Photo courtesy of Alphonse Mucha / Rawpixel
NOTE: The terms prostitutes and whores were common language for sex workers back then. The use of these is now considered outdated and disrespectful.
Elizabeth Holland and Holland’s Leaguer
If you hear the term ‘Elizabethan brothel’ and think of luxurious manors and salacious sin dressed up in jewels, you can thank Elizabeth Holland. This determined and glamorous madam helped transform London’s underground prostitution into an industry that entertained royalty.
Holland’s story begins in 1597, after the seizure of her first brothel, which led to her arrest. The authorities loaded her into a cart, gave her a placard listing crimes that included loose morals and keeping a brothel, and did a city-wide tour of shame. Finally, she was sent to prison. However, it was this first brothel that gave Holland invaluable connections—some think she may have married into a family that ran the crime rings of the Elizabethan underground. With whispers in the right ears and coin in the right pockets, she escaped trial and got right back to work.
Holland transformed an abandoned manor into Holland’s Leaguer, a moated mansion by the Thames, just a waterman’s fee away from the music and thrill of London’s playhouses, taverns and bear-baiting rings. Leaguer is an older military word meaning a fortress or military encampment, and those high walls would one day protect her from another surprise raid.
Holland’s Leaguer boasted a gatehouse, a drawbridge and sprawling gardens for music and flirtation. Inside was a force of laundresses, cooks, in-house doctors and even armed bouncers. Holland taught her prostitutes to de-escalate dangerous situations with clients, and to leverage their natural people skills to persuade customers to buy more, eat more and drink more. If girls across the river were having trouble in their own establishment, they could work at the Leaguer for a few nights for a guaranteed profit.
Holland had little patience for trouble—or for empty purses. A visit to the Leaguer and dinner with the proprietor herself cost nearly $3,000, not including any extra drinks or the company of a prostitute. Even famous clients were turned away if they were going through financial trouble—and famous clients Holland had. She entertained King James I, leased the mansion to the Queen’s cousin, and dined with the Duke of Buckingham.
For 30 years, Holland’s fortress stood its ground as the most famous luxury brothel in London, and its madam was unconcerned with the smaller brothels she put out of business. However, the pendulum swing of society’s tolerance towards prostitution was erratic and destructive. In 1632, soldiers tried to seize Holland’s Leaguer along with other brothels across London. Holland encouraged them onto the drawbridge and then reportedly dropped it to throw them in the moat, while jeering whores threw objects and insults.
Despite this victory, other forces followed and the brothel fell. The whorehouse and its downfall inspired the creation of the ballad News From Holland’s Leaguer by Lawrence Price and a play by the same name by Shackerley Marmion. Rumour says that she opened a brothel elsewhere, but it seems unlikely the famed madam’s third shot at a brothel wouldn’t be even more ostentatious, excessive, fortified and known than the Leaguer.
Damaris Page: The Great Bawd of the Seamen
Damaris Page didn’t come to the business with Elizabeth Holland’s funds or glamour, but she established her legacy with equal vigour, ingenuity and enemies.
Page began her journey in early 17th century London, attempting to escape poverty as a teenager by becoming a prostitute. She was notorious: Grub Street pamphlets—London’s lower-end writing and journalism scene—called her “The Wand’ring Whore” and the “Crafty Bawd.” But she’d have a couple of spectacular missteps before proving herself as crafty as her nickname.
First, Page landed in court for unproven bigamy (getting married while already married) and reportedly earned a reputation as an invocator of evil. Her brief stint as an untrained abortionist with a two-pronged fork resulted in the death of a woman and in Page being convicted of manslaughter. She was originally sentenced to the gallows, but her own pregnancy downgraded her sentence to three months in prison. When released, she returned to prostitution and sought to open brothels of her own.
For the new endeavour, Page hired women whose husbands were off on ships or had died at sea. Soon, she had opened one brothel that served working-class seamen and a second for their rich officers. She forged powerful connections with navy officers and benefited from her ties to these privileged sailors. Even King James II, grandson of King James I, visited her establishments.
