This article appeared in the Summer 1967 edition of the Montgomery County Historical Bulletin
MRS. HEDGES’ HOUSE
By Roz Young
It makes a sensitive person heartsick to see the wrecking ball of progress reduce a fine old building to rubble. Regret for what once was and cannot be again is no stranger to any of us.
But when the area known as the Haymarket was bulldozed into crushed stone and splinters and finally open land by the progress of urban renewal not long ago, nobody shed a tear or raised a protest even though many a once splendid mansion of an early day was among those reduced to wreckage.
There was a time in the last part of the previous century and the early part of this one when one of the tree-lined streets in the Haymarket was as well known as Main Street or Third. Pearl Street ran for three blocks from 1100 East Fifth to Wayne Avenue, intersected by McLain and Howard Streets. Thirty-eight houses, most of them large, red, brick, Victorian structures, lined the street besides a cigar factory, a livery stable and the city haymarket and weigher’s office.
Most of the houses were ornately trimmed; each had the name of the proprietor, a single woman posted in the door glass or permanently etched there, and at night, in the window on a table sat a red lamp, spreading its cheery invitation to all. Within the houses many women followed a profession dignifies only by its extreme age.
Pearl street, while admittedly the most sinful spot in town, was generally a cheery place. On warm summer evenings strollers along the sidewalks noted that every room in the commodious houses was lighted, and from the open windows came the sprightly tinkle of player pianos and the bacchanalian shouts of the happy customers.
The houses along Pearl Street, as well as a few others in town, flourished under police control. The women who pursued their calling- there were about 150 of them altogether- had first to register with the police, be photographed and take a physical examination. No known criminals or diseased persons were permitted to work in the houses; in this the police tried to preserve the city’s reputation as being a “nice, clean town.”
Through good times and bad, the houses of the red light district kept open and prosperous. Finally, however, the religious and some civic elements in the city, after a long and wrathful campaign, forced the end of legalized prostitution. The once elegant houses fell into shabbiness, disrepair and decay until at last the bulldozers moved in. Today, not a scrap of Pearl Street remains and grass grows where once some of the most elegant men in Dayton hurried with light foot toward a favored house in which to spend an evening.
In every town in every profession, a few persons enjoy the reputation of being the best. Lawyers pridefully point to their top men; doctors defer to a handful of their finest.
On Pearl street, the queen of all the madams was an imposing individual known as Lib Hedges. She kept a house for 39 years and in all that time, no one denied that Mrs. Hedges had the finest house, the prettiest girls, and the most genteel clients. To her pleasure palace came not only, the sporty young men of the city, but also men of maturity, judges, lawyers, city officials. They came confidently, knowing that she never talked and that their exits and entrances through the back room would forever remain a secret. And they did, too. Once when one of the girls came down with diphtheria and the health department clamped a quarantine on the house, the mayor, himself, was rumored caught there for 10 days, but which mayor he was, not even the most persistent reporter could find out now.
She was born Elizabeth Richter in Germany in 1840. The details of her early live have vanished into the mists of the swirling years. But somehow, she came to Dayton and married a no-good chap who shortly left her to make her own way in the world.
She was 36 years old, a tall, striking woman with piles of red hair on top of her head, strong features and much given to frilled shirtwaists and long, billowing skirts for daytime wear and elaborate brocades and velvet for evening. She opened a saloon on South Main Street opposite the Fairgrounds in 1876, where she sold beer in the front rooms at five cents a glass and dispensed other attractions in the back rooms at considerably higher prices.
Elizabeth had a flair; her customers came again and again. She soon added to her staff, recruiting only girls from out of town, being canny enough to avoid the entanglements that local girls might bring on.
For seven years she ran the South Main Street Saloon. By then she had saved enough money to build an impressive place of red pressed brick trimmed with white carved stone at 30 Warren Street near the canal. She took a partner, too; this was her younger sister who for business purposes adopted the name of Louisa La Fontaine. Louisa was 26.
