On Sunday, Sept. 25, Old City Cemetery will host its biennial “Bawdy Ladies of 19th-century Lynchburg” tour. The free, hour-long tour will be led by local historian Nancy Jamerson Weiland.
While giving the tour, Weiland will portray Lizzie Langley, one of the infamous “sporting women” of Lynchburg, Va.
For those not familiar with the phrase, “sporting women” has nothing to do with tennis, golf or softball. We’re talking about prostitutes, ladies of the night, hookers — you get it.
Langley (1828-1891) is one of several sporting women buried at Old City Cemetery, which was founded in 1806. Langley and her mother, Agnes — same profession — are buried just inside the cemetery’s Taylor Street entrance.
An impressive monument and iron fencing make the Langley plot easy to find on the right-hand side of the driveway. It’s been said the elaborate plot was paid for by appreciative customers — that, or it’s evidence of just how successful these working women were.
The “Bawdy Ladies” tour begins at 3 p.m. at the Langley plot.
During the tour, Weiland will talk about the history of prostitution in Lynchburg from 1805 to 1940. According to a brochure she wrote on the subject, the first “houses of ill repute” in Lynchburg were located not too far from the James River in an area called Buzzard’s Roost.
Buzzard’s Roost — now the name of a local antique shop — was located in the vicinity of Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, Jefferson and Commerce (then called Lynch) streets. As Weiland writes, “Before the Civil War, this section along the river gained a notorious reputation for its bordellos, bars and gambling houses.”
Around the turn of the 20th century, Lynchburg’s prostitution business moved uphill from the river, to the Tinbridge Hill neighborhood, more specifically Monroe, Jackson and Fourth streets.
A passage in the book “Remembering Tinbridge Hill in Lynchburg, 1920-1970” describes this new red light district:
At the end of the 19th century, prostitutes began moving their thriving business into the area; bootlegging and gambling establishments sprang up there, as well. Unsavory activities, hilly terrain, and a growing black majority made it easy for the City to neglect this marginal area. By the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, its informal designation as “the forgotten hill” seemed well deserved, at least from the outside.
Also in the book, Gloria Franklin, who grew up in Tinbridge Hill, describes the “sporting houses” that were active there in the 1930s and 40s:
On the Monroe Street side, we’d sit on the wall and watch the people go in there. During the war the soldiers, they would line up out there. And the businessmen would come up in the big Packards, which was exciting to me. I’ve always loved cars. And they would take negligees, I guess, and things, it looked like that’s what they were, in to them.
Recalling the working girls she saw, Franklin adds with a laugh, “… they’d be sitting out there with the prettiest negligees on, and birds in cages. All of them had birds. I thought that was just wonderful. I probably wanted to be a prostitute at one time.”
Weiland, a research assistant at Jones Memorial Library, has been leading the “Bawdy Ladies” tour for 15 years. She’s been researching the women — approximately 700 of them — for more than 30 years.
Asked how she first became interested in these colorful women, Weiland said, “I was going to write the great American novel [and] I got caught up in the research. The research was just so fascinating I just kept researching.”
During her research, Weiland used newspaper articles and public records to learn what she could about Lynchburg’s early prostitutes. In the process, she also found some distant cousins among their ranks.
And she’s not the only one. In her 21 years at Jones Memorial, a genealogy and history library located on Memorial Avenue, Weiland said she’s encountered lots of people with familial ties to Lynchburg’s red light districts.
“Oh yeah, that happens quite frequently, people coming into the library to research and it turns out they’re one of my girls,” Weiland said. “That’s not an uncommon thing to happen. It’s happened a number of times over the years.”
Coming up in mid-October at Old City Cemetery are the annual Candlelight Tours, where professional actors in period costumes portray people buried at the cemetery. Past years have included numerous characters from Lynchburg’s history, among them World War I soldier William Harrison Brooks, who I blogged about recently.
Tickets for the Candlelight Tours are $18 (ages 13 and up) and $10 (12 and under), and must be purchased in advance. For more information about events at Old City Cemetery, call (434) 847-1465 or visit the cemetery’s website.