15 May 2021

Civil Rights Lawsuit in 1893

Salt Lake Hot Springs Sanitarium at 52 W 300 South, 1920. From UDSH.

In 1893, Ruth Shelby and Jennie Drake, both African American women, sued a SLC company for discrimination. They lost their case.

On Sept 25 1893, the two women were refused admittance to the newly opened Salt Lake Hot Springs Sanitarium, located at 52 W 300 South.

The Hot Springs Sanitarium, which became known as “the San” was a swimming and bathing establishment featuring hot Sulphur spring water that was piped in from Beck’s Hot Springs, a franchise having been obtained from SLC government.

The San had 2 large pools on the first floor, the large one for men and boys (bathing suits optional) and the smaller one for men and women (bathing suits required). There were also 12 smaller pools for private swimming and family use and 25 private bathtubs.

A few days after the women were refused admittance, they filed a damage suit of $299 each (about $8,900 today) alleging they were discriminated against because of their color.

After the lawsuit was filed, the San released a public statement stating in part “We have nothing against the colored people, but it would be injurious to our business to let them bathe in our sanitarium, and consequently we cannot permit them to do so… The colored people of Salt Lake City ought to realize this and be satisfied to let us alone.”

The case was heard Dec 18 1893, in front of Judge Peter Lochrie, a non-Mormon and a Republican who had voted for Abraham Lincoln.

The women’s attorney argued that because SLC had granted a franchise for water pipes it made the Sanitarium a quasi-public company and that like a railroad company they were bound to accommodate all comers who were willing to pay for the privilege of bathing. The Sanitarium argued that they had the right to refuse anyone.

The judge ruled against the women stating that the Sanitarium was a private business being run for financial gain and when the women entered the premises, they did so by its permission. The business has the right to limit its invitation to the exclusion of certain individuals or classes or close it to everyone.

The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

Sources: SL Herald 1893-02-28; SL Herald 1893-09-26; SL Herald 1893-10-01; SL Herald 1893-12-13; SL Herald Republican 1893-12-19; Biographical Record of SLC 1902 pg 217; 

Thanks to Heidi at Utah Archives for (unsuccessfully) trying to find out more about this case in their archives. 

Sanitarium advertisement from SL Herald 1893-09-26

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