With Hulu’s new brothel drama, ‘Harlots,’ available for streaming, we look back at some of the most well-known female brothel owners in history.
Created, directed and produced mainly by women, Harlots explores the perspectives of brothel owners and prostitutes in 18th century London and dares to look at sex work through an empathetic lens.
It’s a refreshing take to see a story told through a cast of female antiheroes, and it makes one wonder what life was really like for history’s real-life prostitutes-turned-brothel madams.
Here’s a look at five famous madams from around the world who were pioneers in the industry.
Elizabeth Cresswell – London
Though born a common woman, Elizabeth Cresswell rose up the ranks of social status and became one of the wealthiest independent female brothel owners in 17th century England. Being somewhat protected by King Charles II — since many high ranking court members were patrons of her business — Cresswell had a network of brothels extending throughout Great Britain, which featured a variety of women (including some noble women) at her customers’ disposal. She became so famous that she was a fixture of pop culture and political propaganda during her lifetime.
Marguerite Gourdan & Justine Paris – Paris
Already established as successful prostitutes and brothel owners, Marguerite Gourdan and Justine Paris decided to combine their business savvy to create the most famous brothel in 18th century Paris. The brothel offered a variety of services for both high and low end clientele. There were special rooms for taboo affairs, and the ladies allowed willing members of the French court to volunteer at the brothel. The famous Cassanova even used it as a setting for his memoirs. Although business was booming, Justine never got to see the extent of its success; she died of syphilis the same year she opened the famous bordello with Marguerite.
Ada & Minna Everleigh – Chicago
Justine Paris and Marguerite Gourdan weren’t the only women who decided to go into business together. In 1900 sisters Ada and Minna Everleigh opened the Everleigh Club in Chicago — the most extravagant and successful brothel in America that hosted millionaires, politicians and international royalty. With high standards and rules, the club was actually known as one of the best places to be employed in the city. When vice laws shut the brothel down 11 years later, the Everleigh sisters walked away with millions.
Tilly Devine – Australia
In 1900, the same year that the Everleigh sisters opened up their business in Chicago, Tilly Devine was born down under in Sydney, Australia. Devine became a wanted crime lord — working as both an infamous thief, drug dealer, and a legal owner of most of the bordellos in Sydney. (Australian men were not allowed to own brothels.) Devine became one of the richest women in Australia, known for buying luxury cars and jewelry, and allocated a portion of her wealth to buy off authorities. Despite being prone to violence and jailed innumerable times for prostitution, drugs, and even attempted murder, she also built a reputation for being charitable.
Lulu White – New Orleans
Part of Lulu White’s charm was that the general public of New Orleans didn’t quite know where she was from. Was she from Alabama? Cuba? Jamaica? White, on different occasions, would lay claim to each, although she was actually born in Alabama in 1868. She got her start posing for pornographic photos in the 1880s, and in 1894 established her high-end brothel, Mahogany Hall, in Storyville, the only place where prostitution was legal in New Orleans.
Calling herself the “Diamond Queen” for claiming to having the largest private jewelry collection in the South, White exploited the “exotic,” proudly touting that all of her prostitutes were one eighth black. It was her way of rebelling against the Jim Crow laws. Soon after prostitution in Storyville was shut down in 1917, White got into trouble with the law in a serious way: She opened a brothel too close to a military base and consequently served three years of jail time. After getting pardoned by President Woodrow Wilson, White went right back to what she knew: she opened up another brothel and stayed in business until her death.