Lape’s exploration of her great-great-grandmother’s life reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of a Midwest madam.
Lizzie’s frequent self-reinventions—and eight marriages—yielded multiple surnames throughout her life. She was born in Whitley County, Kentucky, in the mid-19th century, and was “living the low life in Chicago by the time she was 18.” Her adventures eventually brought her east to Ohio, where she became the owner of multiple establishments of ill repute, including the White Pigeon in Marion, a gathering spot with “the best girls, the best buffet, [and] the best poker games.” Her creative use of limited resources made her an undeniable force, able to navigate the law and even get in the good graces of future president Warren G. Harding. (Lape speculates that Lizzie and Harding, then a newspaper editor, plotted a fake police raid of the White Pigeon in order to catch a Harding competitor red-handed.) However, Lizzie’s motivations and convictions remain matters of conjecture, as the documents Lape has unearthed don’t indicate much about her forebear’s interior life. Lizzie’s outward traits are likewise somewhat murky; readers don’t ever really discover whether she was loud, funny, mean or charming. Yet there are some intriguing insinuations of Lizzie’s personal qualities; for instance, she opportunistically and cleverly volunteered the Pigeon to a revivalist church in 1903, in order to create a mission for unwed mothers—“a win-win opportunity to the community.” Lape also shows how Lizzie demonstrated her political leanings in unusual ways; for example, she named one of her daughters “Mary Jennings Bryan Veon,” after Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. The author’s genealogical investigations are meticulous, and her admirable process of uncovering the past becomes as much a topic of this biography as Lizzie herself. When Lape broadens the scope of her explorations to consider other subjects, such as the era’s postwar politics, her work is most informative (although she only minimally explores 19th century brothel life). The sections that more narrowly focus on Lizzie and her descendants, however, may be of more limited interest to general readers.
A well-researched study of one American woman’s enterprising career.