By Amelia Robinson
Lib Hedges was not the sort of woman you’d overlook.
The tall, strikingly beautiful redhead born Elizabeth Richter in the German kingdom of Prussia in 1840 wore billowing skirts for daytime wear and elaborate brocades and velvet at night.
When she died in 1923, her assets — earned through prostitution, real estate and investments in several Dayton companies — were worth $202,546.17.
Her long list of treasures included Haviland & Co. China, cut glass and a Herrick Ice Machine.
For nearly 40 years before that, Hedges commanded respect and admiration as the most successful madam in Dayton’s long gone, lucrative red-light district on Pearl Street.
There was Cleo LaBelle, Ferne De Marr, Fay Fontana, Flo Dowdie and a dozen other opulent madams “with opulent if over-gorgeous tastes,” according to Phillip McKee’s 1931 book “Big Town.”
But it was Lib, also called Lizzy and Lizzie during her lifetime, who reigned as queen on Pearl Street in what was then called the Haymarket section of Dayton.
The street nicknamed “Line” ran for three blocks from 1100 E. Fifth Street to Wayne Avenue and was intersected by McLain and Howard streets, according to local historian Roz Young, an author and long-time Journal Herald and Dayton Daily News columnist.
The Line had 38 mostly large, red brick homes.
“They lined the street beside a cigar factory, a livery stable and the city haymarket and weigher’s office,” Young wrote in a 1967 article on “Mrs. Hedges’ House” for the summer edition of the Montgomery County Historical Bulletin.
Piano players banged on keys in the houses, and men debated which house to visit in nearby bars.
More than 150 worked in those Pearl Street Victorians during the days of so-called police-controlled “legal” prostitution.
Hedges’ girls were considered the prettiest, and entertained the most “genteel clients,” including politicians, merchants and other city bigwigs.
Long before hipsters and Mumford & Sons, these dudes in ascots, tight pants and pointed patented leather shoes wore their hair parted in the middle and had sweeping curled moustaches.
Lib’s story fascinated Young, who died at age 92 in 2005. It also captured the attention of local resident Jim Forcum.
Forcum penned a micro-history of Hedges in 2010 called “The Queen of Dayton Madams.” We found his piece that starts with Hedges crossing the Atlantic to Dayton with her parents in around 1851 in the Dayton Metro Library’s local history room in downtown Dayton.
At the time, the city was an overgrown farm town.
Below are some facts about Hedges’ unconventional life, uncovered by Young, McKee and Forcum:
Hedges began working as a servant in a lawyer’s house at 346 Second Street at the age of 16.
Two years later, in 1868, she married Joseph R. Hedges — a man Young called a “no-good chap.” The marriage didn’t last. McKee wrote that Joseph “departed unostentatiously, leaving her (Lib) to shift for herself.”
There were apparently also a few skeletons in Lib’s closet.
She gave birth to her son, George Richter, in 1874, according to Forcum research (Joseph was not the father). Undoubtedly a sign of the times, she called him her nephew and not her son, even though he was raised in her house. (Staff photo of Richter grave site at Woodland Cemetery by Amelia Robinson)
Hedges opened her first bordello on Main Street across from the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in 1876 and sold beer for a nickel a glass. Other favorites were sold at higher prices in the back.
She saved her money and built an impressive “palace of red pressed brick with white carved limestone at 30 Warren Street near the Miami and Erie Canal in 1883.” Her beloved 26-year-old little sister Louisa took the awesome name “Louisa La Fontaine” and joined her in the business. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Palace of Sin
Phillip McKee’s 1931 book “Big Town” has a chapter on Hedges and her “palace of sin” called “Lib” that caused much controversy. There was talk about banning the book in Dayton, and parents wouldn’t let their kids read it, according to Forcum. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Speaking of McKee, he had an appreciation for good old Lib’s attributes. Here is how he described her in his book: “Lib was truly a magnificent woman. Tall, of fine figure and carriage, coarse of feature and robust of voice, inclined in her later years to an impressive embonpoint, and possessed of a splendid dignity. Her hennaed hair, in a massive and rolling pompadour, rose high over her flashing eyes. And her statuesque bust emerged triumphantly from the frilled and ruffled elegance of the gowns of a generation ago.” (Photo: Shutterstock *Not Lib Hedges)
Hotel La Grande
Louisa La Fontaine was “set up” in her own house in 1886, a red brick at 253 Pearl Street, richly furnished with front and back reception rooms on the first floor, a front and back parlor, a piano parlor, dining room and kitchen. The second floor had seven bedrooms.
