Lexington, KY

The High Life of Belle Brezing: Kentucky's Favorite Madam

Heather Monroe

How a shunned little girl grew to be Lexington, Kentucky’s richest and most memorable women

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=2CGyCy_0Y7ONjI500 Belle Brezing, sometimes spelled Breezing. Circa 1895, Wikipedia

Humble Beginnings

She was born Mary Belle Cox, the illegitimate daughter of dressmaker, and occasional prostitute, Sarah Ann, on June 16, 1860. Belle was the second of Sarah’s daughters, Hester being the older girl. When Belle was a baby of one year, her mother married a man named George Brezing. Sarah changed her daughters’ last names from Cox to Brezing.

George was a saloon owner with a terrible temper, and the marriage was volatile. Gambling, drinking, and beatings quickly led to a divorce in 1866. When her marriage ended, Sarah had a brief romance with a man named Bill McMeekan, which provided much gossip around the neighborhood.

Belle was a beautiful child with long chestnut hair that spiraled down her back. She had full lips, and dark eyebrows above her brown, almond-shaped eyes. Sarah made sure her daughters always dressed well, and Belle tried very hard to make friends. But she was the daughter of a harlot, and unsuitable for friendship, according to parents and teachers. Children teased her, and Of course, she became very lonely. Instead of accepting her status as a poor white trash, Belle decided to hold her head high. If she ever felt ashamed or embarrassed, she never let them know.

On October 24, 1871, Belle’s sister, who was her only true friend and playmate, married a painter named John Norton. Hester left Lexington to build a home and family.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=2ui9eF_0Y7ONjI500 Belle, around 8-years-old, public domain image courtesy of University of Kentucky

Boys

Belle was violated at age 12 by a local merchant in his mid-30s named Dionesio Mucci. Contemporary researchers call this a two-year relationship since 12 was the age of consent in Kentucky at the time. However, intercourse never consensual between a 12-year-old little girl and a grown man such as Dionesio. Belle accepted his advances because they made her feel validated and loveable. Dionesio exploited Belle’s vulnerability for his pleasure.

At 14-years-old, Belle started to take an interest in boys her own age. She developed relationships with at least two boys, 19-year-old James Kenney and Johnny Cook (sometimes Koch). Belle found her self pregnant before she was 15.

The father of Belle’s baby could have been Johnny Cook, but James Kenney offered to legitimize the child through marriage. The people of Lexington already decided she was a girl of easy virtue, and her any marriage to a Brezing was a joke. The Lexington Daily Press backhandedly printed as much under the pretense of a marriage announcement:

“A marriage in the high life is reported between Miss Belle Brezing and Mr. James Kenney. The ceremony was performed at the residence of the bride’s mother. It was brief but most significant and performed in a manner so touching that it drew tears from the eyes of those who witnessed it. La Belle Brezing is no more. She is now Mistress Kenney.”

The couple married on September 14, 1875, but they never shared a home. Instead, Belle continued to live with her mother, Sarah.

Rock Bottom

After nine days of marriage, Belle wrote to Johnny Cook and asked him for a gun. Shortly after, Johnny was shot dead in the alleyway just outside of the gate to Belle’s home. Rumors swirled that Dionesio was the last to see him alive, but Belle’s husband is the one who disappeared not to return for a decade.

The coroner ruled Johnny’s death a suicide, but it didn’t stop the speculations of murder or whispers that Belle had a hand in Johnny’s death. When he died, Johnny had two notes from Belle in his pocket, as well as her picture.

Belle’s mother passed away on May 9, 1876. She arranged a burial at the Catholic Cemetery. Belle, Hester, and a neighbor named Mrs. Barnett attended Sarah’s funeral on that rainy day. When she returned from the funeral, Belle learned she was evicted. Sarah’s landlord threw the Brezing family’s belongings into the street and locked the doors. Belle and Daisy were effectively homeless. Belle stood in the road, baby firmly on hip, and picked out a few sentimentals that the rain didn’t ruin, including her childhood scrapbook.

Belle had no real prospects. Her husband deserted her, and Dionesio had his own family to support. Johnny Cook, who likely loved Belle and was probably the biological father of Daisy, had just killed himself.

With a heavy heart and empty pockets, Belle gave Daisy to Mrs. Barnett, who promised to care for her until Belle could. On that promise, Belle disappeared for a few months. She had no marketable skills — not in the traditional sense. Her mother taught her to sew, but Belle wasn’t very proficient at it. She knew her mother made money through selling her body and thought she might be able to as well.

