Nearly 125 years ago a woman who would eventually etch her name in the annals of Fargo’s early history stepped off the train onto the platform of the Northern Pacific Railroad depot.
As a 53-year-old African-American woman, Melvina Massey was not an obvious candidate for success. A growing village built on the banks of the Red River, Fargo lacked racial diversity (1885 census records indicate only two African-Americans lived in Fargo) but teemed with opportunity.
Melvina was one of many ambitious transplants who arrived on Front Street (later renamed Main Avenue) via the railroad, an entity that made Melvina’s future business venture possible in the first place. A busy railroad and agricultural sector required men to build the roads and work the fields. Droves of single men meant the world’s oldest profession had found yet another market.
Back then, Fargo (which was actually called Centralia until 1873) only had 600 inhabitants. Within a year of Melvina arriving from her home state of Virginia, the city boasted more than 8,000 people and “the tents and shanties of earlier days had been replaced by mainly wood-frame buildings.”
Melvina built one of those wood-frame buildings at 118 3rd Street North, according to the 1891 City of Fargo directory. Melvina wasn’t alone, though. Elmo Anderson, Pearl Adams, Stella Dorsey, and musician Coleman Butler are listed as boarders; could this have been Melvina’s first foray into the brothel business that made her famous?
A Palace for Prostitution
That same year, Melvina purchased property at 201 Third Street North and began making plans to establish a brothel called The Crystal Palace. (The house resided in an area of early Fargo referred to as “The Hollow,” a poorer section of the city near the river where immigrants and laborers lived; the footings of the house are buried below the City Hall parking lot next to the Red River.)
A savvy businesswoman, Melvina immediately started making connections in the city. She “let it be known she was interested in investing money in property here. She dined at the Headquarters Hotel in grand style by the leading men and women of the day,” according to a June 15, 1975, Forum article.
Once the palace was ready, Melvina “sent Fargo business men engraved invitations” to the grand opening. The venture turned out to be a lucrative one.
Paying Her Dues
Brothels and prostitution were illegal at the time, so law enforcement officials enforced regular fines on “houses of ill repute.” Each month, owners of brothels were arrested and brought to court to pay $56.50 (more than $1,400 by today’s standard); Melvina paid up regularly each month…clearly she was finding success.
Unfortunately, Melvina couldn’t avoid prison despite paying her fines.
In 1901, she was convicted on charges related to alcohol (prohibition was big in Fargo at the time) and sent to prison in Bismarck, according to a June 5, 1901 Bismarck Daily Tribune article. Melvina surrendered willingly and was accompanied to the penitentiary by Cass County Sheriff Treadwell Twitchell.
A Jamestown newspaper reported her surrender, noting that “Madam Massey will enjoy the distinction of being the only female prisoner in the penitentiary. She is an oldtimer in Fargo.” She was 63… and smart enough to mind her manners. Because of good behavior, Melvina was released after serving less than a year.
Angela Smith is an NDSU history professor who has been researching Melvina since 2012. Smith said Melvina’s time in prison was merely a blip on the radar for the successful businesswoman. According to a newspaper article, “She had friends waiting for her at the train station” when she was released, Smith explained.
After returning to Fargo and her Crystal Palace business, Melvina’s life continued in the same ebb and flow of serving a need in a growing community while paying her monthly fines. Her business continued to do well, but her health declined. In May of 1911, Melvina died in a local hospital, with her obit recognizing her as a “well known character in Fargo.”
Melvina’s extensive probate record indicated just how successful she had been. “She owned a big brothel with lots of things; she wore furs,” Smith explained. “[The Crystal Palace] was an upscale brothel for Fargo.”
Among her belongings were diamond earrings (valued at $75 in 1911, which would be more than $1,800 today), fancy pillows and china, a gilded parlor set (worth $15 in 1911 or nearly $400 now) as well as a fur coat and accessories. Melvina had style and so did The Crystal Palace.
Melvina’s name would most likely be lost to history were it not for Smith and her research efforts.
Smith led a history class that was researching taboo topics in the Fargo-Moorhead area’s history (think crime, KKK, and prostitution), and Melvina emerged as a prominent figure thanks to court records.
“She’s one of my heroes,” Smith said, grinning.
Smith and her class created a documentary about Melvina, and Smith continues to dig for clues about the famous Fargoan. Much of Melvina’s life remains a mystery, but Smith is doing all that she can to uncover more details about the woman’s life.
Smith has researched the Twin Cities area to ascertain whether Melvina may have stopped there on her journey from Virginia to Fargo; she’s even uncovered a black madam there who may or may not have been a mentor to Melvina.
Melvina’s family is also a source of mystery. She gave birth to a son named Henry Gray in 1859, and Smith wonders if Melvina may have been a slave at that time. Census records provide few details about her son or her husband, Henry Rae.
Even more confounding are myriad records that list individuals with varying names — Melvina Gray, Henry Charles, Melvina Rae.
What Smith finds most fascinating about Melvina is the fact that she found success at a time when the odds were working against her. “She isn’t a victim; she had lawyers and money and went to court unafraid,” Smith explained.
Where Melvina’s money came from is another source of speculation. Smith discovered a court case involving a Melvina Massey (whether it is the same madam from Fargo has yet to be proven) and a lawsuit against a carriage driver who reneged on a marriage proposal. Smith explained that the case was handled in Washington, D.C., but the Melvina from Fargo was from Loudoun County in Virginia. Loudoun County borders Washington, D.C. The Melvina Massey involved in the case won, receiving a $5,000 settlement.
Still, Smith is speculative. Was the Melvina Massy in the D.C. court case the same woman who found success in Fargo? Was the money from the lawsuit what Melvina used to establish her business? Did Melvina leave Virginia so as not to bring shame on her family?
We may never know, but Smith hopes to continue unraveling the mystery of Melvina Massey.
“This woman came to this place and carved out a space for herself,” Smith explained. “Don’t we want her to be known for that regardless of what she did as a profession?”
For more information about Melvina Massey and prostitution at the turn of the 20th century, watch this documentary, created by Dr. Angela Smith and her students.
Check out the Fargo History Project for more stories unearthed from the city’s past.