donations to local churches and charities. Many children who may not have received a formal education did so because of her generosity. She chartered a car each Christmas and hand-delivered holiday baskets to those less fortunate.

By 1895, Clifford’s business was thriving. She operated the largest brothel in the district, employing eleven women as sex workers. At the end of the decade, at least six other addresses on Washington Street were operating as brothels. This growth in commercial vice corresponded with a rise in the neighborhood’s population density, with an average occupancy of 6.2 residents per address.

St. Paul's long-running knack of indifference to criminality (for the right price) helped keep Clifford in business. While prostitution was not legal in Minnesota, city officials understood its financial benefits. Local brothel owners came to the police station every month and paid a fine. Everyone knew it was little more than an unofficial license fee.

Authorities had always turned a blind eye to minor social vices like alcohol and prostitution. While the growing Temperance Movement made it more difficult to overlook the problems of alcohol, officials felt prostitution remained a victimless crime.

During a 1913 corruption trial, Clifford testified against the city's acting police chief and his co-conspirator. Both men were found guilty. Afterward, she became known as a "former" brothel owner. That consideration, however, probably reflected a change in societal values more than her actual retirement. Public tolerance for prostitution had begun to wane, pushing the practice back toward the shadows.

Little was written about Clifford between the trial's close and her death. In the early summer of 1929, she went to Detroit to spend what she believed to be her final days with family. On July 14, Clifford suffered a stroke and passed away. She was buried beside her mother in Detroit’s Mt. Elliott Cemetery.

In the 1930s, many buildings on the street, including Clifford’s, were demolished.

This location is a stop on the:

St. Paul Gangster Tour

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  • Maccabee, Paul. John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936. 1995.
  • "Nina "Hanna Steinbrecher" Crow Clifford..." Find A Grave - Millions of Cemetery Records. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/89481402/nina-clifford.
  • O'Connor, Robert. "The Big Fellow and The Cardinal -." 3:AM Magazine. Last modified February 9, 2011. https://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/the-big-fellow-and-the-cardinal/.
  • Scholten, Alexandra. "Clifford, Nina (1851–1929)." MNopedia | Minnesota Encyclopedia. Last modified August 4, 2020. https://www.mnopedia.org/person/clifford-nina-1851-1929.