Madame Lou Graham
Updated: Mar 16
The first episode of Madames & Murderers covers the life and legacy of Seattle's forgotten founder, Madame Lou Graham. Below is the transcript of the episode as well as some super saucy pics!!
Why Hello there creeps!! Welcome to our VERY FIRST episode of Madames & Murderers, your new destination for all things debaucherous, macabre and morbidly funny as hell.
I’m your host, Malia Miglino and I am also the creator and host of everything within the Macabre Mondays universe which consists of 4 different creepy historical shows on YouTube which I’ll provide links to in the show notes in case y'all want to watch them and subscribe to my channel because you're awesome and want to!
And if you’re not into watching creepy history and want to listen to it well then, THANK YOU for tuning into my first ever episode of my first ever podcast….I’ll level with y'all, I've been putting this off for years because of nerves but we’re here, we’re doing it….Freakin insane. So i hope you guys enjoy it and like it enough to rate it/ review it/ and subscribe after the show!!
For those of you that don’t know, I’m originally from Seattle and although I’ve lived in LA for 13 years now, the Emerald City will forever remain my home and since I’m homesick as hell and I’m nervous I figured starting off the podcast with a tale from back home is the best course of action ESPECIALLY since I owe my entire public school education to this very saucy lady…
So, who exactly gets the great honor of being the first topic of Madames & Murderers you ask…..ladies & gents, today i present you with the tale of Madame Lou Graham .
Dorothea Georgine Emile Ohben (THATS a freaking mouthful ) was born in Germany and unfortunately, very little is known about her beginnings. What we do know is that she found her way to America and was working in San Francisco most likely as a prostitute when she heard the news that Seattle, at the time a hot spot for gold miners on their way to the Klondike...had a female shortage. 1 woman to every 10 men to be exact. Being the business savvy woman she was, she packed her bags and moved North and when she found herself in Seattle in 1888, she quickly learned that she had come at the EXACT right time.
Quick history lesson - Dorothea was not the first prostitute to pack up and move to Seattle looking to make it rich. In fact, in towns like Seattle where you had an influx of miners or lumberers, the majority of the women you would find in those towns would be working women. This created a strange economic phenomenon at the time where many of the women were more wealthy than the men and because of that, had a lot of pull. Clever politicians realized they could use this to their advantage by granting these women suffrage and by doing so, would manipulate women to voting and financially backing specific politicians and policies and in return, they would keep a blind eye to any illegal doings by the Madam’s and brothels.
This sort of backfired though because soon after Seattle granted women suffrage in 1883, many ladies moved to town because of it, think about it, in a time where women were looked at as second class citizens and arm candy, it would be a delicious thought to be able to live somewhere that your voice actually mattered. But what happened was so many of these classy ladies moved into town and realized they really didn’t like their men coming home drunk smelling of whore so they started started complaining and backing progressive prohibitionists and soon, saloons and gambling halls were all illegal. BUZZ KILL.
Except the issue with THIS, is these were many of the cities most profitable establishments and them closing their doors all but destroyed the towns economy. Then men did something they are very good at doing….they took the women’s rights away and by 1888 were looking to rebuild the establishments that had once built up the city.
Enter 31 year old Dorothea. She was never described as attractive but regal, although her 5 foot 2 inch frame was sometimes referred to as being 3 feet thick.RUDE. She was witty and intelligent and beyond all else, business minded. This bitch was no joke. So when she rolled into town on the steamer Pacific Pride, in probably a badass outfit with some sort of large brimmed hat with a feather in it...honestly in my mind I’m picturing Kathy Bates in Titanic but anyways... she didn’t waste time checking into a hotel, no she went and found herself a man with money.
Meet banker Jacob Furth, another European born citizen who made their way to Seattle via San Francisco. Furth has been described in the following century as one of the “most important citizens Seattle has ever had” and for over 30 years was an incredible leader in the Seattle social and business scene. It also helped that he helped open the Puget Sound National Bank which is where Dorothea and Furth first meet.
There are a couple things about this that really sorta blow my mind. First, just the iron vagina it would have taken to roll up into a bank as a LADY without a man with the sole intention of getting money to start a business. Keep in mind, this is not a luxury women have yet, women won’t even legally be able to open up a bank account in the United States without a man and in her name until the FUCKING 60s and here Dorothea is in the 1880s giving no fucks.
Yea, take that in.
Also, lets' face it, she’s a whore, yet she has all the confidence of a white privileged gentleman. She OWNS her power, she OWNS her experience and because of her knowledge she KNOWS what men want, and she knows she can (excuse the pun), prostitute the hell out of it.
