Lizzie Lape

Lizzie Lape: The Most Prolific

Madam in Ohio

Lizzie Lape was one of the most prolific madams in the Midwest during the 19th century. She owned numerous brothels and saloons throughout Ohio and even boasted a future president of the United States as one of her regular customers. Lizzie Lape’s history was unrecognized until her great-great-granddaughter set out to uncover and share her story. What stuck out to us at Old Pros was that despite being a stigmatized sex worker, Lizze Lape exercised an incredible amount of mobility and resilience throughout her life. She was a member of the first generation of married women able to keep their property after divorce, a newfound financial freedom that made it more possible for women to leave abusive or dissatisfying husbands.

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Rogers was born in Whitley County, Kentucky in 1853 to Cynthia and Prior Rogers. Her family lost their property in the aftermath of the Civil War and seem to have been in a chaotic state when Lizzie left home to head for Chicago, Illinois at age fourteen. We don’t know the specifics of why she left, but Lizzie joined thousands of other people who were migrating from farms to rapidly industrializing cities.

We know that Lizzie engaged in sex work almost immediately upon her arrival in Chicago. She seems to have fared well at a good brothel until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 brought everything, including the oldest profession, to a screeching halt. Lizzie fled the city with her “best customer” and Union soldier, Jeremiah Lape.

The couple married, settled in Jeremiah’s hometown of Plain City, Ohio, and welcomed baby Henry Arville Lape to the family in 1882. But the archive shows that by later in 1882, Lizzie Lape was a border in Columbus, Ohio, not far from the city rail station. It’s not clear if young Arville remained in her custody throughout this time, and the couple divorced. Lizzie Lape continued to travel all over the region, eventually accumulating eight husbands.

After leaving Columbus, she rented a saloon in Dayton, Ohio near the local train depot. Lizze Lape often picked places near rail stations, probably because this made visiting her establishment easier for travelers. After Dayton she moved to Lima, Ohio.

In Lima, Lizzie Lape married a local thief named George Hoffman, a proprietor of a local saloon called the Junction House. Lizzie Lape ran a brothel and enjoyed the bounty from George’s stolen property ring. But in 1885, the police raided the Junction House and took Lizzie, George, and several of their associates into custody for possessing stolen property.

Upon release, she moved to Marion, Ohio in 1866. She purchased the White Pigeon and the Red House, two adjacent properties. These establishments, also near the local rail station, became well known for good food, good whisky, and the best company money can buy. One of the regular customers was the then-owner of the Marion Daily Star, future President Warren G. Harding.

In 1877, Lizzie Lape married Jack Larzelere in Columbus, but continued to run the White Pigeon and lived in Marion. In 1889, she and Jack were arrested for keeping a “House of Ill Fame” and were sentenced to the Cleveland Workhouse. Upon release, she set up shop in Akron, Ohio, running a brothel called the Halfway House because of its midpoint location between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Lizzie and Jack divorced in 1890.

In what appears to be a short and intense relationship, she married Henry DeWitt in Canton, Ohio’s red light district before returning to the Halfway House in Akron. Henry soon became abusive, and Lizzie filed for divorce after the first incident of violence.

At the same time, Lizzie began a relationship with her father-in-law John DeWitt, who also became her son, Arville’s, guardian. John took over the boy’s trust and even drew pension payments from the first husband, Jeremiah Lape, after his death on behalf of Arville. John and Lizzie Lape maintained multiple properties, but in 1894, the relationship fell apart. They filed for divorce, and Lizzie moved to Columbus temporarily, likely to hide a pregnancy. She gave birth to Edna Lape in 1895, but no father is listed in the archive.

In April 1895, Lizzie’s divorce from John DeWitt was final. She had her property, custody of her son, and some alimony. In July 1895, she married Charles Veon. In 1896, she gave birth to Mary Veon, and the family moved to Stow, Ohio.

Although Lizzie Lape maintained ownership of the White Pigeon and several other properties, she hired managers to oversee daily operations. By this point police raids and an increasing moral panic about brothels was costing her considerable time and money.

Eventually, Lizzie divorced Charles and made her way to Shelby, Ohio where she ran a brothel before marrying husband number seven, William B. Shetler. Lizzie and William sold the White Pigeon in 1904, and she divorced him in 1905.

She married John D. France in 1908, husband number eight. We do not know how the couple met, but Lizzie Lape lived on his farm until she disappeared from the archive. He’s listed as a widower in the 1920 census, but it’s unclear if John France claimed that status because of Lizzie’s death or a previous spouse’s.

Lizzie Lape’s story is not just a story about sex work, but also is a window into women’s economic mobility in the 19th century. Lizzie Lape had a chaotic and challenging life, but she never let a man keep her somewhere she didn’t want to be.

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…

[1] Jane Ann Turzillo, Wicked Women of Ohio, (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing), 2018.

[2] Ibid, 31

[3] Ibid, 34

[4] Ibid, 44

[5] Ibid, 45

[6] Ibid, 46

Turzillo Jane Ann. 2018. Wicked Women of Ohio. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing. 

Turzillo’s work highlights a number of infamous Ohio women – including Old Pros – and Lizzie Lape is among those stories. 

Lape Debra. 2014. Looking for Lizzie: The True Story of an Ohio Madam Her Sporting Life and Hidden Legacy. Place of publication not identified: Debra Lape.

Debra is the great-great granddaughter of Lizzie Lape and she spent years researching, uncovering, and telling her grandmother’s story!