Liz called her house, with its ball-fringed curtains and “wealth of massive mahogany and red plush upholstery,” the “Bon Ton Hotel.” Her sister Lou’s house was called “Hotel La Grande.” (Photo from Dayton History: 3124 Home Avenue is among the houses Lib Hedges once owned in Dayton. It is best known as Driggs' Roadhouse and Gambling Place.)
Lib was a big supporter of local charities like the YWCA and YMCA.
“Sure I’ll give something, and I’ll give all I can, too: because lots o’ them boys down there is good customers o’ mine,” she reportedly said about helping build a new YMCA building.
When a volunteer approached her for a donation after the Great 1913 Flood, Lib protested: “Flood relief! Why do you come to me? I’ll have you know I own 52 houses in the flood district, and every one of them is a mess. I have to pay for clearing out the muck, replacing damaged siding, repairing foundations, painting and plastering. Have you any idea what all this is costing me?” according to a Dayton Daily News article published in 1966. "I suppose there are plenty of poor devils who are far worse off than I am. I will give you something, but it won’t be much. I’ll give you $1,500 and not another goddamn cent!”
The average donation for an average citizen was about $10. Most city leaders gave about $500.
(Dayton History Photo: A NCR boat helping people during the 1913 flood.)
Lib helped pay for her girls’ funerals and weddings, and set some up in one of her 100 properties around town. She encouraged her girls — women from outside the city of Dayton to avoid the complications that came with hiring local girls — to save their money.
Two or three of them would been seen around town with her on Sunday afternoon in her phaeton, an open carriage. They’d join her at the casino and sit with her in her box at the Victoria Theatre. She’d give clothes, jewelry and other presents, according to McKee’s account. (Dayton Daily News staff photo)
Lib didn’t like “coarse language or unseemly behaviour in her house,” according to Young. Legend has it that the only time John L. Sullivan, the man credited as the first heavyweight champion of the world, was knocked out was in Bon Ton Hotel, after being brought there by Dayton dignitaries.
“He used a vile word in talking with Lib’s girls, and she hit him over the head with a beer bottle. His knees bent, his legs folded under him and he stretched out on the floor as he had never done in the ring,” Forcum reported in his paper.
Lib went after a local customer who spoke poorly of Ollie Brown (one of her girls who died at work) with a fireplace poker.
She marched in and gave him a lecture in front of her girls, and “promised to brain (hit him in the head) him on the spot if he didn’t get down on his knees and apologize to every girl in her house,” according to McKee. The man told the ladies he was sorry. (Photo: "John L. Sullivan: The career of the First Gloved Heavyweight Champion" by Adam J. Pollack.)
Under a goddess
Lib took care of her sister when Lou fell ill to stomach cancer in 1893. Louisa La Fontaine died on May 23, 1894.
Louisa was buried on the hilltop at Woodland Cemetery next to the spot Elizabeth had picked out for herself. Lib had an imposing granite monument topped by a seated figure of a weeping Greek-style goddess installed.
Police started forcing bordellos to close in 1916. While some madams fought to stay open for three or four years, Lib closed up shop. She stayed on Pearl Street until moving back to her house on Warren Street in 1922.
She died on April 12 the following year of heart disease at age 83 and was laid to rest on the hilltop along with Louisa, her parents Herrman and Elizabeth and three of her girls: Ollie Brown (1843-1893), Mary Anschutz (1877-1899) and a woman buried as Lora without a last name (1856-1883). Her son George and other relatives are buried nearby, near a stone that reads “Richter."
Lib’s death was “mourned privately by many of the private citizens, and publicly by none of them,” according to McKee’s book. (Staff photo of goddess overlooking Richter grave site at Woodland Cemetery by Amelia Robinson.)