Brothel boss Lou Graham and her ladies.

The truth about Seattle’s most infamous brothel owner is as elusive as her apparent adherence to the law. “She’s a tricky figure to figure out,” says writer Libbie Hawker. German-born Lou Graham had already graduated from prostitute to brothel owner when she arrived in the late 1800s to a thriving timber town hungry for distraction. She established a house in Pioneer Square dedicated to lush entertainment—singers, dancers, sparkling intellectual conversation in elegant parlors. Oh, and sex.

It’s unclear how Graham stayed afloat when conservative mores had a firm grip on public life. Bribes? Blackmail? Her one arrest proved a career-ending move…for the mayor. She made money and managed real estate so well that she basically bailed out downtown after the catastrophic fire of 1889. “If she hadn’t been there and hadn’t been as wealthy as she was, I think Seattle would have come to an end at that point,” says Hawker. She even saved Puget National Bank with a substantial deposit during the Panic of 1893.

Hawker also calls Graham an LGBTQ pioneer, reading between the lines about her longtime companion and identifying what she believes is a trans woman in a photo of Graham’s escorts. Sex work may have been as crucial an industry to Seattle’s birth as timber, but the madam-turned-magnate gets little historic credit. What’s undeniable is that she was incredibly shrewd and successful: a savior or a sinner, or likely both.

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