Everyone knew about Pearl Street in Dayton’s Red Light District, but nobody admitted so.
“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 dignified only by its extreme age.”
Business on Pearl Street flourished. Police controls ensured that women pursuing this profession were registered, photographed, and examined before starting in this line of work. Women could not be criminals or have diseases. Dayton was, after all, a “nice, clean town.”
The unofficial ruler of Pearl Street was Lib Hedges. The Bon Ton Hotel, as Lib called it, was the most popular house on the “Line.” Lib had the prettiest ladies, the finest home, and the highest class of clients. Clients were secure, knowing their names would never be revealed. No matter how persistent the line of questioning, Lib never revealed her clients.
Known facts about her early years can be summed up in a short list:
- Born in Germany 1840 as Elizabeth Richter
- Worked as a servant to a lawyer at 16
- Short marriage to Joseph R. Hedges
- Gave birth to a son, George
Lib opened a saloon on South Main street in 1876, serving glasses of beer for a nickel, and other interests in the back for a higher price. She continued at the South Main location for seven years, until moving operations to Pearl Street.
According to this article that appeared in the Journal Herald October 21, 1972, Montana Street was once Pearl Street. According to Dayton Unknown’s research, Montana Street was located approximately where Dayton Towers Drive is now.
Business boomed. Lib was a shrewd business woman, only hiring girls from out of town (to avoid conflicts) and treating them very well, often paying for elaborate meals, medical services, and even setting up bank accounts for each girl she employed. If the girls wanted to leave, Lib paid for their weddings or set them up in new homes. She also paid for their funerals and their plot in Woodland Cemetery.
Lib took on a partner, her younger sister, who went by the name of Louisa La Fontaine. A few years later, Lib set Louisa up with her own house on Pearl Street, Hotel La Grande. Louisa also ran a successful business until 1893 when she became seriously ill, Lib moving in with her to take care of her around the clock. In May 1894, Louisa died. Louisa was buried in a plot next to the one Lib had picked for herself, and a statue of a weeping goddess marks her grave.
After Louisa’s death, Lib moved back into her Pearl street address and it was business once again as she marched her girls up and down the Dayton streets to be seen by the men. Although none responded publicly, they would soon be seen in the house on Pearl Street.
Lib demanded respect and manners in her house. Nobody was to be rude or ill-mannered, or she would have something to say about it. A customer once made a coarse remark regarding one of her girls who had passed away, and Lib reputedly threatened him with a fireplace poker until he apologized to every girl in the room. Another story that circulates is that John L. Sullivan, First Heavyweight Champion of the world, was knocked out after using offensive language in front of Lib’s girls. As the story goes, Lib heard him using that language and hit him over the head with a beer bottle, knocking him out on the floor.
The ladies were held to a high standard as well. One evening while entertaining the gentlemen, the ladies were playing a game of ‘Kick the Chandelier,’ which consisted of seeing who could kick the highest, using the chandelier as a reference. One of the more competitive girls gave such an effort that she loudly broke wind. The howling laughter that ensued stopped once Lib poked her head in the room, and boomed, “What lady done that?”
Lib was also a philanthropist, giving to relief organizations and to charities. After the 1913 Dayton Flood, many of her real estate holdings were severely damaged. The repairs would be costly and time consuming. When asked by a member of the flood relief committee for a donation, she listed off to him all the damages and expenses she had suffered under the waters, then decided that she is better off than a lot of people and gave him a donation of $1,500. Most of the donations at the time were $10, with some of the wealthier citizens and city officials paying around $500.
By 1915 the reign of legalized prostitution ended in Dayton, Ohio, forcing madams up and down Pearl Street to close their doors. Although Lib closed right away, many of the others tried to keep operating, until the persistent police presence finally forced them to close too. Lib continued to live in the house on Pearl Street and started using the name Elizabeth Richter once again. She moved into the Bon Ton Hotel just a year before her death.
When Lib died in 1923, the majority of her estate was divided among her nephews, with some of the money going to trustees at Woodland Cemetery to pay for the upkeep of her family plot. The estimated value of her estate, with war stamps, shares in several profitable companies, building and loan accounts, vacant lots and buildings, and lavish materials possessions, was $202,546.17.
Lib Hedges was laid to rest in the Woodland Cemetery with her younger sister Louisa, parents Herman and Elizabeth, and three of her girls.
“…mourned privately by many of the citizens, and publicly by none of them.” – Philip McKee