Belle Brezing Was Lexington, Kentucky’s Most Successful Madam
With razor sharp wit and a keen eye for business, Belle Brezing (1860 – 1940) clawed her way out of humble beginnings and eventually claimed her space as Lexington’s most successful Madam. Belle Brezing’s reputation was nationally known and served as the inspiration for the Belle Watling character in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
Belle Brezing’s Early Life & Marriage
Belle Brezing was born June 16, 1860 as Mary Belle Cox, the second child of Sarah Ann Cox, a sex worker and dressmaker. Sarah married a saloon owner named George Brezing, whose name Belle adopted. The marriage was riddled with abuse, infidelity, and drunkenness, leading to divorce in 1866.
In 1871, Hester Brezing married and left home. One year later, 12-year-old Belle Brezing began a 2 year relationship with a 36-year-old Italian man named Dionesio Mucci. Belle Brezing had three sexual partners by the time she was fifteen: Dionesio Mucci, John Andrew Cook, and James Kenney. Belle Brezing’s third union was a marriage to James Kenney in 1875. The Lexington Daily Press mocked the couple and Belle’s reputation. The marriage was short-lived. James Kenny left town 9 days after the body of John Andrew Cook was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head outside of Belle Brezing’s back gate. Police ruled John Andrew Cook’s death a suicide, although local papers claimed it was murder.
There’s no archival evidence to prove that Belle Brezing and James Kenny ever communicated after his departure, but their daughter Daisy May was born in March 1876. Belle Brezing’s mother, Sarah Ann, died 2 months later, leaving her daughter and granddaughter, Daisy May, homeless. A neighbor, Mrs. Barnett, kindly took custody of Daisy May, and Belle Brezing became a sex worker.
Although she never returned to her mother’s custody, Daisy May received financial support from Belle Brezing for the rest of her life. As a toddler, Daisy May was diagnosed with developmental disabilities and, at Belle Brezing’s request and financing, was enrolled in a private institution in Newport, Kentucky.
Belle Brezing’s “Bawdy” Houses
After her mother passed, Belle Brezing was transient for 2 years before moving into Lexington’s most famous upscale brothel, owned by Jennie Hill. After two years in Jennie Hill’s house, Belle Brezing opened her first brothel at 314 N Upper Street. Her second house opened in 1883 at 194 N Upper Street. In 1889, moral reformers went after vice in major cities across the country and championed to crack down specifically on sex work. Belle Brezing was indicted for “keeping a bawdy house,” a charge pardoned by then-governor Luke Blackburn.
Belle Brezing’s most famous house opened in 1891 at 59 Megowan Street using a loan from Philadelphia millionaire William Singerly. The Megowan house attracted national clientele as men traveled to Lexington for the horse racing industry and other forms of vice. The Megowan house caught fire in 1895, but was rebuilt to get national attention during the Spanish-American war as soldiers stationed in Lexington frequented Belle Brezing’s place.
Belle Brezing’s Retirement & Death
Belle Brezing’s brothel didn’t survive the temperance movement in 1915 when anti-vice policies closed down all brothels on the hill. Later developing a morphine addiction from the pain of uterine cancer, she lived the rest of her life in the Megowan house. Belle Brezing died on August 11, 1940 the age of 80.
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
Archival Collections & Primary Sources
Brezing, Belle. The Belle Brezing Photographic Collection, 1868-1983. Special Collections and Archives, University of Kentucky.
The series consists of one hundred and fifty items from the personal collection of Belle Brezing. They include albumen, tintypes, and chloride/bromide DOP/POP prints, popular studio processes of the time.
Lexington Board of Commerce. Illustrated Lexington, Kentucky: Pictorially Showing the City’s Points of Interest, Public Buildings, Leading Business Houses, Industrial Interests and Picturesque Scenes. Lexington: Transylvania Printing Company, 1919.
Published by the City of Lexington’s Board of Commerce, this book is a Progressive Era primary source of descriptions and images of the city’s major historical sites and points of interest.
Bolin, James Duane D. Bossism and Reform in a Southern City: Lexington, Kentucky, 1880-1940. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
An academic study of Gilded Age Lexington, Kentucky that focuses on the city’s growth, urbanization, and industrialization, that attracted many to the city. Bolin’s work also disrupts the picturesque view of Lexington by centering his work on political corruption, race relations, and the famed vice district in the city.
Edwards, Anne. The Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New Haven, CT: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
A biography of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With The Wind. The book speaks to Belle Brezing’s influence on the story’s characters.
Wall, Maryjean. Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014.
The most recent biography of Belle Brezing’s life and influence on Kentucky history, political affairs, and popular culture.
Wright, Jr., John D. Lexington: Heart of the Bluegrass. Lexington: Lexington-Fayette County Historic Commission, 1982.
Wright’s work is a deeper dive into the history of Lexington and Fayette County from frontier Kentucky prior to statehood in 1792, to the late-1970s.