Happy Birthday, Madame

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There’s a kind of irony that just one day after national headlines reported that former University of Pittsburgh star and NFL first-round draft pick Bob Buczkowski pleaded guilty to helping operate an estimated million-dollar prostitution ring – out of his mom and dad’s house, no less – that we celebrate the birthday (here at the Pitch, anyway) of Kansas City’s most famous brothel keeper of a different century.

Today marks the 164th anniversary of the birth of Kansas City’s most famous madam, Annie Chambers.

When Annie started out in the sex trade, she had none of the conveniences that Buczkowski allegedly enjoyed, including the luxury of living in her father’s home. Chambers – born Leannah Lovell in Kentucky on June 6, 1843 – was kicked out of her father’s house after ol’ man Lovell threw a fit that his teenage daughter had blackened the family reputation by watching a parade held in honor of a skinny presidential candidate named Abraham Lincoln. Leannah would blacken the family reputation a good deal more after a brief career as a schoolteacher and a series of tragedies.

Leannah entered into, by most published accounts, a loveless marriage with a much older railroad construction worker named William Chambers. Her first child died in infancy and another baby was stillborn after Leannah was thrown from a buggy. Her husband was killed in an accident shortly afterwards.

According to Ann Hathaway and William Griffing’s biography of Chambers, Queen of the Kansas City Red Lights, the young widow decided to join up with some friends who were working at a sporting house in Indianapolis and “have a short life, but a merry one.”

After learning the tricks of the trade, Annie and one of her prostitute pals arrived in the fast-growing town of Kansas City in 1869, plying her calling in a rental house down near a levee on the Missouri River. Two years later, Chambers moved uptown to a small house at 3rd and Wyandotte. Business was so good for the entrepreneurial Chambers that she bought the property, tore down the cottage and built herself a 24-room brick mansion that became a sensation.

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That mansion is long gone. It was torn down in 1946, over a decade after Chambers had died and left her estate to the City Union Mission. But in Kansas City’s boom years in the early 20th century, the Chambers mansion was one of Kansas City’s biggest tourist attractions, since her house reportedly boasted the best stable of pretty, high-priced hookers in town. It was a grand house too, with mirrored walls, tile floors and her initials lit up in newfangled electric lights.

Over the next few decades, Annie outwitted the city’s vice commission several times. Her home is listed in a couple of city directories as a boarding house. Finally, the police commissioner padlocked her front door in 1921. Annie Chambers was 78 years old and had been a major player in Kansas City’s sex trade for over a half century.

She had guts, though. Chambers appealed her case to the Missouri Supreme Court, won and opened her house for business again. But the River Market neighborhood, which boasted a whopping 40 whorehouses at one time, wasn’t such a hot sex destination in the roaring '20s. So after turning 80, Annie finally gave up the bawdy house business and really did rent rooms to railroad workers who did nothing but sleep in them.

They say that after a long and lucrative career in the sin business, Annie Chambers finally found God after turning 90. She became friends with David and Beulah Bulkley, founders of the City Union Mission, and started reading the Bible and praying with the couple. She left her estate to the City Union Mission to do the good works of the Lord.

So it makes sense that she’s probably looking down at all of Kansas City’s current crop of sinners from her perch in heaven, the formerly notorious Annie Chambers, sinner-turned-saint.

Happy 164th birthday Annie, wherever you are. -- Charles Ferruzza

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