But Page was not the benevolent, sin-peddling madam of the dockworkers. While these men gave her the means to invest in property throughout London, she was likely to turn on them. As an instrument of the navy, Page handed over her dock worker clients who were forced into its service. Royal Navy Admiral Edward Spragg said he’d never run out of fresh soldiers as long as Page—the “Great Bawd of the Seamen” according to Samuel Pepys, a British politician of the time—was around.
Her brothels were the target of special attention during the 1668 Bawdy House Riots and her properties were destroyed. Soon after, a curious letter called the Whore’s Petition —addressed “To the most Splendid, Illustrious, Serene and eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of Castlemaine” and signed by Page and a fellow madam—fell into the lap of King Charles II’s disdained lover, Lady Castlemaine. The petition cajoled the countess to use the national tax coffers to repair the city’s brothels. After all, Lady Castlemaine was called a whore by her enemies, so surely she sympathized with their plight! Castlemaine was not amused. The printer was arrested, but the petition was written with such keen knowledge of politics that they couldn’t pin anything on the printer or on Page.
Perhaps the petition was an honest plea from the madams, or maybe it was some anti-royalist mocking of both Castlemaine and Page. Satirical responses popped up in English coffeeshops and people traded the petition around as an act of rebellion. Whether Page wrote it or not, her clever and classy will, published as The Life and Death of Damaris Page, that Great, Arch, Metropolitan of RatCliffe High-Way, proved she, at minimum, had the same sharp wit as the petition’s author:
To all the sisterhood in Nightingale Lane, Well-clife, Ratcliffe-High-Way, and those pretty places of Trading, two pence a piece, to buy thread to mend their stockings.
I give to all Thieves, Cut-purses, and Pickpockets good counsel to leave off their damnable Trade, or they will fall Gallows ripe into the Hang-man’s budget.
To all rotten pockified Whores (of which there is a great many) I give four pence a piece, to buy them sweet powder, to keep them from stinking alive.
I give to Officers belonging to Fumbler’s Hall, 0.0.0.0.
Footnote: According to a variety of online sources, Fumbler’s Hall was slang for vagina–with the “fumbler” in question being an impotent man. For more fun with 500-year-old foul language, try Green’s Dictionary of Slang.
Ah Toy: The Wild West’s First Chinese Madam
The allure of the gold rush had reached China, and 20-year-old Ah Toy and her husband sailed for America to seek their fortune. When her husband died from sickness on the ship, Ah Toy at first seemed stranded. She was resourceful, however, and became the captain’s mistress, then stashed all the gifts and cash he gave her and entered San Francisco with a head start.
Still, the money wouldn’t last forever and she noticed the attention she was drawing. Records say she was quite the catch, earning indulgent praise from men about her appearance and allure. So, for an ounce of gold weighed on her own scales, she let the men of San Francisco watch her peep shows.
In a couple of years, she would open two of her own and support other brothels in Little China. Historian Curt Gentry, in his 1964 book The Madams of San Francisco noted, “whenever a boat from Sacramento docked, the miners would break into a run for Ah Toy’s.” She had lavish tea parties with key members of the community. Business was fantastic and she intended to keep it that way with zero-tolerance for trouble from customers.
While Holland and Page bartered or worked with authorities who eventually betrayed them, Ah Toy demanded the courts answer to her. She took disputes to the white courts instead of handling them with Little China’s community leaders. She protected her business from exploitation by protesting the control of Chinese prostitutes, suing miners for paying her in brass filings rather than gold, accusing a gang leader of extortion, and making sure the courts knew she noticed when Caucasian brothels were receiving preference over her own.
Once, Ah Toy received a formal letter from Hong Kong church authorities pleading that she come back to her liege lord. They offered to pay for her ticket if she promised to be a good wife. She wasn’t fooled by the mysterious authors or tempted by the money. She wasn’t married anymore and she certainly wouldn’t leave.
However, gangs were smuggling in prostitutes from China and transforming brothels into an industry. They had endless money and muscle to shove aside independent businesses like Ah Toy’s. This time, she couldn’t defend herself with the law: in 1854, the California Supreme Court decided that Chinese-Americans couldn’t testify against white people in court. Ah Toy could no longer protect herself or her business, so she retired the same year.
Like the other madams, the rest of her life is cloaked in mystery. We know only that she died shortly before her 100th birthday in 1928, in California.
