The Legendary Madam of Clay Street

clay streetpauline taborpauline

As Urban Legends go, ghosts and haunted houses usually top the list. There are too many legends around here that have no basis in fact other than to scare your pants off, no other way to put it! Most of them were brought in from some other part of the country or world, and fit it where there were similar living conditions or landscape.
If you are younger than 50 years old, then you may not be aware that one persistent Warren County legend is, in fact, based on 100% truth. Most people would scoff at the idea that a quiet city like Bowling Green, Kentucky, in the heart of the Bible belt, was once notorious for having one of the longest lasting houses of prostitution in the United States, only topped by Dumas Hotel in Butte, Montana which ran continuously from 1890- 1982, and The Chicken Ranch that’s better known as the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” which ran continuously from 1905- 1973.
John McDowell asked, “What happens when a young and respectable woman – a Sunday school teacher struggling to support two small sons – suddenly thumbs her nose at convention and embarks on a career as the madam of a whorehouse in her home town?”
Pauline Tabor and her first husband parted ways at the start of the Depression. Moving back in with her parents, she took up selling cosmetics door to door to supply an income to help out with necessities for her and her two sons. She became mistress to a Louisville man she only ever addressed as “the Colonel,” and she ended up going off to Louisville to try her luck at a better life to support herself and her children. She contracted typhoid fever, and her recovery set her back so far her father had to come and bring her back to Bowling Green.
The typhoid affected her glands and she ballooned to over 200 pounds. She was never able to lose the extra weight, and so resigned herself to the lot of most women in that era. Until she had an epiphany one night while at a house party with some friends. She met a gentleman who spoke highly of a woman he respectfully called “Miss May,” who ran a house of prostitution in nearby Clarksville, TN. Pauline informed the gentleman matter-of-factly that she had an interest in meeting May to ask for pointers on how to become a consummate madam. He gave her May’s private phone number and his recommendation, and the rest is history.
Bowling Green’s antebellum tranquility was shattered on Armistice Day in 1933, when Pauline Tabor, after a two-day crash course on the ins and outs of running a “house of ill-repute,” and armed with all sorts of sound and not so sound advice from well-meaning friends and acquaintances, had a rousing housewarming party at her new residence on Smallhouse Road. On the next night, a cold November one for the south, she opened her own sporting house there on the outskirts of town with a rollicking “Whiz bang.”
Pauline was nothing else if not determined to survive the lot that life had dealt her. And survive she did, continuing a quite successful run in the oldest profession on earth for four decades. After finally managing to build her elegant emporium of vice on Clay Street, her success and fame spread beyond Kentucky’s borders, and became a legend in her lifetime.
Her first house, as I mentioned, was on Smallhouse Road. It was a two-story, 5 bedroom relic from an unsuspecting preacher, who had left town for greener pastures. Armistice Day, or as we know it today as Veterans’ Day, 1933, was the housewarming party. By the time she opened for business the next evening, Pauline’s intentions were the worst kept secret in Bowling Green. She later recalled quite fondly that her comparison to business on Smallhouse Road was like “dollar days in Macy’s basement.”
She was only open about a year when necessity forced her to close the house on Smallhouse Road and light out for Louisville, and on into Indiana. She rented a house in Columbus, and did a rousing business there as well. But the rowdiness of the first weekend was the beginning of a very bad end there. Pauline and her girls were eventually busted and fined for prostitution. By the time she got out of jail, the authorities had confiscated everything she had there. Luckily, her shrewd sense of preservation had given her the foresight to send most of her proceeds back to Bowling Green.
