Queen of the North Side Underworld
The WWI era red light district of Pittsburgh's North Side was ruled by Nettie Gordon. In the 25 years she dominated the Underworld of the North Side she amassed a small fortune, most of which she invested in North Side real estate. Her other significant expenditures were bribes--according to one obituary, she handled "no less than several million dollars in protection money." A former waitress, the Pittsburgh Press described her as "the city's greatest keeper of brothels and a power in Republican Politics." ["Nettie Gordon Dies, ‘Queen of Underworld,'" Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph, 3/4/1934] Despite the shadiness of her dealings, Miss Gordon was asked to be a GOP committee member for her voting district, an offer she apparently accepted. Her combination of shrewdness (paying off politicians, keeping a detailed, "Black Book") and good fortune (having a brother who was a police officer) helped Miss Gordon "beat the rap." She was arrested many times, her houses were shuttered, but she never appeared before a judge and, after a reasonable time, her houses would again be open for business.
Famously circumspect, Nettie Gordon was successful in never having her picture appear in the newspapers. She was known on the North Side less for her notoriety but more for her generosity. Miss Gordon assisted her less prosperous neighbors in a variety of practical ways; buying groceries in hard times, coal in the winter, and covering funeral costs when families could not afford to do so. In an article describing her funeral, her driver, George Quinn, described his employer:
"Generous to a fault, Nettie was. Many's the Christmas and New Year's
when I delivered dozens of turkeys and baskets among the poor. If she
heard of a death, she was the first to offer aid, send food, offer her car for the
funeral. If you were her friend, you never needed to worry about being
broke or hungry. " ["Hymns to Mark Services for Nettie" Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph, 3/6/1934 ]
Miss Gordon's wish for a private funeral was enforced by her friends and family, much to the consternation of the local newspapers. In the few days between her death and her funeral, the Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph vied with each other to breach the security surrounding her services and, failing to do so, ran pieces about everything from the choice of hymns rumored to be featured to the reputed price of her casket ($4000). By the time of the actual services over a 1000 people stood outside Miss Gordon's apartment while the services inside were conducted for about 100 guests. Nettie Gordon was laid to rest next to her parents in Division Two of Union Dale Cemetery.