Our hero approaches Furth and proposes a business plan to open a fine brothel establishment with prices comparable to the finest hotels except at HER place, you’d get to sex it up with the cities most gorgeous and educated women. Oh and bonus points? If you worked for the government, you’d get all of that FOR FREE. Can you even imagine what Furth might have been thinking? A - who the hell are you? And B- FUCK YES here’s a loan you go forth and prosper you short sassy minx.
Ok, let me back it up and for historical purposes I will mention that Furth passes along the idea to some other businessmen but long story short, Dorothea got the loan and the go ahead to open the sex haven Seattle so badly needed. But to do that, Dorothea would need a bank account to deposit that loan and all her future earnings and again, she's a woman, this is the 1880s, it’s illegal.
This brings us to the demise of Dorothea and the birth of Lou Graham. You see, there was a loophole in this stupid sexist law and Furth helped Dorothea do it. You just needed to be a man ON PAPER to have a bank account….clever, no? So going forward Dorothea would be referred to as Lou or as we’ll get to know and love her as, MADAME Lou Graham.
She purchased a building on the corner of Third and Washington and immediately went to work employing the most attractive women under 30 she could find. I know….that stung me too. She had very strict requirements for her ladies; they must be educated, read the newspaper everyday and be able to carry on any kind of conversation even if political with the elite men the bordello served.
Also - here’s a fun fact. Prostitution was still very much illegal so if any of her ladies were asked what they did on the streets they were to say they were seamstresses which is why the bordello was referred to as Lou Graham’s sewing circle. Cute huh? Oh, and since Lou didn’t want to lose her ladies to the joys of motherhood, she required all her ladies to use a thimble…..any guesses what that refers to?
It’s a condom people, obviously. Don’t wanna get pricked, you know what I mean?
Tragedy struck Seattle though on June 6th of 1889 when a vat of glue spilled and started a fire that literally burned down the entire town. Not to worry though, Seattle was to be rebuilt, literally on top of the old Seattle. Lou rebuilt her bordello in the exact same spot but this time in the brick that was mandated for all new construction. The 18 months that the brothel had been opened had made her so much money that her original purchase of a somewhat humble building for $3000 was now upgraded to a whopping $25,000 four story building. There were 100 rooms to satisfy any levels of fetish or perversion. That was a weird thing to say, but I’m trying to paint an image here people.
Now, this area of Seattle was called the Lava Beds, referring to the sawdust roads and fill that the city basically was built up on which would become flooded with high tide and disgustingly….with human waste. There were a lot of fights about what the city should become post-fire and one thing city officials all agreed was that the city needed to be fire proof and ABOVE sea level. Except building that up would take about a decade and businesses were not willing to wait that long. A compromise was struck that businesses COULD open but when the city level was raised, all the standing buildings must create a new street level entrance on their second floor. The Seattle underground became the under street level streets and now basements of the buildings up above. The glass tiled skylights serving as the only light to the dark and seedy underworld. Since Seattle is grey and overcast like 90% of the year, the underground was almost always completely dark thus making it prime location for bootlegging, murder and debauchery. It is also how places like Lou’s were able to smuggle in illegal goods. Today the underground is known to be one of the most haunted areas in Seattle and luckily for us, you can actually tour it!
But before the new city streets were in and everyone was committing crimes in the grey light of a Seattle day, the smell of human waste mixed with sea water must have been awful, yet Lou’s bordello was hopping and it was said that during the time the bordello was open more business transactions went down in her drawing room than any other place in town.
Lou also had some clever ideas for marketing. To show off the ummm services she offered, she would take carriage rides with some of her ladies around town. Basically parading the hot ass around to lure men to her lair. She also released a photo and it was printed in Newspapers advertising her sewing circle. It is one of two photos that exist of Lou today and this photo is an awesome piece of historical nostalgia because within it, is a secret message.
Bordello’s didn’t just employ women, they hired men too, but since being gay back then was HIGHLY looked down upon they had to disguise their working men. They did that by dressing them in drag and always in a black dress. It was common knowledge that if a man came to a brothel and asked for the woman in the black dress, he was asking for their male employee. So this photo of Lou sitting in her parlor with her ladies, ALSO has a man in a black dress smack in the middle. Basically it was her billboard advertising that her place had it ALL. It, is, awesome.
The Benjamins were flowing at the sewing circle but Lou wasn’t stupid and knew at any moment the po-po’s could come shut her down. So she started purchasing lots of properties and invested heavily in the stock market. All of this ended up turning Lou into not just the wealthiest woman in the city, she was the wealthiest person….period. And her wealth helped save a lot of the elite families who hit hard times in 1893, helped save her friend and business partner Furth’s bank and she even donated generously to important causes and programs that were helping build up the city. She was a horizontal philanthropist y'all.
