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Queen of the Kansas City Red Lights

By Ann Hathaway and William J. Griffing

    The prostitutes, madames, and bawdy houses of the frontier days are generally not well documented, for obvious reasons.  Occasionally one or the other would achieve notoriety for some reason, and more information would be recorded than usual.  A madame who achieved that level of notoriety generally was of a higher caliber and had better business sense than her sisters in the profession.  Annie Chambers was one of those notorious madames.

    Leannah Loveall was born near Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky on 6 June 1842 (her tombstone indicates 1843). [1]  When she was still quite young her father traded their farm in Kentucky for a twelve-room hotel in Sullivan, Sullivan County, Indiana, which is near the Illinois border between Terre Haute and Vincennes.  He moved his wife and five children from Kentucky to Sullivan by covered wagon.

Some years later when Abraham Lincoln was a candidate for President, he made a campaign stop in Sullivan, where a parade was held in his honor.  Leannah and some of her friends secretly made plans to ride in the parade.  The parade went right by her father’s hotel; he was standing on the corner and watched his daughter ride in honor of Mr. Lincoln.  When Leannah returned home, her father was furious, saying she had disgraced him, as he was from Kentucky, a slave state, and dead-set against the despised ‘Black Republican’ candidate.  He threw her out of the house.

Leannah packed up her things and went to live in another town with her mother’s sister’s husband, where she finished her education.  She taught school in her uncle’s hometown for a year, and then went back to Sullivan to see her mother.  While she was visiting in Sullivan, she was offered the position of schoolteacher there, which she accepted.  It was while she was teaching in Sullivan that she met William Chambers, the man who would become her first husband.  He was more than twice her age, a master of construction for a railroad.  They led a happy life for a few years, although she later claimed that at no time was she much more than fond of her husband. Their first child, a son named Willie, died when he was about a year old.  Sometime later, while expecting her second child, she went home to Sullivan to be near her mother.  Leannah’s brother, Dick, an employee in a livery stable, received instructions from William Chambers that he was to take Leannah buggy riding every day for her health.  On one of these rides the horse ran away and she was thrown from the buggy.  She was in a coma for three days, during which time her entire life would completely unravel: her baby was stillborn, her father lost his hotel, and her husband was killed in a fall from a railroad trestle under construction.

When Leannah finally regained consciousness, the shock of her current circumstances began to weigh heavily on her, and she began to think there was no use in struggling against what she believed to be her fate.  In the past she had received letters from girl friends who had gone to Indianapolis and became employed at “houses of ill fame” there; since she believed everything to be against her, Leannah determined she would go to Indianapolis and have “a short life, but a fast and merry one.”  She settled all her bills in Sullivan, and took the train to Indianapolis.  Once there, she hired a hack and directed him to take her to the best resort in town.  And so Leannah began her career in The Life.

While working at the brothel in Indianapolis, she had her first and only real love affair.  He was a tall, handsome man who wanted to marry her as soon as he could arrange matters.  But it turned out the man, a high city official, was married with several small children.  When Leannah found out, she told him she never wanted to see him again.  Not wishing to remain in Indianapolis any longer, she sold all her furniture and left for Kansas City, taking one of the girls from the house with her.

In Kansas City, she and her companion lived in a hotel for a time, until Leannah decided to rent a house down on the levee in 1869.  One of the prosperous men who frequented Leannah’s house there told her she should move up town.  Taking his advice, in 1871 she moved to a cottage at 3rd and Wyandotte, near both the Missouri River and the railroads that she rented for $30 per month.  As soon as the landlord found out what kind of business Leannah (now known as Annie) was running, he boosted the rent to $50 per month.  Later she also rented the cottage next door and built a hallway to connect the two, which boosted her rent to $100 per month.  Finally she bought the two houses outright, tore them down, and in 1872 constructed the 24-room brick mansion that eventually became the best known and best patronized house in the city.  

The entrance to her house showed Chinese influence.  Concrete pillars, textured to represent bamboo, supported a tiled roof.  The hallway inside had a tiled floor, in which the name “CHAMBERS” was set in blue tiles.  Mirrors played an important part in the hallway decorating scheme, too.  Over the stairway leading from the hall to the second floor was an elaborate filigree work of bronze where her initials, A C, were displayed in red lights.  Annie kept an elaborately decorated room in which she entertained her wine-drinking patrons.  It was across the hall from the main parlor.  It was finished in gilt and French glass mirrors of huge proportions.  The floor was laid with a thick rich red carpet.  In the big ballroom were big plate mirrors, some of them sixteen feet long and ten feet high.  Paintings of nude women, which Annie called ‘art’, hung from a moulding near the ceiling.

