A San Francisco madam has her child taken away; while she prospers bootlegging, he becomes district attorney and prosecutes her for murder.
In 1906 in a San Francisco saloon a woman picks a man's pocket and chalks his shoulder to tip off the other women. Jenny (Ruth Chatterton) escorts a preacher out. Her father Jim Sandoval (Robert Emmett O'Connor) tells Dan McAllister (James Murray) he can't marry Jenny; but Jenny says she is going to marry him. Sandoval slaps her. An earthquake causes destruction, killing Sandoval. A fire burns the city, and Jenny learns that Dan died. She gives birth and joins the Salvation Army; but they can't provide for her child. So Jenny hires women at $25 apiece for men at a party to honor Steve Dutton (Louis Calhern). Steve fights with a dice cheater and shoots him. Jenny covers for him and hides the gun in a cake. The police question her and put her in jail. Steve gets her out on bail but says the welfare league is going to take away her child Dan. Amah (Helen Jerome Eddy) takes the child to Chinatown; then Steve arranges for him to be raised by the attorney Reynolds (Berton Churchill).
Jenny collects money from her women and pays Steve back after three years. She goes to get Dan; but when he rejects her, she lets him stay with Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds. Jenny keeps a scrapbook of Dan playing football and running for district attorney. Jenny gets $100,000 from bootleg liquor from George. Her politician Tom Ford (Edwin Maxwell) is running against Dan; but Jenny arranges for a woman with a loud voice to get Ford arrested, and Dan is elected. The police catch trucks; but Jenny tells George and Steve she was not in that deal. She is retiring and going to Paris. Steve goes to Dan Reynolds (Donald Cook) with $10,000 and is arrested for bribery. Dan plans to catch Jenny too. Steve bails out and asks Jenny to help him by telling her son. She refuses; when Steve tries to tell Dan, Jenny shoots him. Dan prosecutes Jenny for murder, and she is sentenced to be hanged. Amah visits Jenny and says death being universal must be a blessing. Jenny says that Dan found no redeeming quality in her. Dan comes to see her and asks why she didn't defend herself, suspecting she is shielding someone; but Jenny denies having a child or anyone dear. Jenny asks Amah for a favor, and in the final scene Amah burns Jenny's clippings of Dan.
Ironically Jenny ends up killing the man whose murder she covered up. She prospered in the illegal activities of prostitution and bootlegging, while her son's career rose by prosecuting such crimes. Was it shame that prevented her from telling her son, or did she think it would hurt his career?