The term “red light district” is believed to have first appeared in print in Ohio in 1894.
One folk etymology relates that red light districts referred to areas frequented by off-duty railroaders, but this is probably apocryphal. The story goes that railroaders would hang their lanterns outside so the crew-callers could find them, but red lights already had an association with prostitution, and therefore areas of vice, long before that.
In Troy, the area between Broadway and State Street was the most active red light district in the first half of the 20th century. It was sometimes called “the line” to refer to the railroad running through the area. Local legend says that patrolmen were stationed outside the busiest houses on the busiest nights, to help manage the line. The women working at Mame Fay’s were said to send fresh pitchers of coffee to the police and fire station down the street.
According to news writer John Scanlon Troy madam Mame Fay was born Mary Alice Fahey in 1866. In 1897, she married a man named Bonter for a short time, thought to have been G. A. Bonter, a River Street saloon owner. In 1906, she purchased a row house at 1725 6th Avenue in Troy, where it’s assumed she operated a bordello until her death in 1943. Her building was located between a central police station / firehouse built in the 1920s, and the Lincoln Hotel. (The entire three-block area was demolished in about 1952.)
So far, no photos have emerged of Mame Fay, the name she took to shield her family from her profession. She was already 46 when she established the 6th Avenue brothel. Described as “stocky” with black hair and thick glasses, she was said to have dressed elaborately in fancy attire.
The women often hung out in the local bars. Most notorious was said to be Gainor’s on Broadway just opposite the train depot. The place recalled a popular 1930s song “In A Shanty in Old Shanty Town,” (a later hit for Doris Day) about a little shack “set right back 25 feet from the railroad track” where there’s “a queen waiting there in a rocking chair, just blowing her top on Gainor’s beer.” (The song was wildly popular. You can hear Johnny Long and his Orchestra play it here, the Ink Spots here, and Doris Day here).
At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) on the hill, many stories have been told about prostitution in the city below. It’s said a bus taking the RPI basketball team to an away game, might need to stop at one of the local brothels to pick up team members on its way out of town.
Another story comes from a Cohoes policemen’s first day on the job, when he was sent to Troy to discretely retrieve a body of a prominent Cohoes citizen who had died in one of the brothels. Someone who remembered those days told writer John Scanlon that when anyone died in the arms of one of the women, “they were reported as having collapsed in the baggage rooms of the Troy Union Depot.” It’s said Mame Fay once held up the departure of a train bound for New York while she searched for the dead-beat who had skipped out without paying his bill.
Despite the notorious nature of the business, Troy’s prostitutes were clean and healthy by the standards of the day and the business was a open secret. At a time when employment options for women were largely limited to low-paid labor, prostitutes were said to be paid five times a standard wage. As far away as New Haven, CT, men would only have to say they were taking a weekend trip to Troy as an euphemism, to be greeted with a knowing wink.
An RPI alum who arrived in Troy from the country in 1941 reported he was surprised to see young women waving to him from the upper stories of the row houses as the train crawled along Sixth Avenue for the depot. During the Second World War, when the US Navy established itself at RPI to train engineers, it demanded the red light district be reigned-in and thereafter the brothels operated more secretly.
A widely reported story said a Japanese prisoner of war who spoke English asked an American soldier where he was from. “Troy, NY,” was the reply, to which the Japanese man responded “Mame Fay, Mame Fay!”
Mame Fay died May 5, 1943, and was buried in the Fahey family plot at St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Troy.
Photos, from above: 6th Avenue between State and Broadway looking south in ca. 1950 (photo by Jim Shaughnessy); State and Broadway looking south in about 1930 showing Mame’s house (Sassi photo); 6th Avenue between State and Broadway looking north in about 1899 showing Mame’s; a portion of the ca. 1951 Sanborn Insurance Map, showing Mame’s in red; part of a glass plate photo of Broadway looking south, between Sixth and Fifth with Gainor’s on the left with the storefront; and Looking east on Broadway in the 1940s, showing Gainor’s on the right.