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Madam Belle

Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 232
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    Madam Belle
    Book Description:

    Belle Brezing made a major career move when she stepped off the streets of Lexington, Kentucky, and into Jennie Hill's bawdy house -- an upscale brothel run out of a former residence of Mary Todd Lincoln. At nineteen, Brezing was already infamous as a youth steeped in death, sex, drugs, and scandal. But it was in Miss Hill's "respectable" establishment that she began to acquire the skills, manners, and business contacts that allowed her to ascend to power and influence as an internationally known madam.

    In this revealing book, Maryjean Wall offers a tantalizing true story of vice and power in the Gilded Age South, as told through the life and times of the notorious Miss Belle. After years on the streets and working for Hill, Belle Brezing borrowed enough money to set up her own establishment -- her wealth and fame growing alongside the booming popularity of horse racing. Soon, her houses were known internationally, and powerful patrons from the industrial cities of the Northeast courted her in the lavish parlors of her gilt-and-mirror mansion.

    Secrecy was a moral code in the sequestered demimonde of prostitution in Victorian America, so little has been written about the Southern madam credited with inspiring the character Belle Watling in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Following Brezing from her birth amid the ruins of the Civil War to the height of her scarlet fame and beyond, Wall uses her story to explore a wider world of sex, business, politics, and power. The result is a scintillating tale that is as enthralling as any fiction.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4708-6
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. chapter ONE The Elegant Miss Belle
    (pp. 1-8)

    A foggy twilight slid into Bluegrass horse country in the slipstream of a dreary day. May 14, 1890, had been eventful in one aspect only. Some seventy miles to the west, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, a racetrack drying out from heavy rains the night before had led to a mild surprise in the Kentucky Derby. The favorite, Robespierre, lost to a horse with the Irish name Riley. The news flashed out of Louisville in a flurry of Morse code, flying in bursts of static down the telegraph lines connecting Louisville with Lexington. The news was good for a Lexington...

  5. chapter TWO Civil War and Home War
    (pp. 9-18)

    Belle Brezing’s rise to madam of a prominent brothel was remarkable. Given the circumstances of her youth, she was fortunate to have succeeded at anything. Abandoned by her father, left an orphan at fifteen upon her mother’s death, and lacking any means of supporting her newborn child, Belle was looking at a bleak future when she turned to prostitution as a teenager. Later, she revealed she had tried to kill herself—twice.

    Belle was a child of the Civil War years. She was ten months old when Fort Sumter, South Carolina, fell to the Confederates on April 13, 1861. This...

  6. chapter THREE A Troubled Youth
    (pp. 19-34)

    On a day in the early fall of 1866, Belle walked across Main Street to an entirely different world. She was six years old and heading for her first day of school. As a younger child, Belle would have watched her sister, Hester, cross this street to attend No. 2 Harrison School. Now Hester was off in a new direction, enrolled at Dudley School on Maxwell Street.¹

    A neighbor, Linda Neville, said the girls were always well clothed because their mother sewed charming outfits for them. Despite her nice clothes, Belle soon realized that her new classmates would have nothing...

  7. chapter FOUR A Businesswoman Whose Business Was Men
    (pp. 35-48)

    Belle’s life was spinning out of control. Johnny Cook was dead, she had just given birth to Daisy May, and now Sarah, her mother, was seriously ill. The nature of Sarah’s malady is unknown. Many illnesses plagued Americans in the 1870s—typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox, and syphilis, to name a few—and medical knowledge about communicable diseases was limited.¹ If you were lucky when you became ill, you recovered. But you could not always trust your luck. Sarah’s was running out.

    It is not known where Sarah spent her final days. Belle may have cared for her at home. Lexington’s...

  8. chapter FIVE Networks of Power
    (pp. 49-66)

    In 1880, Belle had begun thinking about opening her own brothel on North Upper Street. Her plans began taking shape in the same year that a Kentucky-bred Thoroughbred named Hindoo took the racing world by storm. Hindoo ran up a string of seven winning races in Lexington, Louisville, St. Louis, and Chicago before his Woodford County owner and breeder, Dan Swigert, took him to New York. He sold him at Saratoga for $15,000, an astonishing sum at the time. Swigert put this money and an additional $15,000 he had received in a horse deal two years earlier toward buying farmland...