Policewoman Margaret Egbert claimed Belle was a common streetwalker after she gave her baby away. She sashayed up and down the mucky streets of Lexington looking for work, and she found it. But the perils of streetwalking were too much for Belle to take; on July 24, 1879, Belle and a friend named Mollie Canton unsuccessfully attempted to end their lives with a hefty dose of morphine.

Redemption

On Christmas eve of 1880, Belle knocked on the door of 578 West Main Sreet, and Jennie Hill gave her a job in her bordello. At 20, Belle was beautiful, charming, and experienced. Men paid good money to bed one of Jennie’s girls and spent even more for time with Belle. There were other sporting women there, but Belle quickly became a fan favorite with local bankers, politicians, and even wealthy men in the horse racing community.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=08Ntn4_0Y7ONjI500Jennie Hill, the first and only Madam to employ Belle Brezing, public domain image courtesy of University of Kentucky

Belle must have wondered how Jennie and her mother shared a profession yet lived such different lives. There were no starving single mothers at Jennie’s place. And the living conditions were a stark contrast to her squalid childhood home. Just 40 years earlier, this wasn’t a house of ill repute but the girlhood home of First lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

The difference stemmed from the fact that Jennie was management, not labor. Belle decided she would become management too. She needed her own brothel. Belle shared her ambitions with Madame Jennie, who was surprisingly supportive.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3Xqh97_0Y7ONjI500Childhood home of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln located in Lexington, Kentucky, and later a brothel owned by Jennie Hill, where Belle Brezing was employed. Courtesy of FloNight at Wikimedia Commons

In July of 1881, Belle rented row houses at 314–318 North Upper Street. She knew that men with deep pockets wouldn’t spend time in a low-class establishment. Belle intended to make hers the grandest Lexington had to offer. She traveled to Manhattan and Cincinnati and purchased elegant furnishings.

Three things happened around the time Belle opened the doors to her new enterprise; She learned that her little Daisy’s mind would never develop beyond what it was. This diagnosis meant a lifetime of institutions for her daughter, and such things cost money. She was also indicted for “keeping a bawdy house.” The indictment was the closest Belle would ever get to being arrested. Thankfully, Governor Luke Blackburn gave her a full pardon. Finally, Belle once more became pregnant.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=47vZsp_0Y7ONjI500 Belle’s Pardon, Public Domain Image, Wikimedia Commons

Belle didn’t consider abortion. She was as good a Catholic as God was going to get, and she was still a married woman. She carried the pregnancy, but on July 26, 1882, she buried that baby in Lexington Cemetery. It is unknown if the baby was born still, or survived for some time. After Belle’s death, a portrait of an infant was found among her things.

Belle’s Bawdy house was so profitable that she opened a second one. In July of 1883, Belle purchased a home at 194 North Upper Street, a short walk from the row houses. The new brothel was even more opulent and accommodated more working girls.

The neighbors didn’t particularly enjoy the population of notorious women and their customers. Lexingtonions weren’t prudish as a whole, but they didn’t want the demimonde encroaching upon their residential neighborhoods. Such establishments belonged in the red-light district. They successfully petitioned the city to have the brothels shut down.

During that time, Belle met the man who would become her lifelong companion, William Mabon. William worked for the water company, but his brother-in-law was part of the Morgan Family. The Morgans were old southern money. They owned banks and rubbed elbows with the likes of Henry Clay and John Jacob Astor. Belle loved William dearly and not for his money — though it undoubtedly helped.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3cRwpZ_0Y7ONjI500 Bill Mabon in one of Belle’s parlors. Public Domain Image

Belle made another important acquaintance in multi-millionaire William M Singerly. William Singerly was a newspaper publisher, Champion horse breeder as well as a horse racer and from Philidelphia. He only came to stay a few weeks of the year, much to Billy Mabon’s dismay, since he had to make himself scarce during these visits.

William Singerly so enjoyed Belle’s company and establishment, that when the citizens pushed her out of the Upper Street properties, he purchased a home for her at 59 Megowan Street, the home TIME magazine called “the most orderly of disorderly houses.”

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=1MJU33_0Y7ONjI500 Bill Singerly, ca 1885, Public Domain Image, Wikimedia Commons

Like the others, Belle pulled no stops when it came to decor. Exquisite Persian rugs adorned the floors, and each working girl had her own private room to entertain in. She imported the most excellent French Champagnes, and it flowed freely.

