A Wild Night at the Hayloft: The Biggest Vice Raid in Milwaukee’s History

Feb. 20, 2017
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February 5, 1954. The drinks were flowing, the room was packed, and the performers were steeling themselves for one of the most daring live shows that Milwaukee had ever seen. It was Friday night at the Hayloft Tavern, a hulking old barn-turned-dance-hall located at 9355 N. Port Washington Road. It had been billed as the party of the year – a show promised to be unlike anything the men had ever seen in person. And as the rowdy gathering hooted and hollered for the festivities to begin, a few dozen lawmen – both locals and feds – waited patiently for the signal to swoop in and execute the biggest raid the area in Milwaukee history.

It was only because of the troubles in securing the “talent” by the party’s organizers that the cops had been able to get the jump on them. The event had already been delayed twice, and the cops caught wind just a week before it finally happened. In early February, the party’s organizers had found a traveling stripteaser named Jane Eaton to perform at the show. They also enlisted a trio of people living in a West Clarke Street boarding house – a 21-year-old stripper named Jean Hicks, a 30-year-old man named William Tisdell, and a 32-year-old woman named Marie Johnson. The “peelers” were promised $50 for the night’s work, as was Tisdell. Johnson was told she would get $100 for her act. Tickets were peddled all over town, at factories and barrooms, from men in the know to other men in the know. The tickets read, “Veteran’s Benefit Party, donation $5.”

On Friday night, the crowd began to gather at 8 p.m., sopping up beer and whiskey in the Hayloft’s downstairs bar. As the hour neared 9, the crowd drifted upstairs, where tables covered in blue-checked cloths had been arranged. The mass of men, however, was too great for this nightclub style of seating. By show time, every chair was filled and men crowded along the walls and stuffed the Hayloft’s tiny balconies. In a small space in the corner of the room, organizers cleared the way for a makeshift stage, outfit with a rickety piano and a worn movie screen and projector. As the anticipation built, the crowd began to clap and stomp their feet. The three undercover Milwaukee Police detectives hidden among them remained quiet and vigilant.

Finally, a man appeared on the stage. “I know you didn’t come here to see me,” he told the room of over 250 men. 

“You ain’t kiddin’!” Someone yelled from the darkness. “Bring on the women!”

The host obliged and signaled for the projector. With a simple piano accompaniment, two short, soundless stag pictures were shown. The first was mostly plotless, featuring a man who kept his socks on and a woman with dirty feet. The second depicted a couple cast away on a Pacific island. Both depicted hardcore sex, and the crowd hooted their approval. “Five years in the Navy and I never seen anything like that on an island!” remarked one of the room’s many wiseacres.

After the films, the redheaded Eaton did a striptease, going down to what the papers later called “a few small items of clothing.” Next up was the 21-year-old Hicks, who ended up in nothing more than a pair of hoop earnings. It is worth noting here that, while the men in the room varied in age and social class (some where in suits, others in overalls, the papers noted), they were all white. Hicks, as well as Tisdell and Johnson, were African American. As segregated as Milwaukee was in the 1950s, and as heavily as white supremacy tinged its day-to-day life, commoditized sexual contact between white men and black women was, and had been for some time, acceptable in the proper circumstances. The crowd cheered even louder for Hicks than they had Eaton and tossed coins at her feet, even as she stumbled through her act, visibly intoxicated.

What happened next was never fully described in the papers or by the police. Tisdell and Johnson came out and each fully stripped, eventually performing an “act” that truly set the crowd into a frenzy. After men in the back of the room complained that they couldn’t see, a pair of tables were pushed together for the couple to use. The clear implication is that they performed a series of sexual acts. At one point, they asked for a “volunteer” from the audience and a young man darted forward, disrobed and joined in. One man was so desperate to get a better look, he climbed up to the building’s rafters and attempted to get a “high-wire view” before he drunkenly tumbled off the beam and hit the floor with a loud crack. After Tisdell and Johnson finished their show, the host announced a 15-minute intermission so that the crowd could retreat downstairs for more drinks. During the break, one of the undercover men went outside for a smoke and signaled to an officer in a hidden radio car. A minute later, the cavalry was on its way.

After securing the exits and windows, two dozen officers burst through the front doors of the Hayloft, sending a screaming wave of panic over the house’s well-oiled guests. When the crowd was finally brought under control, the men were lined up and made to show their ID to the officers. Addresses, occupations, birthplaces, and other personal details were all collected before the men were sent home. If the man had no ID, he was taken into custody. In total, the police counted 268 people as offenders in the raid. The organizers and the performers were hauled off to jail.

More harrowing than the threat of a fine or even jail time to most of the men swept up that night was the prospect of their name appearing in the newspaper. Many of them were married, church-going professionals with reputations to protect. In the days after the raid, as the details of the Hayloft party made front-page news, the county covertly called each of the men cited and told them that they either needed to put up $50 bail at the county jail or be due in court that Thursday and face the humiliation of a letter of summons being mailed to their home address. By Thursday, all but 31 had paid their bail. Only 19 men – mostly those unable to raise the cash – showed up for the trial. Each was fined $25 and court costs. The judge decided not to issue warrants for 200-plus that were now technically guilty of bail jumping. A few weeks later, each of the performers and the event’s organizers were fined $100 for participating in an obscene show.

The raid also scuttled plans to sell the Hayloft building to the local American Legion chapter. Citing the negative publicity from the raid, the legionnaires backed out of the deal. Efforts to reopen the hall were similarly scuttled by the bad press. It remained vacant until January 1956, when it burned to the ground.

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