By 1880, Annie’s reputation was superlative.  “After a few slugs of forty-rod, we decided to see some of the city’s filles de joie, of which there was an extensive assortment, ranging from the high-priced beauties of Annie Chambers to the twenty-five-cent crones at the Lone Cottonwood.  In between there were Nellie Scott’s place on West Fourth, Lou Bregard’s on Walnut, “Mollie Pawpaw’s” on Grand, Em Williams on Third, Bessie Stevenson’s on Broadway, Mollie O’Brien’s at First and Main, “Dutch Annie’s” at Lewis’s place, and the tent kept by the notorious Becky Ragan at the foot of Main Street.  Not to overlook Jenny Armstrong, who kept “a small place of sin” at Fifth and Bluff and got arrested for beating one of her three painted mermaids with the business end of a stovelifter.  Finally, we went to the foot of Grand Avenue, down a lonely stretch of railroad track, over some cattle guards and sharp stones until we passed the gas works, descended a slippery bank and were in front of the miserable hovel known as the Lone Cottonwood, run by ‘Mother’ Smith, who was old and blind.” [2]

When one of her competitors in the neighborhood threw a party, Annie went to the party with one of her girls.  There were only nine men there, but it gave Annie an idea.  She had invitations to a party at her house printed up and sent out to the offices of prominent men in the city, marked “Personal”.  On the night of the party 108 men showed up.  She called police headquarters (only three blocks away) and had them send over two uniformed officers, one to take the invitations and one to keep the crowd in front of the house in order.  The party lasted until 10 AM the next day.  After the bills were paid, Annie found she had made a profit of $645 from the party.

Some of Annie’s girls made as much as $200 per week; they were allowed to keep half.  They also received gifts from their friends, and made a commission on the liquor they sold when it was legal.  Quart bottles of beer went for $1 and wine was $5, but Annie never sold whisky from her house.

Sometime prior to 1913, Annie married Billy Kearns, a gambler.  He eventually used money Annie gave him to move to Cincinnati and start his own business selling pianos and phonographs.  Annie visited him several times, but he encouraged her to return to Kansas City to make sure the woman she left in charge of her house wasn’t stealing her blind.  Soon after that Billy moved to Cleveland, where he obtained a divorce from Annie in order to marry another woman.

In November 1913, Annie testified before a city vice commission investigating the city’s segregated red light district.  She told the commission that the women of the district would be scattered to every part of the city if the district were closed.  She explained to the commission that the type of house she operated was a last resort for many unfortunate girls, but her arguments fell on deaf ears.  A few months later a police ban was placed on the district.  Annie found a way to beat the system, however, and she continued to do business as usual until 1921, when the house was padlocked under orders by the police commission.  Annie appealed her case to the Missouri Supreme Court, where she won her case, and she opened for business once more.  In 1923, at age 80, she finally changed her mode of operation from bawdy house to a boarding house for railroad men.

In 1931 she fell and broke her hip.  While she was recovering in her bed, one of her roomers told of seeing her ghost wandering the upper halls.  Within days her house was deserted except for herself and her handyman, Murray Darling.  She finally hit upon the idea of opening her house to the public, giving tours and lectures about her life, to earn enough money to keep a roof over her head and food on her table. 

During those tours, Annie claimed that thousands of girls had been employed in her house at one time or another, and that she believed around half of them had married and become good wives.  When asked why girls ended up at her house, she said, “In many cases, a house of this type is a haven of last resort.  The girls have been wronged by some man and cast out from home.  It is either a place like this or the river for them.  I have taken many girls in here who have told me that if I didn’t admit them that they would take poison.  So I let them in.  And then again there are girls attracted to this life because they are too lazy for anything else.  They don’t want to work for a living, preferring to lie in bed until noon.”  Then she went on to say, “I got them husbands even after they had come to my place believing that they were ruined forever.  After a while they began to have hopes, and no girl who has hopes wants to stop in a place of this type forever, no matter how well it is run and how congenial the surroundings.”