Belle had strict rules for her ladies. No cursing, smoking or drinking in public. If they were on the first floor, they were to dress in evening gowns provided by the madam. They were not to advertise by sitting outside on the porch or hanging out windows and motioning customers over. She’d often take the girls on shopping trips or to town, and she expected them to dress modestly and behave like ladies.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=0oyV05_0Y7ONjI500 Belle in her final home. Public Domain Image

Belle had rules for her clientele as well. During the Spanish-American War, there was a heavy military presence in Lexington. Only officers in the Army could enter Belle’s place to drink alongside Lexington’s upper echelon, and they were made to conduct themselves like gentlemen.

Over time, 59 Megowan Street became more than a whorehouse. Belle’s place provided a sanctuary where men might mingle with women far more interesting and beautiful than they could attract anywhere else. Often, the men would remain on the first floor to fraternize and drink but never go upstairs with a lady. If they did, it was with absolute confidentiality. If Belle saw her patrons in public, she treated them as perfect strangers.

Belle was a madam, not a pimp. The women working from Belle’s house kept the money they earned. Belle might take a cut for clothing allowances and laundry, but never for services rendered. Belle held a liquor license, and the men would pay many times over her costs for a drink and conversation.

Every day, at the close of business, Belle brought stacks upon stacks of cash to the bank. People who at one time wouldn’t speak to Belle now tripped over themselves to wait on her. Still, they couldn’t be linked to her publicly. When a fire destroyed a local hospital, Belle rushed to replace all of the bed linens. When nurses discovered Belle was the benefactor, they promptly returned the gifts. When a local prostitute named Debby Harvey was savagely murdered, Belle alone paid for a proper burial.

In 1895, a fire swept through the attic of Belle’s place. People must have wondered if this would end her career. Belle could have closed the house, but instead, she expanded by adding a third floor.

Then, in 1898, her friend, best patron, and benefactor, Willliam Singerly, died suddenly of heart disease. Belle was grief-stricken.

Retirement

The Temperance Movement gained velocity, and in 1915, Lexington issued an ordinance to close down the brothels. At first, the local madams, including Belle, operated illegally. But then, the Army ordered the bawdy houses closed at the start of World War I.

Belle acquiesced. She was nearing 60 years old and made more than enough money to live out her years with Billy in the home they both loved so well. Belle Brezing went into quiet retirement. Sadly, her beloved Billy died on February 16, 1917. Their relationship spanned 34 years.

Somewhere along the lines, Belle became dependent on opiates. She took them intravenously and kept her doctor nearby to dose her whenever she needed it. Belle also developed uterine cancer, which was likely very painful. It isn’t clear if Belle simply needed to get high, or if she suffered from chronic pain and the addiction was a result of the treatment.

Belle became reclusive during her last two decades of life as she grew older and less able to care for herself. She was content to watch the people walk past her house, seemingly unaware she was in it. On August 11, 1940, Belle passed away in her home at the age of 80, surrounded by her beautiful things.

Aftermath

Though the author denied it, Belle Brezing might have been the model for Belle Watling, the philanthropic madam of Margaret Mitchell’s classic Civil War novel, Gone With The Wind. It isn’t difficult to draw parallels between the fictional Belle and the real Belle.

Belle’s house on North Upper Street is now part of Transylvania University’s athletic complex.

Shortly after her death, Belle’s belongings went up for auction with the proceeds going to the support and care of Daisy May. It took three days to sell Belle’s massive estate. The auction drew an enormous crowd of spectators and buyers. Jewelry inscribed with men’s names, furniture, and her wardrobe fetched over 100 times their value. Belle’s silver-plated chamber pot alone brought $400.

In 1973, a fire destroyed the third floor of Belle’s former home, and the city decided to demolish it. On March 23, 1974, a second auction sold details of the house, including bricks, mantles, and doors.

Today, Belle is remembered as one of Lexington’s most colorful citizens and successful madams. Some remember the little girl who was shunned on the playground, the preteen who was raped, or the abandoned young mother who did whatever she could to care for her little girl. Others forget those aspects of Belle because they aren’t as pretty. Some folks don’t come off so well in that chapter of Belle’s story. They instead remember her money. And as Belle would agree, money covers a multitude of sins.

“Sitting tonight in my chamber, a schoolgirl figure and lonely, I kiss the end of my finger, that and that only.” — excerpt from Belle’s Poem, Kisses age 12

Sources:

Wicked Lexington, Kentucky, Fiona Young-Brown

Belle Brezing: American Magdalene, Doug Tattershall

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I am a freelance writer, mom, and genealogist from California. I adore rock hounding, and living my best RV life.

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