On a good faith loan from a friend, she rented a house in the waterfront district of Louisville. The flood of January 1937 put an end to that enterprise and she came home to Bowling Green. In the spring of 1937, she opened a house at First and Center Streets in Bowling Green. It wasn’t long before the house became too small for the rollicking success of her enterprise, and in the spring of 1939, she purchased a lovely 8 bedroom colonial house on 5 acres outside Bowling Green. This house burned in a household accident.
Before she left Bowling Green on an extensive tour of the country, Pauline gave orders to build her replacement house at 627 Clay Street, and this would be her crowning achievement, her last place of business. After months of “aimlessly gadding about the country,” she returned to Bowling Green and opened for business in April 1944.
For assurance of her and her girls’ protection from ruffians and would-be thieves, she kept a pistol in her nightstand and a shotgun under her bed. It has been asserted by some that the foreknowledge they were there assured that she never had to use them. But there was one time a man decided to rob her at the opening of the establishment one quiet evening. He made it out the door and into his get-away car before Pauline and a couple of early guests shot said get-away car full of holes, and then proceeded to beat the crap out of the would-be thief.
Pauline was a large woman, a reminder to her of her almost fatal bout with typhoid fever. As the years went by, the bulk of that 240 pounds became quite muscular. She never had a bouncer for her establishment; instead, it was reputed she could, and would, throw rowdy men out of her establishment with her bare hands! She was not always strict and tough with the men in her house. When local historian Mary Lucas was doing her research on Pauline, she talked with several men who visited the house on Clay Street in their college years, usually not as clients, but as impromptu chauffeurs for their friends. They fondly remembered playing cards and joking with the madam. who was well-known for her sense of humor.
She kept a milk can that was a silent message to perspective clients. If the milk can was on the porch, she was open for business. If it sat in the driveway, they were closed up and you’d have to come back another time. She was eventually forced to put a chain on the can, because people kept stealing it!
Over the years on Clay Street, Pauline contributed large, sums of money to local charities, particularly buying coats for needy school children, and also funding many local political campaigns to prevent them targeting her. Pauline decided not to reopen her establishment on Clay Street in 1968. The city development project – which planned to build new homes for underprivileged residents – condemned most of the Clay Street area.
Pauline retired in 1969, and her Clay Street home was torn down to make way for progress. When the house came down, the three enterprising young men who purchased it for demolition sold the house a brick at a time as “souvenirs” and even crafted other “keepsakes” from the wood of the house!
Pauline purchased a farm (Twin Oaks) in the nearby community of Plano, on Larmon Mill Road. It was the first registered organic farm in the Warren County area, one of the first in the state. When hearing about the auctioning off of the bricks and other items, she resolved to bring down the whole house of cards, and vividly and candidly shared her memories, successes, and failures, in a book entitled “Pauline’s – Memories of the Madam on Clay Street.” It was published in 1971, to large fanfare and several television appearances.
For the record, where her house was on Clay Street, now stands a feed mill, which has been there for the majority of the years since they tore her house down. The exact street number, 627, is the likely location now beneath the silos of Lowe’s Feed and Grain.
Although Pauline moved to Texas later in her life to be near her son, when she died in 1992, she was brought back to Bowling Green for burial. Bowling Green is today a fairly laid back town, considering one of the state’s universities is here. But a few decades back, Bowling Green was infamous for having one of only a handful of brothels in the state. And the Madam of Clay Street definitely kept it interesting!