So how did she get such beautiful girls to work in her house?  She was honest when she said, “I didn’t.”  She said some of them looked even worse than homely when they came to her.  But she bought them fine clothes, taught them how to do their hair, and taught them manners.  “Manners and personality count more than looks, you know.  I wouldn’t allow them to smoke in the parlor.  The men who came here wouldn’t stand for it.  Smoking would have given my place a bad name.  It was all right if they smoked in their rooms, but never in the parlor.  The men were finicky in those days and to have seen a girl smoke in their presence would have made her appear common.”  She also kept them from drugs and alcohol, which so many prostitutes abused and which contributed to their downhill slide to camp followers and crib girls.

Annie’s house at 201 W 3rd St was on the northwest corner of 3rd and Wyandotte.  Directly south, at 200 W 4th St, was the house of Madame Lovejoy.  To the west of Madame Lovejoy was the house of Eva Prince.  In the 1896 Sanborn Fire map, 3rd St is at the top of the map, 4th St at the bottom.  These three women ran the most upscale brothels in Kansas City from the 1880’s until about 1920.  In 1924, David Bulkley, founder of the City Union Mission, bought Madame Lovejoy’s house for $5,000. It was a three-story stone mansion with 24 rooms that had been built in the early 1880s at a reported cost of $100,000 but had been vacant since the police commission dissolved the district in 1913.  Mr. Bulkley bought the house to use as a shelter for homeless men; the Bulkleys (David, his wife Beulah and daughter Ruth) would also live in the house, which they called The Harbor.  Annie was running the boarding house for railroad men in her former brothel by this time, but Eva Prince was still operating her house next door to The Harbor. 

    One day a young lady from Eva Prince’s house knocked on the door of The Harbor.  She had delivered a baby not long ago, and the baby had died a few days before.  The other girls in the house had convinced her to go to the Bulkleys and ask Mr. Bulkley to preach a funeral sermon for her baby.  Of course Mr. Bulkley agreed, and the baby was brought into the grand ballroom of the old Lovejoy mansion.  Mr. Bulkley preached a funeral sermon that had the girls of Eva Prince’s weeping and sobbing.  Unknown to those in the ballroom, the funeral sermon had another, secret listener: Annie Chambers.  The back of Annie’s mansion was quite close to the rear of The Harbor; when it came time for the funeral she opened a back window in her house and listened and wept.

    Some time later Mr. Bulkley approached Eva Prince with an offer to lease her house; Eva agreed, and Mr. Bulkley turned the house into more rooms for the homeless, calling it “Safe Harbor”.  After a time Mrs. Prince came to see David Bulkley.  He apologized for being behind on the rent, explaining the mission was short of funds at the moment.  She brushed his comments aside, saying she knew what he was doing in the house, and wanted him to have the building.  He protested, saying the building was priced at $8,000 and the mission couldn’t possibly afford it.  She sold the house to the mission for $2,000, the amount of a mortgage against it.

    One evening in the summer of 1933, a still blew up rather spectacularly at the corner of 3rd and Delaware, just a couple of blocks from The Harbor and Annie’s house.  While watching the resulting fire, Annie realized she was standing next to Beulah Bulkley and spoke to her, telling her she had been watching the many good things they had accomplished with the men who roomed with them, and wanted the Bulkleys to be her friends.  The Bulkleys were delighted, and took good care of their new friend, taking her meals, reading the Bible with her and praying with her.  Soon Annie became a Christian, and when she died on Sunday, March 24, 1935, she left her estate to the Bulkleys to promote the good works of the City Union Mission.  Annie is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Kansas City.  Her plain tombstone reads simply “Leannah Kearns 1843 - 1935.”

    The houses of Annie Chambers, Eva Prince, and Madame Lovejoy are only memories now.  Annie’s house met the wrecker’s ball in 1946, Madame Lovejoy’s and Eva Prince’s in 1941.  The lots where the houses stood are weedy, rubble strewn vacant lots on the fringes of the City Market district today.  But even now, standing on the corner of 3rd and Wyandotte, one can almost see the three beautiful mansions, the hustle and bustle of the street, and the elegant, handsomely dressed gentleman pressing the bell next to the door of No. 201 West Third Street.

[1]    Most of the data concerning Annie Chambers’ early life is from “South Sides Getting Thrill From Sight-seeing in House of Annie Chambers”, Kansas City Journal Post, 15 May 1932.  Preliminary research has been unable to verify any of the information prior to Annie’s appearance in Kansas City in 1869.

[2]    Adventures of a Tramp Printer 1880-1890, John Edward Hicks, Midamericana Press, Kansas City, MO, Copyright 1950, p. 29