Of all the Milwaukee bars or nightclubs to be targeted by the city for closure over the years, there was perhaps none so lively as the nightspot called “Johannesburg” at North Eighth and Galena Streets. And certainly there have been few saloon keepers as troublesome or as colorful as Rosina Georg, the widowed owner of Johannesburg who for years in the 1880s made a mockery of the city’s attempts to drive her out of business.
All Rosina Georg had left was her nightclub. Her husband, referred as “Captain Georg,” had left her the rustic old hall when he passed away. Her children were grown and lived out of the city. Whenever she appeared any place on formal business, the slender, 40-something woman dressed in black – forever in mourning for her lost husband. And she would be damned if she would let anyone – least of all the goons in City Hall – tell her how to run her place.
Johannesburg became notorious for being one of the few bars outside of downtown that would serve African Americans. Mixed-race crowds might be permissible in the rowdy brothel district alongside the Milwaukee River, but Rosina’s place was situated in a “respectable” middle-class German neighborhood. The daughters of these families, sometimes still in their teens, would go out thrill-seeking at Rosina’s, drawn in by the cheap booze and loud revelry. This was exactly the kind of thing that the city had hoped to eliminate in the 1870s when they had finally passed an ordinance requiring taverns to be licensed.
Rosina had, in fact, applied for a license. Many times. She was known to regularly visit City Hall with the required $37.50 license fee, eager to go legit. But the city refused to issue her a permit. She was routinely cited for operating without one, but would simply pay her fine and refuse to close down. During one hearing, a common council member asked her why she would not just sell her place, and save herself and the city the trouble. She said she’d be glad to sell. To him. On the spot. For $5,000 (about $130,000 in today’s money).
Eventually, she paired her steal nerves with a team of sharp-minded lawyers. She began attacking back after her arrests, challenging the validity of the laws under which she was charged. Once, her lawyers even managed to briefly void the past six years of ordinances the city had passed because they had been improperly published into the public record. “Rosina is not in the habit of trying to establish her innocence of any alleged infractions of the law – she simply demonstrates the unconstitutionality of the law,” the Sentinel wrote in 1883. “She is becoming a howling terror to the legislative body.”
She tried many tactics to skirt the law as well. She tried to claim her place was a private club and exchanged glasses of beer for tickets that could be purchased at an outside location. She appointed herself as “manager” of the Johannesburg stock company, selling shares in kegs of beer and bottles of whiskey that could be redeemed upon demand. She even went so far as to declare that she had converted her bar into a “temperance hall” where lectures on the virtues of sobriety would be delivered free of charge. The lectures could be hardly heard above the wild antics of revelry in the new bar that she had hidden in the back hall of the building.
“Rosina is bigger than the city of Milwaukee,” the Sentinel wrote, “and she makes a sidewalk of the city attorney, walking all over him as regular as meets him.” One prosecutor assigned a case against her even wagered a box of cigars with a colleague on the outcome of the case – betting that he would lose.
In July 1884, the police raided Johannesburg, pulling 70 people of all ages, races and social standing. Huge crowds filled the courtroom the next day to see the small woman who had been giving the city so much trouble. She was convicted and, while awaiting sentencing, was arrested and convicted again on the same charge.
But it had finally gotten to be too much for Rosina. She announced that she had sold her bar and, having recently gotten remarried, would be leaving the city. She had met her husband during her last trial. He was on the jury… and had been the last to hold out on a “guilty” verdict.
In the fall of 1884, Rosina and her new husband left Milwaukee and never returned.