In 1900 Aberdeen was known as the Hellhole of the Pacific and more ominously The Port of Missing Men, a reference to the high murder rate. Aberdeen was a boomtown fueled by the timber industry and home to a wide-open social life for the two thousand or so loggers and sailors who came into town for recreation. A dozen saloons and dance halls featured Harper whiskey and the local Pioneer Beer.
World War II brought a steady influx of men from nearby Ft. Lewis and McChord Field, so it’s not surprising that when Nellie Curtis decided to sell the LaSalle Hotel, she found her new home in Aberdeen. In 1952 Look Magazine identified Aberdeen as one of America’s hotspots in the “Battle Against Sin.” Nellie invested $25,000 to purchase the Cass Hotel and another $10,000 to remodel it. Nellie changed the hotel’s name to Curtis Hotel. Business was good. On weekdays, Nellie employed six employees; she added another five on the weekends and military paydays.
In 1958 Mayor Ed Lundgren encouraged city employees to support his bid for re-election. Two police officers refused to participate. After the election, they were arrested in a brothel and suspended for thirty days without pay.
Police Captain Nick Yantsin accepted the generally tolerant view the city took towards prostitution. But he balked when he perceived the use of whorehouses as political weapons. On the night of January 31, 1959 Yantsin wearing plain clothes and a secret tape recorder arrived at the Curtis Hotel. With him were two witnesses. Reverend Lloyd Auchard was a young Presbyterian minister. Jack Mecak was a carpenter and a friend of one of the framed policemen.
In his report, Yantsin said that a hefty woman at the top of the stairs called out, “Come in fellas! These are nice girls; you can hear them better with their clothes off.”
Yantsin asked if there were lots of girls. “We have plenty to take care of you.” The woman introduced Yantsin to Lora Summers.
Lora grabbed her client’s wrist and led the way down the hall, shouting “Coming through.” Once in her cubicle, Lora suggested they slip into something more comfortable. She went over her menu of services. The ‘old-fashioned way’ cost $5.00 Yantsin took out his money. Lora started to unzip his trousers. Yantsin pulled out his badge.
“You’re under arrest.”
“Nellie,” Lora shouted.
Nellie Curtis burst into the room reportedly wearing dark glasses, diamonds on her fingers, pearls, and what Yantsin later referred to as a ‘Bella Abzug hat.’
“What do you think you’re doing?” Nellie demanded.
“You’re pinched,” Yantsin announced.
Yantsin arrested eighteen men, several women and Nellie herself.
The next morning Police Chief A. M. “Pat” Gallagher arrived at the police station to discovered a lobby filled with indignant women and embarrassed men. On the phone an angry Mayor Lundgren wanted to know what happened.
Yantsin’s bust was front page news. It was also the end of his career. Gallagher gave Yantsin a full time Special Assignment as a beat cop from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. Nellie filed charges. Yantsin, she said, entered her hotel illegally and seized evidence without a warrant. He had invaded the “privacy of her home.”
The case of Curtis v. Yantsin was heard at the County Courthouse on March 3, 1959. The prosecutor asked how many rooms Nellie rented. Nellie counted on her fingers. “eight . . . nine. . . ten.”
The defense attorney asked if Nellie had ever been a prostitute.
“I never was.”
Nellie took the Fifth.
Did she employ prostitutes?
Yantsin sued Nellie. This time the judge found her guilty of running a house of prostitution and fined Nellie $500. Astute businesswoman that she was, Nellie decided to retire. In 1964, she deeded her hotel to the City of Aberdeen in exchange for $8000 and moved to Alki Point in West Seattle.
There was one final drama in Nellie’s colorful life. The Internal Revenue Service pressed charges against Nellie for cheating the government out of $172,807.87. With penalties, she owed $251,000. In 1971 Nellie reached a settlement and paid $120,000.
Nellie died in 1976 at the age of 75. In 1948 Nellie wrote her nephew a letter pertaining to the Seattle mayoral election. It seems a fitting epitaph.
“I have been at the same deal, with tougher ones and mean ones
and I am still in the same place doing the same,
and I took my ups and downs, worse than at present and come out on top
so it doesn’t matter to me who gets in.
I will always find my own outs, and go as I am.”
Featured Image Ad for Naughty Nellie’s Ale at the Pike Brewing Co. Photo by Author.
Information on Nellie’s career in Aberdeen from
John C. Hughes and Ryan Teague Beckwith. On the Harbor: From Black Friday to Nirvana. Stevens Press LLC. 2001.
Sandra Wagner-Wright is the author of Two Coins: A Biographical Novel and Rama's Labyrinth. Both books are available in digital and print editions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and Kobo. Rama’s Labyrinth and Two Coins are available as audiobooks.
Sandra blogs weekly about topics related to her travels, writing life, and the incongruities of life in general.