She did have one tiny misstep though when she was arrested the one and only time. At her trial, the jury of men (all of whom were customers) said they had no recollection of a brothel being associated with Lou nor had they ever heard rumors of it. Let’s just say that she was released and the Mayor in charge of the arrest was promptly voted out of office.
Yes it’s true, most the ladies in town hated Lou, probably because their men spent more time at her place than at home but there is one lady that definitely loved her and her name was Amber Delmas. PLOT TWIST - LOU WAS A LESBIAN!!!!! Fire off the confetti cannons everyone this bitch was living her TRUTH.
Ok, well she may not have been waving around a rainbow flag back in the day and most knew Amber as Lou’s housekeeper and secretary but anyone who knew them closely, knew Amber as Lou’s partner. There are many accounts of heated arguments between the two of them and one of those times leads us into the final chapter of Lou’s life and the crazy ass mysteries that surround it.
In 1902 Seattle had another moral shutdown, these had happened in the past and forced the bordello to be closed temporarily. Someone’s always gotta ruin the fun ya know? But she had always reopened. But something was different this time and instead of reopening, Lou decided Seattle wasn’t her jam anymore and I’m going to try and not take that personally. Lou and Amber moved down to San Francisco and historian’s aren’t exactly sure what happened next. Did she reopen a brothel down south, did she take a sabbatical? All we know is less than two months later, Madame Lou Graham perished.
Let the controversy begin.
How did she die? Well, I’d love to tell you but no one knows. Newspapers in Seattle now on their boring ass moral high ground decide to slander this amazing woman’s name by printing stories saying she was driven to suicide by her sinful ways. Others said she died of syphilis obviously due to her work of trade and others said she died of a drug overdose. Her obituary, although we can’t rely on it, said she died of a perforated ulcer. Sadly, we’ll never know the truth.
Then there’s the matter of all her money. When she died she had $200,000, that my friends is 5.1 million dollars today. For a woman that was INCREDIBLY smart when it came to money there for some reason was no Will…...ODD. Some say the night before her death, Amber and Lou had one of their heated arguments that led to Amber ripping up Lou’s will. The reason Amber tore up the will it is said is because in it Lou had named Amber’s daughter Ulna as the chief heir. Is it true? Again, we will never know. A lot of ugly things happened for Amber though after her lovers death including a custody battle with the state over her daughter that she lost and her daughter was then sent to a reform school to “save her” from her mothers evil ways. So you can say one death lost her two lives.
As for the money? Well, some say there was a will and it was given to Amber and Amber then invested the money into the King County School District like Lou apparently wanted, another says that it was sent to Lou’s family in Germany, other reports claim the family was fraudulent and was given back to the state. Basically what I’m saying is for a woman that lived her life boldly, hiding in plain sight in a way more clever than most Madame’s, her death and fortune appear to be the most scandalous and mysterious thing about her, which is ironic considering booze, sex and gambling were her trade.
The only fact we know is her fortune however it happened, DID find its way to the King County School District and helped pave the way for the public school system of today that I personally attended.
Of course, there are no schools named after her, there are no memorial plaques or gardens dedicated to her name that children can run by and honestly, it really depresses me. I first heard Dorothea’s name when I took the underground tour a couple years ago when I was visiting back home. I couldn’t believe I had spent 12 years in the Seattle public school system and never once heard her name uttered in a history class. All of the other founders were named. I knew all about the white men that had pushed out the Natives and built up this city. But no word about the woman that was there saving their asses when they went bankrupt, the woman that owned the building in which they were able to amass power, no word about the woman who paid her employees decent wages, made sure they were practicing safe sex in a time no one cared about that and who paid for the very foundation of the buildings I got my education. And why? Because she dare profit from the most natural of human instincts?
There are many awful and dark elements to selling sex for money. Most women are forced into it without choice, kidnapped and traded or perhaps their circumstances rendered them in a situation where they felt they had no other choice and in Dorothea’s time? If you weren’t born into money or married and you were a woman? You often HAD no other choice. But in the dim and dark reality Dorothea gave women somewhere safe to work and when they retired from her bordello, they had amassed a fortune of their own.
Dorothea’s life's not about a Madame, it is about a woman who made the most out of a social climate and came out on top. She is a shining example of the female spirit, of our strength, of our perseverance. She is a woman worthy of remembering, of honoring and she is worthy of being mentioned alongside the other founders of Seattle in classrooms.
So, if you’re like me and feel it’s important to visit peoples graves then if you ever find yourself in Seattle, make your way to the Lakeview Cemetery where you can personally say hello to Dorothea.
Until next week…,Cin Cin Creeps!!
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