Three years after expanding into the Warren Street house, Mrs. Hedges set her sister up independently in a fine house on the corner of Howard and Pearl. A red brick, also, it had on the first floor a front and back reception room, a front and back parlor, a piano parlor, dining room and kitchen. The second floor was given over to seven bedrooms. The house was richly furnished and embellished with draperies, pictures, statuary, ornamental vases and other art objects.
Oh, how the money rolled in! Lib invested her surplus in stocks and real estate; at one time she owned over 100 pieces of property in the city. She was generous. She set a fine table for the girls and personally saw to it that each one had a bank account. If any girl decided to marry and leave her establishment, Elizabeth gave her a lovely wedding and set the couple up in one of her properties. If one died, as happened a few times, she gave her a fine funeral and a resting place in Woodland cemetery.
After one of the girls died and was buried, Mrs. Hedges decided to purchase a family plot in Woodland. She bought a corner lot on the hilltop with room for 16 graves. She then had the bodies of her parents, Herman and Elizabeth Richter, reinterred there, as well as that of the girl, whose marker reads only “Lora, 1856-1883.”
Louisa’s house was also happy and thriving. But in 1893, she fell ill, a victim of stomach cancer, and after a long illness during which Elizabeth stayed with her constantly, she died May 23, 1894.
She was buried on the hilltop next to the spot Elizabeth had chosen for herself, and she erected an imposing granite shaft topped by a seated figure of a weeping goddess, done in the Greek style. It is one of the finest monuments in the cemetery.
Lib was executrix of Louisa’s estate and received all her property with the exception of one special bequest which proved to be a great embarrassment to the recipient and a source of much gossip among the townfolk.
William, Moses, Lee and Ralph Wolf were four prosperous brothers who lived with their widowed mother Sarah on Jefferson street not far from Warren. William and Moses operated a business under the name of Wolf Brothers, General Bill Posters and Distributors. The other two, operating as Lee Wolf and Brother, were manufacturers of cigars and dealers in tobacco and confections. They also sold books, music and operated a news depot. Both companies worked out of 100-104 South Jefferson.
Whether the Wolf brothers patronized the houses of Elizabeth and Louisa, we shall never know. All are long gone. But one of the brothers certainly made a spot for himself in Louisa’s heart somehow, for the second item of her will read:
“I give, devise, and bequeath to my friend, Moses C. Wolf, of Dayton, Ohio, the sum of one thousand dollars; also my horse and phaeton and the set of harness belonging to same…I make this bequest to my said friend as an expression of my appreciation of his uniform kindness to me.”
Of her sister, Louisa said in her will: “I give, devise and bequeath all the rest and residue of my estate, real and personal, to my beloved sister, Elizabeth Richter, formerly Elizabeth Hedges, she to have, hold, and own the same in fee simple, absolutely and forever. I make this bequest in favor of my said sister and to the exclusion of my other relatives because of the intimacy, love and affection that exists between us, and because of her kindness to me in sickness and distress.” The will was witnessed by her physician, D.M. Scheibenzuber, and John M. Sprigg, her attorney.
Shortly after Louisa’s death, Elizabeth leased her Warren Street property to Clarence Gebhart, an insurance man, and moved to the Pearl street address.
She had an eye for business. On Sunday afternoons she went for long drives in her phaeton, accompanied by several of the girls, up one shady Dayton street and down another. They were met with uniform cold stares by the more moral women on the avenues, but it was not their glances she was interested in. It was the husbands, she had in mind, and she got them.
On Monday evenings she closed the house to take her girls to her box at the theater, usually causing as much diversion in the audience as the show on the stage. When the city fathers organized a parade to celebrate the city centennial in 1896, Elizabeth considered for a time taking a float. But she thought better of it and probably relieved a number of worries by doing so.
She permitted no coarse language or unseemly behaviour in her house. Rumor has it that the only time John L. Sullivan was knocked out was in her place. While visiting there he committed some indiscretion which Elizabeth would not abide. She indicated her displeasure, so the story goes, by hitting him over the head with a beer bottle.
Another time, so it is said, one of the local patrons, in speaking of Ollie Brown one of her girls to die in service, used a coarse word to refer to her profession. Elizabeth overheard him. Picking up a fireplace poker, she marched him into the parlor where the girls had assembled and after giving him a public lecture that would make a convert out of the roughest sinner, she threatened to spill his brains on the rug if he did not get on his knees and apologize to every girl in the room. He elected to follow her request.
