She called herself “Madam Pamn.” And what a sight she must have been, sashaying from the Long Island Rail Road train in Greenport from New York City every Friday afternoon, a trail of working girls behind her.
For decades, the Georgia-born African-American entrepreneur, who drove a pink Cadillac and often sported an orange wig, operated a brothel at Sea Breeze Cottages near Main Road in Greenport, said Amy Folk, special collections manager at Southold Historical Society.
“She made an opportunity for herself,” Folk said. “Granted, it’s not an opportunity most mothers would want their daughters to follow, but she made it. And in that respect, it shows she was a very strong person.”
The story of Madam Pamn, born Bessie Kitchens, is just one element of a rarely acknowledged but conspicuous period of local history. That aspect of our past is now the subject of Southold Historical Society’s newest exhibit, “No Peeking: A History of Prostitution in Southold Town,” on view through Dec. 13 at the Reichert Family Center’s Cosden Price Gallery on Main Road.
Curated by Folk, the exhibit explores the local history of “the world’s oldest profession,” which first became publicly documented here in the very late 1800s.
Artifacts on display include a pair of letters written in 1884 by a young man to a friend in Mattituck that provide salacious details about his experiences with prostitutes in Cuba.
“We have lots of fun here and plenty of nice gals here and we have lots of rum,” the young man wrote. “I am drunk every night.”
Also included is a rare circa 1930 sign from a Long Island saloon warning “girls from the red light district” that they must be free of venereal diseases before attempting to solicit customers.
About two decades before this placard was erected, sexually transmitted diseases spread by prostitutes had become so rampant that the New York State Legislature passed a law requiring that anyone arrested on prostitution charges be examined by a doctor and given a clean bill of health before their release from jail, Folk said.
In Southold Town, this became the job of Dr. J. Mott Heath, a respected physician and future president of the board at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport, who died in 1956.
It’s entirely possible that Madam Pamn’s girls were arrested for prostitution charges at some point, but Greenport’s local police force mostly turned a blind eye when it came to her brothel because she helped establish a form of social order in the village, Folk said.
In the years surrounding the end of Prohibition, she explained, Greenport officials had a tough time keeping bunker fishermen off the streets.
“There was a large upswing in violence and they had a great deal of difficulty controlling it,” Folk said. To a large degree, she said, Madam Pamn changed that by encouraging the men to spend all their free time at her brothel.
At Madam Pamn’s 1976 funeral, then-Southold Town Supervisor Albert Martocchia reportedly eulogized her as the “woman who saved Greenport during the Great Depression.”
But even before Madam Pamn, there was Lizzie Davis of Greenport.
In 1896, Davis was “arrested and brought before a judge for selling liquor without a license and keeping a ‘disorderly’ house or brothel,” reads an informational placard at the exhibit.
Based on her research, which spanned two years and was corroborated by anonymous interviews, Folk suggests that Davis could have been the same woman who was locally known at the turn of the century as “the Lady in the Black Veil,” a madam who operated “Docia’s House” at the corner of Third and Front streets. At the time, the area was so notorious for its many bars and brothels that residents referred to it as “Sin Street.”
According to local lore, Folk said, the veiled lady outfitted herself in black from head to toe because she reportedly suffered from untreated syphilis, which in its final stages causes lesions to form on the entire body.
But women weren’t the only ones running so-called houses of ill repute on the North Fork, Folk said.
A cab driver who went by the moniker “One-Armed Lenny” operated a gambling den and brothel on Third Street in Greenport that was raided in 1948, according to a report in the County Review.
According to Folk, One-Armed Lenny drove his girls around Greenport “in view of prospective customers in the back of a pickup truck.”
Greenport was far from having a monopoly on the skin trade, however. In Southold, the Seldom Inn and The Spot were open for business during the 1930s and ’40s and Peconic was home to the Worthwhile Lodge, which was demolished in the 1960s, and the Pastime Inn, which was converted into tenement housing in the 1950s. It’s unclear when another rumored brothel, Lake Lodge in Peconic, shut down.
Professional prostitution dropped off on the North Fork after 1964, when it became legal to arrest johns, Folk said. Previously, only the girls themselves could be arrested.
“It was a double standard,” said Geoffrey Fleming, director of the Southold Historical Society. “And it’s amazing it went so late. You’re talking about the mid-1960s.”
While prostitution is still a considered a taboo topic in many communities — and despite the fact that, while conducting her research, some anonymous sources implored Ms. Folk to let the stories of personalities like Madam Pamn and One-Armed Lenny die — she hopes people will be intrigued and visit the exhibit.
“When I learn about something, I like to share it,” she said. “I hope people realize that everyday events, good and bad, create our history. And you can’t pick and choose your history.”
“No Peeking” remains on view at the Reichert Family Center’s Cosden Price Gallery, 54127 Main Road, Southold, through Dec. 13. Hours are Thursday through Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information, call the Southold Historical Society at 631-765-5500.