Madam Fan Jones (1824 – 1917)
Most Americans have learned about temperance and the Prohibition Era (1920 – 1933) when the production and distribution of alcohol for recreational purposes was outlawed by the 18th Amendment. Yet some states were well ahead of the temperance game. Maine was declared a “dry” state in 1846, after temperance activists successfully argued that alcohol was the source of all societal woes. But Maine had its “wet” spots and the city of Bangor was chief among them – and Madam Fan Jones was the old pro to know at the Sky Blue House of Pleasure.
Early Bangor, Maine
Known as “the Lumber Capital of the World,” Bangor was a coastal frontier town frequented by loggers and sailors, undoubtedly seeking their fair share of vice. Hotels, saloons, and restaurants were allowed to sell liquor after paying a biannual fine at the county courthouse in an arrangement known as the “Bangor Plan.” The amount of vice available in Bangor rapidly increased with the availability of alcohol and a red-light district known as “The Devil’s Half Acre,” formed along the city’s riverfront. In the 1850s, Madam Fan Jones opened the Sky Blue House of Pleasure just outside of Hell’s Half Acre and it became Bangor’s most popular and longest running brothel. Local legend says the brothel got its name from the sky blue-painted chimneys that would ensure drunken sailors, tourists, and businessmen would find their way to Madam Fan Jones’ for a good time.
The Rise Madam Fan Jones
Madam Fan Jones was born Nancy or Fannie Jones in Brooksville, Maine in around 1830. She was the daughter of Benjamin and Eliza Jones and she likely worked as a seamstress in her youth. It’s not clear when Fan became a sex worker, but she moved to Bangor and opened her first brothel in the 1850s and was arrested for “keeping a house of ill repute” in 1858. The arrest didn’t deter Fan and she relocated the brothel to 233 Harlow Street, in the heart of Bangor, but on the outskirts of the local red-light district. Because Madam Fan Jones was also a savvy businesswoman, persistently managing her accounts, she purchased the Sky Blue House in 1867. The brothel had twelve rooms and she kept eight working girls at the brothel, all of whom were seasoned old pros – no younger women. Each year, Madam Fan Jones and her working girls would don expensive gowns direct from Paris and participate in the opening parade for the Bangor State Fair. Sailors, loggers, businessmen, and fishermen frequented the Sky Blue House of Pleasure and locals authored short ballads that cemented its reputation.
The brothel survived the Great Bangor Fire of 1911 and Madam Fan Jones survived several run-ins with law enforcement. She was regularly fined for selling liquor and keeping a “disorderly house,” and in 1861, spent several months in the Bangor House of Corrections. In 1870, she faced another charge for operating a brothel and this time was mocked by local newspapers. The tabloid tried to turn Madam Fan Jones into a spectacle, claiming she tried to flee justice after a grand jury indictment.
Madam Fan Jones had several paramours throughout her life, but her life partner (it isn’t clear if they were legally married or common-law spouses) was a man named John Thomas. In 1858, Thomas spent four years in the Maine State Prison for robbing a bank with a skeleton key. It’s not clear when their relationship began, but by the late-1860s, Madam Fan Jones proudly sported the name Fannie Thomas and John is listed in Bangor city directories as a carriage man and boarding house manager at 233 Harlow Street. The archive doesn’t reveal if Madam Fan Jones had any biological children, but it does reveal that she adopted a daughter named Caroline Dudley. “Caddie” as she was fondly called, was born in 1864 and was adopted by Madam Fan Jones at age sixteen. Caddie went on to have four children of her own and one of her sons inherited much of Madam Fan Jones’ estate.
Madam Fan Jones’ Legacy
Madam Fan Jones Fan died in 1917 and was buried under the name Fannie N. Thomas at Bangor’s Mount Hope Cemetery. Her shrewd business practices led her to purchase her standard-sized burial plot prior to the Civil War. The size of the plot allowed Madam Fan Jones to be buried alongside friends and family – demonstrative of her financial and social status. Several people – including John Thomas – were buried in Fan’s plot. Madam Fan Jones’ generosity and her legacy live on in popular culture, as she was the inspiration for the character “Fannie Hogan” in the 1987 novel Pink Chimneys. The Sky Blue House of Pleasure stood until 1950 and is now the site of a parking lot for the Federal Building in downtown Bangor, but its legacy still remains.
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…
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