One evening, the girls were entertaining their young men in the front parlor. Elizabeth was reading in the front reception room. For amusement, the girls tried to see which one could kick the highest by taking turns aiming at the chandelier. One of the girls threw herself into the project with such abandon that she made an unintentional noise.
Elizabeth, tall, costumed in floor length, plum velvet, appeared in the archway, peering into the parlor through her lorgnette.
The girls congealed in their tracks; so did the young men, their laughter dying in their throats. Her gaze slowly swept the room. “What lady,” she demanded, “done that?”
Elizabeth was generous with her contributions to charity. In 1913 Dayton was struck by the worst flood in its history. Both her houses as well as 50 other pieces of real estate she owned were in the destructive waters. To clear out the mud and filth, to replace damaged siding, foundations and furnishings, to paint, plaster and otherwise restore the buildings were herculean tasks and very expensive.
An earnest worker for the flood relief committee called on her for a subscription. “Flood relief!” Elizabeth shouted. “Why come to me? I need flood relief myself, not to be asked to donate to a subscription fund!” Then she launched into a detailed account of all the damages she had suffered.
Finally she ran out of steam. “At that, I guess I’m better off than a lot of people, the poor devils.” She fixed her sharp brown eyes on the committee member who had hoped for 500 dollars but was quite willing to take even 10. “I’ll give you something,” she growled, “but it’s not going to be much. I’ll give you two thousand dollars and not another God damned cent.”
In 1915 the police ordered all bordellos in the city to be closed. Elizabeth was outraged, as were all the other madams, but since she was ever a law-abiding citizen, she closed her place at once. The others hung on for four or five years longer, in constant trouble with the police, but finally they too, closed.
She continued to live at the Pearl Street house, but in 1918 when the city directory man came around, she told him her name was Elizabeth Richter, and from that time on she used her maiden name. In 1922, she moved back into her Warren street home. There she continued to live surrounded by her treasures of the years, her lamps, mirrors, clocks, sewing cabinet, velvet rugs, her oak furniture, her china closets filled with Havilland, her cut glass, and her Herrick Ice Machine.
On the afternoon of April 12, 1923, the following story appeared in the newspaper:
Mrs. Elizabeth Richter
The funeral will be private and will be held
Saturday morning at 9 o’clock at the residence.
Burial will be in Woodland cemetery.
The death of Mrs. Elizabeth Richter, 83, a life-
long resident of the city occurred at 8:30
Thursday morning at her residence, 30 Warren St.
She was a large holder of property and owned
stock in several Dayton corporations. Her death
followed a protracted illness.
Thus, Elizabeth Hedges finally found a quiet resting place on the hilltop along with Louisa, her parents, and three of her girls, Ollie Brown, 1843-1893, Mary Anschutz, 1877-1899, and Lora, 1856-1883.
In her will, witnessed by Roy G. Fitzgerald and William K. Marshall, she left a trust fund to the cemetery trustees to beautify and keep her family plot in good condition. She left her diamond solitaire, Louisa’s diamond locket, pictures of Louisa and her own personal belongings to a nephew along with the bulk of the estate.
Cash bequests of $1,000 each went to two other nephews and her emerald ring to Charme Wright, the daughter of her dressmaker.
She left $25,000 in war stamps, 555 shares of City Railway Company, 100 Dayton Street Railway, 24 Dayton National Bank, 140 Reliable Insurance, 300 American Rolling Mill, 100 Procter and Gamble, 100 shares Fleischmann’s Yeast and $7,000 in building and loan accounts.
She left eight vacant lots and buildings located at 16 Brown St., 13 Joe, 28-30 Warren, 610 Hickory, 1601 East Third, 101 McLain, 411-413 Montgomery, 263 Chestnut, 334-340 Sherman, 323 Troy St., 38 Horton, 612 Wayne, 623-625 Wayne, and 253 South Pearl.
The appraisers valued her estate at $202,546.17.