Jessie Smith was one of the half a million black Americans who left the south during the first wave of the great migration, before and during the first world war, hoping to trade Jim Crow, klan violence and failed crops for a life of opportunity in the industrial north. However, when she arrived in New Castle from Spartanburg, South Carolina, she would have found that there was nowhere in town for her to stay. The hotels accepted only whites, and any young colored girl stepping off the train had to ask around until she found a colored family with a room to let.
Jessie found accommodation, and a job, in the Vanhorn apartments, a dilapidated three-storey frame building by the bridge over Neshannock creek on South Jefferson street, a well known and frequently raided brothel. She was arrested there one Saturday night in 1918, along with the other girls and four customers. The prostitutes were fined $15; the proprietress, Mary Armour, $50; and the customers, $10. A decent night’s profit for the city.
Three years later, the Vanhorn block was torn down to make way for a rail track along the river to the Carnegie company’s number 1 furnace, but Jessie had already moved on.
During the twenties and thirties, she worked in houses further down South Jefferson street, on Long avenue and on Lutton street, paying an occasional $10 or $15 fine for the privilege. Along the way, she married Robert Cruthers, who lived off her earnings and beat her when the mood took him. Sometimes, the beatings were so bad that she would go to the police, who would arrest him for assault and battery and give him a $10 fine, which he’d pay using money that Jessie had worked for. Once, he couldn’t pay and was sent to the county jail for ten days.
In October 1930, Robert Laughlin, a traveller who was staying at the Henry Hotel, told police that he’d been robbed by two colored women while walking down the alley behind the Fountain Inn, just off the main square. One had held him while the other had gone through his clothes and taken his pocketbook, which contained $34. The police would have known that his part in the story wasn’t as innocent as he assured them it was, but it didn’t matter. They arrested Jessie and and a woman called Mabel Smith (a sister, perhaps), who were found to have Laughlin’s pocketbook. They were fined $10.
Early on Christmas morning, 1930, three young men – with considerably less shame than Robert Laughlin – told a beat policeman on the south side that one of them had been robbed by a colored prostitute in a house on Lutton street. The police raided the place, which was owned by Charles Hudson, and found the money in Jessie Smith’s possession.
That was Jessie’s last appearance in New Castle’s recorded history. The final sentence of the story in the paper states that her penalty was – yet again – a fine of $10.Sources: New Castle News (4 Jan 1917 “Colored Man to Seek Hotel License Here”; 30 Jul 1917 “Colored Folk To Have Hotel”; 7 Feb 1919 “JB Clark Claims He Was Insulted”; 29 Jul 1918 “Disorderly House Raid Nets $120”; 22 Aug 1930 “Given Ten Days”; 30 Sep 1930 “Robert Cruthers”; 20 Oct 1930 “Colored Women Rob Local Man”; 26 Dec 1930 “Disorderly House Raided By Police”)