Bertha Dean

Born in Kansas in 1882, Bertha Lanthrop began her career as a prostitute around 1900 when she was in her late teens or early twenties. For Bertha, unlike Laura Zeigler (Miss Laura, the first madam at 123 Firs Street), the business of commercial sex was less of a career and more of a way of life. First as a prostitute for Laura Zeigler, then as her successor, Bertha would reside in the bordello at 123 First Street until her death in 1948. Her life on the Row encompassed almost the entire life of the street as the red light district of Fort Smith. She saw the business pass through all its stages.

According to land records, at some time she may have married a man named Jones. Fort Smith marriage records for the time reveal no such union. Either she married the man elsewhere, it was a common law arrangement or she simply was using the surname as a pseudonym. Despite her assuming the name Jones in the land records for 1915, she also continued to use the name Bertha Gale when charged with being a "keeper of a house of prostitution."

Sometime around 1917, Bertha did marry Mack Dean. Dean was an Arkansas native and a veteran of the Spanish-American War. Judging from their sharing of a common plot in the National Cemetery in Fort Smith, this relationship was more than likely a bona fide legal marriage. Tragically for Bertha, it would only last five years. Dean suffered from tuberculosis. Judging from the outpouring of condolence letters to Bertha in 1922, they must have shared a large number of friends. Also at this time, Bertha received two letters from her sister and mother who were living in California. Both of them tried to persuade her to leave Fort Smith and the bordello business without success. In her will, Bertha left the members of her family in California one dollar each, stating that reason for her parsimony was that "they have not assisted me in anyway."

Bertha Dean kept her deceased husband's name despite another relationship with Jules Bartholemy. Bartholemy lived in the brothel, but whether he simply was a bouncer in her employ or more than that is not known. Whatever the case, Bertha left the land and the house to him upon her death in 1948.

Outside of these relationships with the principal men in her life, Bertha Dean was apparently strong-willed, clever business woman much like Laura Zeigler. Possessing a deep, loud voice, locally she became known as "Big Bertha." Photographs that purportedly show her during the 1920s reveal a petite woman with almost delicate features. Not tall in stature, it is probably the weight that she gained late in life when her health began to fail that led people to call her "big."

Bertha Dean's life at 123 First Street must have been a mixture of struggle and success; struggle with police officiers and the Great Depression; financial success enjoying a boom in business from soldiers at Fort Chaffee during World War II. Those same 25 years brought changes in the business of prostitution and new competitors.

One important change was the presence in the city of large hotels. By the 1920s, the Goldman Hotel and the Ward Hotel were firmly established businesses in the city. Porters and telephones in the hotels enabled Bertha Dean to institute a "call girl" service at 123 First Street. Usually a bell hop would call Bertha Dean to send a prostitute to a hotel guest. Bertha Dean would then call a cab that would take the woman to either the Ward or the Goldman. Although it is difficult to determine how much "call girl" business was done from 123 First Street, one cab driver states the he made approximately one trip to from the address to a hotel every 10 days; this out of a cab fleet of about 20 cars.

During the 1920s, Bertha Dean initiated a relationship with a local hairdresser, Sammie Peters Long. Whenever a new woman came to work at 123 First, Bertha would send her over to Sammie Long's beauty parlor on Garrison Avenue. There, Sammie Long would dye every new prostitute's hair upon the request of the madam, teach the new employees how to sit and teach them proper etiquette. One of her recollections is how Bertha Dean used to complain in an exasperated tone of another madam on First Street, Ella Scott.

By the late 1930s, Ella Scott was Bertha Dean's only remaining competition on the Row; although Scott did not use call girls. Between the time of the late teens and the end of the 1920s, the other bordellos had closed. Probably never more than ten in number, police pressure and economic forces pushed them out. Railroad tracks covered the sites of the houses and new owners and locations took up the business. Reportedly, "crime syndicates" and pimps conducted commercial sex enterprises out of hotels on North Fifth Street. The time when women could control the business of prostitution was almost past.

As Bertha Dean entered the 1940s and the last years of her life, business at 123 First Street enjoyed one last period of properity. Soldiers from Fort Chaffee, constructed in the late 1930s on the outskirts of the city, frequented the house. In the history of the settlement of the western frontier, even near very remote military outposts, prostitutes did business. Doubtless they worked in Fort Smith even in the 1840s. In the 1940s, in what is today the city's most celebrated bordello,soldiers appeared again. Into the 1950s and 1960s, military men in the area probably continued to visit houses of prostitution. But with the conclusion of World War II, fewer came to 123 First Street. Bertha Dean's health began to fail and in 1948, at the age of 66, she died. Perhaps it is fitting that as a representative of all the madams and prostitutes of Fort Smith, she is buried with soldiers, the kind of men who founded Fort Smith and were her customers. Her body lies in the city's National Cemetery in section 1, plot 472.

"Living Under a Red Light, Fort Smith's Bordello Row, 1898 to 1948," Benjamin Boulden.

From a 1994 study sponsored by a grant from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.