Lulu White: The Diamond Queen of Mahogany Hall
In 20th century New Orleans, the Storyville district was alive with the jazz of talented upstart musicians, couples whirled in and out of dance halls, and young women, both Black and white, crooned their services to passersby from behind doors and half-drawn curtains. Above all the restaurants and “cribs” (which consisted of essentially just a mattress and a prostitute) stood Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall.
The self-proclaimed Diamond Queen’s four-storey luxury brothel had forty prostitutes on the roster, 15 bedrooms (each with its own bathroom), and five parlours. Expensive art commissioned by White lined the walls, and the streets’ red glow filtered through Tiffany stained-glass windows. One parlour was completely panelled in mirrors, reflecting dancing women on the ceiling and walls.
Storyville, formally called “The District,” tolerated and regulated prostitution and got its nickname, much to his chagrin, from alderman Sidney Story, who wrote The District’s guidelines. The hall’s charming, fun-loving attitude was perfect for White, a mixed-race woman from Alabama with expensive taste, wild and often doomed business ventures, consistent run-ins with the law, and a love of reinventing herself and her legacy. A Storyville tourist guide, called a Blue Book, said, “‘Good time’ is her motto.”
Spending time at Mahogany Hall was not cheap, and for good reason: White kept getting tangled with the law. She sold alcohol without a licence and she was accused of attempted murder. She invested in properties and businesses that she often couldn’t keep up with. She prided herself on hiring women of colour (though she only entertained white patrons), so she often had to use the profit from Mahogany Hall to bribe authorities into letting her carry on employing both white and Black prostitutes in the same building. Prostitution was regulated in Storyville, but a madam still had to fill the right pockets to keep out of trouble.
Eventually, trouble cost more than she could afford. In 1917, America was becoming more involved in World War I and Storyville was looking like a sinful, expensive distraction. The authorities smothered all prostitution by making it illegal, and Mahogany Hall fell with it. The hall’s demise was perhaps a mercy; by this time, the Diamond Queen was deep in debt from her bad investments—the equivalent of nearly $3.7 million CAD today.
White was arrested in 1918 for having a brothel within ten miles of a military facility, but applied for a pardon three months into her year-and-a-day sentence. Questions as to where she went still circulate—perhaps she lived with a fellow jobless madam and died in 1930—but in 1940, rumours spread of White being seen in a bank. After Hurricane Betsy took the upper storeys of Mahogany Hall in 1965, it was converted into a store, and White’s mugshot, alongside photographs of her luxurious manor are all that remain of her Storyville fame.
Footnote: Thanks to E. J. Bellocq’s photographs, you can get a glimpse of Mahogany Hall and The District in its prime on metmuseum.org.
Want to know more?
Want to know more about these madams of yesteryear? Here’s where all the gritty details came from:
Elizabeth Holland & Damaris Page
- Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500-1800 by Patricia Fumerton, Anita Guerrini, & Kris McAbee (2010)
- Holland’s Leaguer: a Critical Edition by Nicholas Goodman (2015)
- Madams: Bawd & Brothel-Keepers of London by Fergus Linnane (2009)
- London: The Wicked City: A Thousand Years of Prostitution and Vice by Fergus Linnane (2007)
- The Life and Death of Damaris Page, that Great, Arch, Metropolitan of Rat-Clife High-Way (1669) — microform
- The Poor-Whores Petition (1668)
- Past Tense Blog: Today in London’s immoral history: ‘Holland’s Leaguer,’ notorious Bankside brothel, resists siege by constables, 1632
- A Little China leader, a brothel owner, and their clashing American dreams in Gold Rush San Francisco by Noel C Cilker (2018)
- The Oldest Profession (podcast): Ah Toy (October 2017)
- The World of Chinese (website): Badass Ladies of China: Ah Toy by Anjana Venugopal (January 2016)
- Unbound Feet: A social history of Chinese women in San Francisco by Judy Yung (1995)
- A Woman to Know by Julia Carpenter (July 2020)
- E. J. Bellocq’s photographs of Storyville & Mahogany Hall
- 64 Parishes (website): Lulu White by Emily Landau
- Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, race, and memory in Storyville, New Orleans by Emily Landau (2013)
- Storyville District Nola (website)