At a time where full service sex workers in Seattle euphemistically called themselves seamstresses, Madam Lou Graham was so rich that she served as an alternative to banks, giving loans to business propositions deemed too risky by bankers. She was also largely responsible for the funding of Seattle’s school system.
At the height of her power, Graham got arrested by a rookie cop who clearly did not know who he was dealing with. She was so influential that she was cleared of all charges AND had the police commissioner fired.
Lou Graham, born Dorothea Georgine Emile Ohben, was Seattle’s most famous madam. Born in Germany around 1861 (some scholars believe she was born closer to 1857) and emigrated to the United States aboard the Pacific Pride in 1881. Graham arrived in Seattle on the cusp of reforms inspired by the area’s fight for women’s suffrage. The city’s economy – largely dependent on collected fines on various forms of vice – crashed due to the revocation of liquor licenses and the closure of brothels. But Graham was an old pro and master negotiator. She met with Seattle’s most prominent businessmen, including banker Jacob Furth, to establish an upscale bawdy house on Third and Washington Streets.
Graham’s establishment rivaled the most expensive hotels of the day and she offered her employees lodging and educational opportunities. The brothel burned down in the Great Fire of 1889, but Graham didn’t miss a beat. She had amassed a fortune to not only rebuild her brothel, but to also fund a multitude of city projects, private businesses, and public education.
Graham left Seattle in 1902, as moral policing became more restrictive. She died later that year and her cause of death has been under dispute, with overdose, syphilis, and suicide named as causes. No matter how she died, Lou Graham maintains a legacy of an entrepreneur, investor, philanthropist, and the old pro who rebuilt Seattle.
Citation: Valley, Rebecca. “The Damnable Dames Who Helped Shape Seattle’s Character,” in *Atlas Obscura*, (March 16, 2016) accessed October 29, 2020
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…
Gonzalez, Sara. “Washington Court Building, (May 24, 2014) accessed October 29, 2020. Link to the source.
A blog post about the original site of Lou Graham’s brothel and the post contains links to additional resources about Graham and the building. Sara Gonzalez is a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington.
McNeill, Maggie. “Lou Graham,” in The Honest Courtesan (December 4, 2014), accessed October 29, 2020. Link to the source.
Biographical sketch of Graham written by a fellow pro.
Valley, Rebecca. “The Damnable Dames Who Helped Shape Seattle’s Character,” in *Atlas Obscura*, (March 16, 2016) accessed October 29, 2020. Link to the source.
Valley’s short essay provides details of Lou Graham’s life, along with other notable Seattle madams, and a glimpse into Gilded Age Seattle.
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