By looking at the grass lot on the corner of Houston and Davis streets in the LaVilla neighborhood, you’d probably assume there was never a building there.
You definitely wouldn’t think it was once home to the biggest brothel in Jacksonville.
Back when Houston Street was known as Ward Street, this little parcel of land was where The Court set up shop. Of the dozens of brothels that lined the Ward Street Bordello District, The Court was perhaps the most famous – or, rather, the most infamous. With over twenty rooms and a lush interior, The Court was a favorite among brothel patrons.
At the center of all of it was the owner, Cora Crane.
Crane, a socialite and businesswoman, had moved back to Jacksonville shortly after both the Great Fire of 1901 and the death of her husband Stephen Crane. The two had met years earlier in Jacksonville, where Cora had previously operated a “hotel” that was essentially a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients.
Crane secured funding to build The Court, which quickly became a hit. She subsequently acquired stakes in other brothels, creating a mini-empire along The Line, as it was called. She even opened a “resort” in Jax Beach. In the seedy underbelly of LaVilla, Crane reigned as queen.
The Ward Street district thrived thanks to its location near the train station and a then-active stretch of nightlife. Its success was largely unimpeded by local politicians; not until 1913, when then-mayor Van Swearingen took measures to cut down on prostitution, would there be any meaningful political movements against prostitution or the bordellos.
That’s not to say that Crane and her fellow brothel owners went entirely unopposed. Carrie Nation, the temperance movement leader who branded herself “Carry A. Nation for Prohibition”, attempted one of her “hatchetation” raids on one of the Ward Street brothels. The raids usually consisted of Nation and her comrades showing up to bars and smashing things with hatchets.
The success of Crane’s bordello investments allowed her to maintain residences in the city and at the beach, and during these years she was frequently published as a writer in big-name magazines.
Crane lived an often-complicated life. She was a woman who rejected the haughty principles of Victorian society, in a time period still largely dominated by those principles. She was married four times, and had participated in multiple high-profile affairs as well. She had actually began her relationship with Stephen Crane while still married to her second husband. Her fourth and final husband was acquitted of murder after he shot a man that he thought Crane was sleeping with.
Her death was just as complicated as her life: she died of a stroke in 1910 after pushing a stranded car out of the sand.
Crane’s time in Jacksonville may have been relatively short, but it was unarguably where she made her biggest mark. Her signature bordello, The Court, stayed in business for years after her death, and the bordello district itself survived into the mid-1950s.
The buildings that formerly housed her operations were demolished as part of the River City Renaissance plan.
It’s hard to say what motivated Crane to choose brothels as her niche. Maybe it was disdain for puritan morality, or maybe it was just the financial and social opportunities it afforded her in a different time.
Regardless, she stands as perhaps the most infamous madam from the era of bordellos in Jacksonville.