How Do You Write About a Brothel That Didn’t Exist?

117
Newspaper clipping titled Sunset Lodge Closed By County Sheriff
Clipping from Charleston News and Courier.

Call it what you want—brothel, cathouse, or parlor of the night—but any way you slice it, such establishments are the dictionary definition of wide-open secrets. Folks know where it is, they know what it is, and they know what can be found there—but nobody’s willing to speak up.

How, then, as a historian, do you tell the story?

Such was the challenge faced by David Gregg Hodges—a veteran journalist, historian, and (of course) elder in his Presbyterian church in Georgetown, South Carolina—who sought to dig deep into the history of the famous Sunset Lodge. Run by Madam Hazel Weisse from 1936 to 1969, the Sunset Lodge was as much a city institution as the courthouse, the local bank, or the town flower shop. For who were its patrons? Why, Georgetown politicians, bankers, and florists, naturally.

Finding those patrons was one thing. Nearly all of them were in their seventies and eighties, and Googling “customers of the town brothel” wasn’t exactly an option (though we’re sure it would produce some interesting results). Moreover, Hodges was coming to this research project many decades after the Lodge had shut its doors, so the overwhelming majority of its visitors would have naturally passed on. What, then, could he do?

Hazel Weisse at Christmas. Courtesy of Tammy Marsh Foxworth. Image sourced from Sunset Lodge in Georgetown.

It’s said that journalists and detectives share certain strands of DNA, however, and like a true sleuth, Hodges realized that a brothel, like any active business, is an ecosystem. At that point, he began to track down not just patrons and employees of the Lodge but everyone else in Georgetown who fell within its orbit. Working by word of mouth, by referral, by garden-club speaking gigs (oh, the Deep South), and sometimes by sheer luck, Hodges found the grocers who supplied the Lodge’s kitchen, the laundromats that washed the Lodge’s linens, and the tailors whom Weisse took her girls to see, to be outfitted for new dresses.

Finding those folks was one task, but getting them to speak, however, was another. It’s not like just anyone who visited or worked with a “sporting ladies’ club” wanted to share their scores—most folks spoke only on condition of anonymity, even if their knowledge of the Lodge was decades old. And as might be expected, of the two retired sporting ladies that he did eventually find, neither wished to speak to him about the topic, and none of the others to whom he reached out ever responded. “They have moved on,” as Hodges put it, “and they [did] not want to open that box.”

Stairs at Sunset Lodge. Courtesy of Tammy Marsh Foxworth. Image sourced from Sunset Lodge in Georgetown.

When Hodges did find a patron or a vendor who was willing to share their stories with him, again, his detective DNA kicked in, and he realized that going ‘on the record’ with anything resembling a tape recorder would have ended the interview on the spot. Therefore he trained himself to remember key details in conversations with his informants, committing their narratives to memory and only writing it down as soon as he returned to his notebook.

But not all his efforts required such tradecraft. One windfall of tips came from the folks who bought the Lodge after its closure—incredibly, one of the gifts Hodges was given was the handwritten list of phone numbers that was nailed to the wall in Weisse’s pantry. When, in the course of business, the madam needed to reach out to “physicians, car dealers, drug stores, clothing stores, the cab company and the airport,” here were her contacts. Though not all of the numbers were still in service, Hodges was able to dig up even more salacious stories from there.

So—after all this sleuthing around, what did this brothel-hunting Presbyterian elder learn? Well, let’s just say that those walls could talk, and they did—Hodges collected nearly 50 accounts from people involved in every aspect of the brothel’s operation, including a vivid biographical portrait of the shrewd businesswoman herself. It would be impolite for us to kiss and tell here, so they’re all contained in his book Sunset Lodge in Georgetown: The Story of a Madam. Reader, there’s only one way to find out.

And in case you’re nervous—don’t worry, your secret is safe with us. Promise!

Looking for more to read during quarantine? Check out our quaran-reads here. Finding us for the first time, and want to learn more about what we do? Visit our welcome page and sign up for the Crime Capsule email newsletter. See you behind bars!