  9. chapter SIX A Wealthy Benefactor
    (pp. 67-80)

    Two brothers from Philadelphia, George and William A. Singerly, inherited an immense estate in 1880. In an indirect way, Belle also benefited from their father’s largesse. Joseph Singerly had helped pioneer the street railroad system in Philadelphia. He bequeathed son William more than fourteen thousand shares in the Germantown (Pennsylvania) Passenger Railway Company, a treasure appraised at $705,650, or $16.5 million in 2013 dollars. To George he left a comfortable inheritance locked in an annuity that enabled George to live a self-indulgent lifestyle.

    Either Joseph preferred William to his younger brother, or he recognized William as the better businessman of...

  10. chapter SEVEN Lexington’s Exclusive Mansion for Men
    (pp. 81-98)

    Megowan Street had never seen commotion like Belle’s opening night in 1891. All varieties of horse-drawn vehicles pulled up in front of no. 59, dropping off male passengers wearing formal evening dress. Drivers shouted to their horses. Cabs departed as quickly as they had arrived, the drivers turning their horses sharply back toward the Phoenix Hotel to pick up more fares. In the trickle-down effect the evening had on the local economy, hack drivers made a small fortune in tips on this memorable night.

    Belle had invited physicians, lawyers, judges, horsemen, businessmen, and bankers to this fete. Sweet orchestral strains...

  11. chapter EIGHT A Uniquely Powerful Woman in a Changing City
    (pp. 99-112)

    Belle’s business was thriving at her whorehouse bought with Singerly money. Meanwhile, the Singerly brothers had grown restless in another phase of their sporting life. No longer content with owning only trotters, they followed a popular trend among wealthy men and got into Thoroughbred racing. William won the nation’s premier horse race at that time, the Futurity, run at Coney Island in New York. But the wake of scandals that trailed William and George through Thoroughbred racing reflected the very reasons why the sport needed reform.

    Thoroughbred racing in the United States had reached the highest popularity in its history...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. chapter NINE Crackdown on Vice
    (pp. 113-126)

    The big money came to town in the pockets of a mining king, James Ben Ali Haggin. Lexington was not prepared for the likes of Haggin when he purchased Elmendorf Farm in 1897. This modest horse and tobacco town, which came awake only seasonally with the fall trots and tobacco auctions, slumbered the rest of the year beneath a comforting blanket of parochial vision and insular ways. The very idea of an outsider constructing a forty-room mansion of marble and natural stone would have seemed beyond belief in the Bluegrass—until Haggin, with his millions of dollars, worth billions today,...

  14. chapter TEN A Growing Moral Menace
    (pp. 127-140)

    Most madams and whores carried on their business atop the Hill as though antiprostitution efforts were not gaining support. Shut down the red-light district? It could never happen, they thought. The frolicking good times continued every night and into the early mornings on Megowan Street. The whores and their keepers, along with the liquor merchants, the landlords, and even the stores that rented furniture to the brothels, believed business would continue forever.

    Belle had more to think about than how the community’s moral awakening might change her life. In March 1913, eight months before the watershed grand jury report, the...

  15. chapter ELEVEN The Passing of a Legend
    (pp. 141-152)

    From the time Belle closed her business in 1917 until her death in 1940, Lexington saw little of her. She lived like a recluse inside her mansion. Her only company seemed to be her longtime housekeeper, Pearl Hughes, and a few domestic workers.

    The great Man o’ War returned home to Lexington in 1921, just as Belle was adjusting to retirement. She would have read about the champion’s homecoming because she always read the newspapers. She had subscribed to theMorning Transcriptin the 1880s when it was Lexington’s main source of news, and she remained well read throughout her...

  16. Epilogue
    (pp. 153-154)

    For generations, fans of the novel and movieGone with the Windhave speculated about whether Margaret Mitchell modeled her character Belle Watling after Belle Brezing. Mitchell denied this to her death in 1949, as did her husband, John Marsh. But few people believed these denials. In her biography of Margaret Mitchell, Marianne Walker speculated that a connection had to exist because too many coincidences linked the two Belles. Belle Brezing’s hair was red; so was Belle Watling’s. The novel’s descriptions of Belle Watling’s house match the glimpses we have of Belle Brezing’s mansion. Both madams accepted as clients only...

  17. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 155-156)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 157-174)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 175-180)
  20. Index
    (pp. 181-190)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 191-198)