156 N Upper St, Lexington, KY 40507
194 N Upper St, Lexington, KY 40507
153 Eastern Ave, Lexington, KY 40508
Calvary Cemetery Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky, USA
Belle Brezing (June 16, 1860 – August 11, 1940) was a nationally known madam in Lexington, Kentucky at the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th. Her brothel was known as the "most orderly of disorderly houses". A nineteenth-century figure who continues to inspire LGBTQ legend in central Kentucky, Lexington’s most notorious and successful sexual outlaw, Belle Brezing was a madam who achieved local prominence and a large income through her famous Lexington brothels, the best known of which (and where she lived until her death) was located at what is now 153 North Eastern Avenue. Another of her former houses (now called “Row House”) lies on the campus of Transylvania University adjacent to the John Hall athletic field on North Upper Street, and is widely known as such by students and professors there. Oral sources hint that Brezing herself may have had queer tendencies. Although no romantic motive was ever recorded, she and a young woman named Mollie Canton attempted to commit suicide together as part of a pact they made with each other in 1879 as teens. It was also rumored that Belle’s “girls” performed sex acts with one another for their male patrons. One unnamed Lexington madam of the period reported that Brezing and the prostitutes in her employ were all “perverts,” but what the madam meant by the term remains unclear. Regardless of what is myth and what is fact, Brezing’s story has animated Lexington LGBTQ life into the twenty-first century, with architectural items from her brothel—which were auctioned off at generous prices after her death—continuing to adorn the homes of gay Lexingtonians and the city’s gay bars. Reportedly, to this day a gay couple tends her grave in Lexington’s Catholic Cemetery.
Belle Brezing was born Mary Belle Cox, the illegitimate daughter of Sarah Ann Cox. Sarah Cox was a dressmaker who also worked part-time as a prostitute. Sarah Cox subsequently married George Brezing, a saloon operative, grocer and alcoholic, in 1861, whose name Belle adopted. At the age of 12, the age of consent at the time, Brezing was seduced by Dionesio Mucci, a local merchant who was three times her age. The relationship with Mucci lasted two years, although Brezing had other lovers during this time, including cigar makers James Kenney and Johnny Cook. Soon after her 15th birthday in 1875, Brezing was pregnant, possibly by Johnny Cook, but she had at least three lovers at this time. On September 14, 1875, when Brezing was 3 months pregnant, she married James Kenney, but never lived with him. After the wedding ceremony she returned to her mother's house. Nine days later, Brezing wrote to Cook asking for a gun. Cook was found outside Brezing's house with a bullet in his skull. Mucci was allegedly the last person to see Cook alive. Kenney immediately left Lexington and didn't return for ten years. The death was recorded as a suicide, but popular opinion was that Cook was murdered. On March 14, 1876, Brezing gave birth to a daughter, Daisy May Kenney. In May of that year Brezing's mother died of cancer. Whilst at the funeral, her mothers landlord padlocked the house leaving Brezing and her baby homeless. Brezing left her baby with a neighbour, with a promise to always provide for her, and turned to prostitution. Belle's first job in a brothel began December 24, 1879, in a house maintained by Jenny Hill, which has the distinction of being the former residence of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Brezing quickly became the brothel's top earner and had bankers and politicians amongst her clients.
In July 1881, Brezing rented a house at 156 North Upper Street and opened her own brothel. Around this time she arranged for her daughter, Daisy May, to be sent to an institution in Newport, Kentucky. Daisy May was mentally retarded and spent the rest of her life in institutions in Newport and Detroit. Brezing again became pregnant but the baby was stillborn in July 1882. Brezing was determined to make her brothel the finest in Lexington, with the best surroundings and entertainment. She made frequent trips to Cincinnati and New York City to buy linens, furnishings and clothes for the brothel. She had many influential citizens amongst her clients, including bankers, businessmen and politicians. When arrested for keeping a "bawdy house" in December 1882, she received a pardon from Kentucky Governor Luke P. Blackburn. Two years after starting her brothel she had saved enough money to buy a house, 194 North Upper Street. The brothel transferred to the new premises in July 1883. In the same year she became attached to bookkeeper William "Billy" Mabon. The couple stayed together until his death. On January 13, 1889, the Lexington Daily Press published a "Petition of Citizens" on the front page which called for the closing of "houses of ill fame conducted by Belle Breezing at 194 North Upper Street; Lettie Powell, 196 N Upper Street; and Molly Parker, 154 N Upper Street." With the help of Philadelphia millionaire William M Singerly, Brezing brought new premises at 153 Megowan Street (now 153 N. Eastern Ave) in the city's red-light district. The brothel quickly established itself as one of the most stylish in the city. The house was badly damaged in a fire in 1895, but rebuilding started immediately. During the building works an additional floor was added. Brezing was known for her charity. When the local hospital had a fire, she brought up all the bed linen locally and sent it to the hospital. A local prostitute, Debbie Harvey, was murdered in 1911. Brezing ensured she had a proper burial in Lexington Cemetery. The Temperance Movement was gaining strength and in 1915 pressured the city commissioners into issuing an ordnance requiring brothels to close. Brezing and some other madams ignored the ordnance. When the US entered World War I in 1917, soldiers were stationed nearby and the US Army ordered to city to close the brothels. On February 16, 1917 Billy Mabon died and by November of that year Brezing had shut the brothel.
Brezing continued to live in the premises until her death in 1940. Addicted to morphine, Brezing was attended to by her doctor Dr. C.A. Nevitt. She was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 1938 and passed away on August 11, 1940. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Lexington. Her tombstone reads "Blessed Be the Pure in Heart". Time magazine published her obituary, calling her a "famed Kentucky bawd." The Lexington Herald published a front-page eulogy. Her estate was auctioned off over several days. The house was converted into apartments and in 1973 a fire consumed the upper floor. The remaining architectural details were auctioned off. Bricks salvaged from the home were sold to the public with the inscription: "Brick from the Belle Brezing Home - The most orderly of Dis-orderly Homes".
Brezing is believed to have been the model for Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind. The author, Margaret Mitchell, allegedly heard about Brezing from her husband who had previously lived in Lexington. Mitchell denied basing Watling on Brezing. The film adaptation was released 6 months before Brezing's death.
Still standing, one of her other former houses is on the campus of Transylvania University and houses a women's locker room. Brezing is commemorated annually in Lexington by a bed race in April. Several of the city's streets are closed to make a course for the race. Margaret C. Price wrote a play about Brezing, simply called Belle Brezing. It was performed at the Lost Theatre in Los Angeles during the summer of 2008. In 2011, Lexington's Actors Guild Theatre presented the play. The actress who played Brezing, Laurie Genet Preston, had previously played that role in a 2004 presentation of the play at the University of Kentucky. Director and producer Doug High made a documentary about Brezing's life: Belle Brezing & the Gilded Age of the Bluegrass. The documentary was narrated by Elizabeth Shatner and Brezing was again played by Laurie Genet Preston. The film premiered at the Kentucky Theatre Lexington on February 16, 2017.
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