About Gclee

I am a long time genealogy and local history hunter from Barren Co., KY. I have many stories to share that may be of interest to other local genealogists and history buffs. I enjoy this as a hobby and hope I can be of encouragement to others. I also hope everyone enjoys my stories as much as I have enjoyed learning about them.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Legendary Madam of Clay Street

  1. Bessie Miller says:

    I was a young girl at the time I knew of Pauline. Camp Cambell was in full swing. I worked a the Dixie Cafe . Seem to remember some of her Girls and some of the Men who visited,

  2. I went to school with her nephew and saw her at a book signing at the old mall in BG years ago.

  3. Barbara Phelps says:

    I remember one time my father and a friend shoveled snow for her to make some money to feed us, painters don’t work much in winter. She was a very generous woman.

  4. Mike Harper says:

    The local boys all thought it was the riskiest thing they could do was steal Pauline’s milk can. That’s why she had to chain it. I heard the story from a gentleman I won’t name but he got his arm broke, by not knowing she had chained it. He and few others came by to steal the milk can, he got elected to do the deed, so he grabbed the can in a full run. When he got to the end of the chain it flipped him end over end. With all his other scrapes and bruises his arm was broken at the elbow. He said they never bothered her milk can again.

  5. Lannes Nunn says:

    I purchased a gold-leaf mirror from her private home years ago. The mirror is very plain but covered in gold-leaf. I have had it touched up but mostly it is in the original condition. I wanted it only because it was owned my Pauline. Years ago I worked with a lady who back in the day worked at a salon downtown in Bowling Green. She one day was ask by the owner if she would mind doing a few of the girls that worked for Miss Pauline. She told her that she would love to do their hair care needs because she needed the work and the money. One of the other operators wouldn’t do their hair because of their profession. She took care of the ladies and Miss Pauline paid her in cash and tipped her very well. She told me later on that she was a very nice lady and the girls were very thankful to her for taking care of them.

  6. When I was lucky enough to get my dad’s car, we would all pitch in what change we had & would buy 25-75 cents worth of gas. One nite, the service station attendant(now you know how long ago that was!) put $2.00 worth in & told us to drive the wheels off the car. We had to drive all that gas out before I went home, so, for some reason, we drove down Main St. (where we usually didn’t go). As we stopped at the corner of Main & Clay St., we saw one of the girl’s father, coming from Pauline’s. Don’t think her mother ever knew, but she held that over his head for a long time, when she wanted to go or do something!

  7. Mark says:

    Occasionally religious leaders in Bowling Green (preachers) would rise up and demand Pauline’s be shut down by local law enforcement. After being shut down for a few weeks county public health workers would report a dramatic rise in sexually transmitted disease cases. Pauline Tabor had her girls regularly checked for STDs and instructed them in practicing good genital hygiene as well as regularly checking for signs of disease in themselves and their clients. After reports of epidemic STD from county public health, local law enforcement would contact Pauline and encourage her open up her business again. Pauline’s was a force for enhanced public health in Warren County.

  8. Randy says:

    My mother wrote the book and I have many newspaper clippings and promotional attributes to her life

  9. Pingback: The Cottonwood Local – The Folk Tradition

  10. June Downs says:

    How much is a picture of the house on clay street worth?. By bee gee printing. 1971. By Donnie firkins? My email. Thank u.

  11. Charlie Puckett says:

    This is the only article I have read that mentioned Pauline’s house of ill-repute on first street, opened in 1937. The article implies that it may have closed in 1939, however it remained open through the 1940’s. The house was on my Park City Daily News paper route when I was young. My route started at fountain square, covered collage street to the Baron River, First St, and Center Street. to 8th Street.

    • Charlie Puckett says:

      Pauline’s first street house was small. It’s front was small compared to it’s length. There was no porch or stoop. The wooden steps ended at the screen door. The front room served as a guest room, a long hall ran down the center of the building with room on each side. How do I know? I sanded and finished the front room floor when I was about 20 years of age. Pauline’s workers at the house on first street contribution to the world war II effort was not only in being friendly to the boys in the surrounding military camps, they also bought sheets and sheets of “savings stamps”, “war stamps”, and savings bonds “war bonds”. It was mentioned in the Park City Daily News as the paper boy that sold the most “war stamps” and bonds during a year. I never told anyone that it was Pauline’s girls that made it happen. Refer to my book “Kicking Rocks in Bowling Green” and “More of Kicking Rocks” for more information on my life growing up in Bowling Green Kentucky.

  12. Bill Wethington says:

    Pauline’s house on Clay Street was operating when I was in college at Western during the mid to late 50’s. Occasionally, my frat brothers and I would ride by the house trying to gather courage to go in and visit for a while. (We never did) I remember the milk can being the signal for open or closed. One night when we passed by, there was a cab from Taylor County Kentucky (where I was from) parked in the drive way. I wanted to go in and see who could afford to pay a cab to drive him to BG and have enough left over for a good time inside. One of my brothers-in-law wound up with one of the bricks from the house on 627 Clay Street. I have often wondered how many bricks from the house were sold! It would be just a brick, coming from any house from any where. As long as it looked old. How would one know the difference?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s