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.

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