The D.C. Madam and the Tale of an 18th Century Madam Who Died from Public Scorn

There was a time in America when there wouldn’t be as much public scorn for a high-profile madam running a brothel for the elite. As considerable amounts of America have moved toward becoming more conservative since 9/11, it’s probably no wonder that Deborah Jean Palfrey was afraid of what prison would bring or even being around people in general. Obviously nothing should merit suicide either, but the same fate could have befallen a notorious 18th-century madam in London, England if it hadn’t been that the public exhibited violence toward her, ultimately leading to her death before she could get any retribution. That particular madam’s name was Elizabeth Needham–and it wouldn’t surprise me if a movie was made about her eventually since Oscar-hungry actresses always win an Academy Award playing hookers, thanks or no thanks to “Pretty Woman.”


A lot of the public record on Needham has been lost and mostly shrouded in myth. There isn’t any doubt that she existed, though, and she’s very much immortalized in the counterpart to William Hogarth’s “Rake’s Progress” paintings: “A Harlot’s Progress.” It’s in those paintings and etchings where Hogarth put a face to her when madams weren’t the kind to sit down and have a portrait painted of them.

Needham was quite notorious around London and was known for having one of the largest brothels in the area of St. James. It wouldn’t be surprising if William Hogarth himself took in the services of Needham’s brothel, even though that isn’t known for sure. It’s a great excuse for a painter to visit there as study for his work without partaking in what they offer. Nevertheless, we’ll give Hogarth the benefit of the doubt if he ever doubted it. There were certainly people in higher stature than Hogarth hanging around Needham’s brothel. Everybody from high and mighty military leaders to other high-ranking members of parliament secretly slipped in for a rendezvous with some of the well-known prostitutes of the time.

One of those upper-ranking prostitutes was one Sally Salisbury who was the equivalent to Heidi Fleiss today in how many important names she kept in a likely black book. Needham managed to reel Salisbury in along with an extensive and experienced coterie of prostitutes after another high-ranking madam in London died. But mostly, Needham took girls off the street, which is the worst form of prostitution rings and forcing these girls into a situation where they had no choice if they didn’t want to die homeless.

Despite flirting with getting arrested much earlier, Needham’s fate was quite ironic, especially when her arrest and death was brought on from an English legal movement and not from the reality that she allowed a high-ranking general to rape one of her prostitutes…

The Society for the Reformation of Manners…

When a Justice of the Peace placed a raid on all brothels around London after that above-mentioned rape case involving Col. Francis Charteris (who was a serial rapist and got his due via public scorn a year after Needham’s death), Needham was the first target. A lot of people were surprised that her brothel wasn’t raided earlier with the growing legal movement of the Society for the Reformation of Manners that was akin to the Comstock Laws in America during the 1880’s that brought feminist and sex promoter Victoria Woodhull down. In the Reformation’s philosophical and moral quest, all things in London related to prostitution or any sort of immorality were considered evil and had to be punished in a court of law.

It’s interesting to note that when Needham was rounded up and sentenced to be placed on the pillory (one of the most controversial forms of criminal punishment next to the electric chair), it was merely under the Reformation of Manners law and not based on the notion that she was indirectly responsible for Col. Charteris raping Needham prostitute, Ann Bond. When Londoners showed up to see Needham on the pillory, they apparently had all those things in mind when they viciously attacked her while she lied face down–even with security nearby to attempt and protect her.

The visions of Needham getting pelted with stones or physically beaten by the general populace probably swam around in Deborah Jean Palfrey’s head when she committed suicide in a time when the world’s oldest profession is still one of the most controversial. With that in mind, the art of forgiveness has also evolved into the American spirit since the time of 1700’s England. When it comes to high-profile madams, though, who’ve lured in men who make the laws of the land, some of the American public may not be so forgiving.


Needham, incidentally, died the next day after that public beating when she could have received a decent trial had the pillory not have existed. When public scorn is the ultimate worst feeling, what’s to say that Needham wouldn’t have taken her own life eventually if given the opportunity? Madams who continually live the lifestyle they do on the edge without getting caught for so long hopelessly end up in a situation where there’s no chance for renewal as a prostitute usually can manage in the public’s eyes.

Ultimately, the job of a madam is one akin to a mafia godfather who will have all the blame placed on their shoulders for every crime their inner circle commits.

The Road to Revolution: Causes of the American Revolution

The American Revolution was the end result of a decade of tension and miscommunication between the American colonies and England. With England in debt from a costly war with France, they needed another source of revenue. The colonies had been going through a time of salutary neglect. They had been governing themselves and England was not involved with much of their daily interactions. So when England began to become more involved with America’s affairs it did not sit well with the colonists. Soon taxes were being placed on simple, essential, everyday items like tea, books and even playing cards and Tensions rose between the British and the colonist until revolution was inevitable.

In October of 1763, England restricted all settling beyond the Appalachian Mountains. This angered the colonist greatly but did not ultimately prevent them from continuing to move westward. They were not so much angered over the actual implications of the new law, but rather because this move was made without them having any knowledge of it. Nearly a year later Parliament passed the Sugar and Currency Acts. The Sugar act was made in response to the Sugar and Molasses Act nearing expiration. While the previous act was supposedly made for regulating trade, this one was clearly an attempt at raising revenue in hope of paying off the debt created by the French and Indian War. Then just a few months later Parliament would pass the Stamp Act, which required that many things like, newspapers, books, playing cards and documents, be stamped with a certain seal.

When word of this development reached the new world it created much upheaval within the colonies. Tempers were flaring and discontent with the crown was at a boiling point. Then in 1765 yet another Act was passed. This one required that the colonist had to house and feed British soldiers deployed in the colonies. Not only was the idea of having to care for these red coats repulsive to the colonist but their very presence was not welcomed. For years, there had been a very small British presence amongst the colonists. They had been governing themselves and living independent from Britain for the most part. The deploying of a significant amount of troops into the new world disgusted the colonist and set emotions ablaze. Parliament would then go on to enacted the Declaratory act in 1766 which took all law making rights from the colonist themselves and back into the hands of England. Parliament passed taxes on lead, glass, paint and tea and in response to Samuel Adams Circular Letters, British troops were placed in Boston. Not only were Americans being forced to pay for a war fought by their mother country but they were now being taken by the collar once again.

Emotions were running wild and newly occupied Boston is now the center of attention. On March 5, 1770 a series of foggy events led to the shooting of a few unarmed Bostonians by British soldiers deployed in Massachusetts. While it is unclear who was truly at fault for the actions of the soldiers the Boston Massacre would send ripples across all of colonial America. In Rhode Island a British ship is set on fire and back in Boston a book is published outlining all of their rights that they believed had been violated by the British. In May of the following year, Parliament passes the Tea Act which ordered that all tea be shipped directly to America. In most of the major cities the tea was rejected and sent back to Britain. Yet in Boston, after the ship’s commander refused to leave, the colonist began to unload the tea and throw it in the harbor. This act of revolt was met with the creation of the Coercive and Quebec acts.

The closing of the Boston Harbor prompted a meeting between all of the major colonial leaders. On September 5, 1774 55 of the most influential colonial men met in Philadelphia and discussed the current situation with England. Among these men were prominent colonial figures like, George Washington and Sam and John Adams. They agreed that if significant progress hadn’t been made they would meet once again the following year. Months past and the situation became worse. In April of 1775 word that England was moving it’s troops out of Boston most likely to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock and to confiscate a load of arms. Paul Revere road on horseback from Boston to Lexington warning everyone of the British troops movements. In the few days to follow fighting between the colonist and England would break out at the Battle of Lexington and Concord.