The Notorious Reign of the Black Bordello Queen
She spent 46 years a slave. Then Madam Priscilla Henry built a brothel business so successful she earned a life-changing fortune—and scores of enemies vying for her crown.
In the fall of 1895, Madam Priscilla Henry lay on her deathbed in one of the lavish bordellos that she’d used to entertain patrons for decades. The Premier Lady of Sex Work in Victorian St. Louis had built an empire estimated to be worth at least $100,000 — the equivalent of about $3.7 million today — but she seemed remorseful over her dealings and fate as her health waned.
“She was often heard to remark that her sufferings were a heavenly visitation sent upon her as a punishment for her sinful life,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. There were plenty in this town who agreed with Henry’s own harsh assessment.
“Wicked, Notorious, Old Priscilla Henry is Dead,” chastised the supremely blunt headline in the Post-Dispatch, decrying the madam’s career as “Pandering to Depraved Passions.”
Yet Madam Henry had her defenders, too. She rubbed shoulders with some of the most prominent people in St. Louis, and the vitriol that met her death was balanced by outpourings of praise. Even the Post-Dispatch, which branded her “the wickedest wench in St. Louis,” had to admit that “the deceased was one of the most remarkable women of her class that ever lived.”
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