Lizzie Lape

Lizzie Lape: The Most Prolific

Madam in Ohio

Lizzie Lape was the most prolific businesswoman and Madam in the Midwest during the 19th century. She owned numerous brothels and saloons throughout Ohio and even maintained a future President of the United States as one of her regular customers. Yet most Americans have never heard of Lizzie Lape until her great-great-granddaughter set out to uncover and share her story.

Lizzie Lape (1853-1917)

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Rogers was born in Whitley County, Kentucky, in 1853, to Cynthia and Prior Rogers. Lizzie left her Kentucky home at an early age – yet not long after the Civil War – and headed to Chicago. She engaged in sex work immediately, and business was booming with war veterans. But the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 brought prostitution success to a screeching halt, and Lizzie fled the city with her “best customer” and Union soldier, Jeremiah Lape.[1]

The couple married and settled in Plain City, Ohio, Jeremiah’s hometown, and in 1882, their union welcomed baby Henry Arville Lape to the family. But by 1882, Lizzie was a border in Columbus not far from the city rail station. It’s not clear if young Arville remained in her custody at this time. Lizzie traverses the state – and matrimony – accumulating eight husbands. After leaving Columbus, she landed in Dayton and rented a saloon near the local train depot. Her preference for proximity to rail stations is likely due to traveling men visiting her establishment. But her time in Dayton was short-lived, and she carried on to Lima.[2]

In Lima, Lizzie Lape married a local thief named George Hoffman, a local vice spot proprietor of the Junction House. Lizzie ran the brothel and enjoyed the bounty from George’s stolen property ring. In 1885, police raided the junction house and took Lizzie, George, and several of their associates in custody. She was arrested for possessing the stolen property and moved to Marion, Ohio, upon release. She purchased two adjacent properties in Marion: the White Pigeon and the Red House in 1866. These establishments – near the local rail station – became well known for food, libations, and sex work. One of the regular customers was the then-owner of the Marion Daily Star, future president Warren G. Harding. It’s not clear if Lizzie Lape personally knew Harding.

In 1877, Lizzie Lape married Jack Larzelere in Columbus, but continued running and residing in the White Pigeon 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 her sights on Akron. She set up shop, running a brothel called “the Halfway House” because of its midpoint location between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls.[3]

Lizzie and Jack divorced in 1890, and she married Henry DeWitt in Canton’s red light district before returning to the Halfway House in Akron. Henry was abusive, and Lizzie refused to tolerate the abuse, so she filed for divorce. At the same time, Lizzie began a relationship with her father-in-law, who also became her son’s – Arville – guardian. Oversight of the boy’s trust and even drew Jeremiah Lape’s pension payments after his death on behalf of Arville. John and Lizzie maintained multiple properties, but in 1894, it fell apart. They filed for divorce, and she 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.[4]

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

Lizzie Lape owned the White Pigeon and several other properties but hired managers to oversee daily operations, but that didn’t stop police raids and temperance reformers from cracking down on vice. Lizzie decided to get rid of her husband, Charles, and make her way to Shelby, Ohio. She ran a brothel there before marrying husband number seven William B. Shetler. By this time, her son Arville ran the White Pigeon, but he was convicted of burglary and sent to prison. That’s when Lizzie Lape found religion. In 1903, she gave the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church full use of her buildings. Soon after, Arville was paroled and began working at a local forge.[5]

In 1904, Lizzie and William sold the White Pigeon, 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.[6]

Lizzie Lape’s story is not just a history of sex work, but also gives us a glimpse into women’s mobility in the 19th century. She traversed the state of Ohio seeking, establishing, and succeeding in every business venture she touched.

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!