Sunday, February 7, 2021

Mamie Seymour and the North-Side Wildlife

Saturday, March 31, 1894
Chief Rudolph Weisbrod left the station and drove his buggy up to the north side. He was almost to the city limit when he stopped, tethered his horse, and entered the house where Mamie Seymour lived. Weisbrod arrested her for selling beer without a license. Then he went to the house next door and arrested Frankie Harris on the same charge. Weisbrod could have gotten both women for crimes more severe than selling beer. But that was not the point.

Seymour and Harris went before Judge James Hamilton Merrill. The Judge was a Civil-War vet and had long been an influential figure in Oshkosh (Merrill Middle School still bears his name). Judge Merrill knew what was being asked of him. He gave both women a meager, $1.50 fine. Seymour and Harris paid up and went back to the north side. Nobody took this shit seriously.

James Hamilton Merrill

Mamie Seymour and Frankie Harris lived on the east side of Ashland Street just south of Murdock. It was the north end of the old Fourth Ward. If you crossed over Murdock you were into Nordheim. This was the outskirts of town where city laws were treated more like suggestions. What thrived there in the 1890s is all gone. It's now another of those quiet Oshkosh neighborhoods that betrays none of its secrets. This was a neighborhood that once spawned scores of secrets.

The southeast corner of Murdock and Ashland streets.

During the 1890s there was a redlight district along the east side of Ashland Street (named Fremont Street until 1896). There were at least five brothels doing business there. They were all conducted by women. There was the house of Anna Adams, there was Nellie Franklin’s, Frankie Howard’s, Frankie Patterson’s, and near the north end of the street was Mamie Seymour’s. Mamie’s place was the best known. Mamie was a local celebrity; the belle of the Oshkosh underworld.

She was born Mamie Smith in Michigan in the summer of 1864. Her parents were Irish immigrants. Her early life remains an enigma. By 1885 she was living in Oshkosh. About this same time she began selling sex and using Seymour as her last name. She had arrived in the right town at just the right time. Rudolph J. Weisbrod was about to be named Oshkosh’s chief of police. The new chief took a broad-minded approach in dealing with the city's professional merchants of vice.
Rudolph Joseph Weisbrod

Mamie Seymour had her place on Ashland Street up and running by 1890. The first brothels along that strip had opened about five years earlier. They were referred to as resorts. That was a more fitting label. After all, flesh wasn’t the only thing on the menu. Mamie’s resort was part saloon, part restaurant, part music lounge. Of course, none of it was licensed or legal. But it was more or less accepted.

Mamie usually had five or six other women working out of her place. She also employed a maid, a cook, and a hack driver to taxi her around town and cart customers up from the downtown saloons. Mamie kept a piano player in residence named Philip Oberdorfer. They called Oberdorfer the Professor; an honorific frequently conferred upon whorehouse pianists.

If you could afford it, you could drink there. Mamie sold beer for 50 cents a bottle (about $16 in today's money). The price of sex ranged from $5 to $15, depending on your pleasure. Nothing there was cheap. A good paying job in Oshkosh at this time might bring home $12 a week. That wouldn’t go far at Mamie’s place. She catered to free-spending sports and wealthy hedonists.

Chief Weisbrod handled Mamie with kid gloves. He’d tag her every now and then with some menial liquor offense. It was just to show he was keeping an eye on things. "The periodical arrest of the keepers of disreputable resorts in this city took place this morning," was how the Northwestern described it after Mamie had been arrested in 1899. Once again, it was for selling beer without a license.


Mamie ran an orderly resort. An anonymous Oshkosh cop told the Northwestern, "There was never a woman of her class in Oshkosh who caused them less trouble." That didn't mean there wasn't trouble. There was plenty of it. And despite her standing, Mamie and Chief Weisbrod had a falling out in the summer of 1895. Neither would say why.

Mamie was forced to vacate the house on Ashland. It was rumored she would move to an old farm owned by the Gratten family that was just over the city line in Nordheim. It never came to that. Mamie remained in Oshkosh and built a new house on the east side of Ashland Street about a half-block south of Murdock. She would run her business there for the next decade.

The red dot indicates the approximate location of Mamie's Harrison Street resort.

At the turn of the century Mamie was 35, fairly wealthy, and so well known that when she appeared at the Turner Hall fashion ball – where she was awarded first prize for best costume – the Northwestern referred to her simply by her nickname: Reddie. No other name required.

The other women working at her resort tended to be in their early or mid-20s. In polite society, they were referred to as "Inmates" or "White Slaves" as if their residency were involuntary. That was not the case. The women at Mamie's resort tended to come and go. Although there were those, like Bessie Mengel, who by the time she was 26 had been working out of Mamie's house for five years. The papers wrote of their "life of shame." That sort of knee-jerk chatter didn't count for much among the working girls.

In 1895, members of Oshkosh's Ladies Benevolent Society went to Chief Weisbrod with an allegation that one of the resorts on Ashland was holding a woman named Minnie Boyd against her will. Weisbrod told them he didn't believe it, but he sent a detective to check it out. When Boyd was interviewed she said it was a lie; that she could leave any time she cared to. Laughing, she told the detective "I'm not through sporting yet."

It wasn't all joy riding. The charged atmosphere attracted more than its share of violence. Hardly a year passed without some grim eruption. In 1898, Mamie "pounded" another woman in an alley behind an Oshkosh saloon. She pled guilty to an assault and battery charge and was fined $23.80. "Good deal of money for licking her," Mamie muttered to the clerk as she paid the fine.

The following week, a rival prostitute named Birdie Fox was shot to death by the man she loved, Oshkosh florist George Miles. Their drunken fight began after Fox discovered that Miles had been having a relationship with Mamie. Miles was charged with murder. Mamie was supposed to be the prosecution's star witness. But when she took the stand, Mamie went mum. Miles went free.

Most of the trouble was started by the customers. They'd come in drunk and bust up furniture and abuse the women. For example...

Henry Freeman, a well-known sport about town, is in the city lockup for raising a row in a sporting house. Last night he went to the resort of Mamie Seymour. He threw a beer glass at a girl known as Clara Beth. She dodged the glass and he picked up a spittoon and threw that at her. It struck her head and cut an ugly gash over her right eye… On his way to the station, he told the officer that he meant to kill her and that if she did not die he would finish the job as soon as he was free.
   – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 20, 1891

Clara Beth refused to press charges. But that was the end of Freeman in Oshkosh. The next morning, Chief Weisbrod fined Freeman and ordered him to leave the city and never return.

The worst of the trouble occurred in 1903. Mamie had a full house on the Saturday night of May 9th. At 9:30 pm four more men arrived. One of the newcomers immediately pulled the phone out by the wire and smashed it. Then their guns came out and the plunder began.

There were 11 people at Mamie's place that evening. They were each stripped of whatever valuables they had on their person. "They had taken everything in sight except the heavy silverware," The Northwestern reported. "The men then proceeded to hold high carnival."

The gangsters spent the next two hours at the resort. Between the four of them, they drained 19 bottles of beer and a quart of whiskey. The Professor worked the piano all the while. Every now and then one of them would take a potshot at one of the captives to keep them in line. At least a half-dozen shots were fired. Around midnight they finally left.

Mamie had two alarms in her private room. One went directly to the police station. The other to the Phoenix Fire House on North Main. In her haste, Mamie pulled the wrong alarm. The Phoenix brigade passed by the robbers on the way to Mamie's resort.

The ringleader of the gang was a roving, 5'4" career criminal named Archie McMillan (alias Edward Gray). Oshkosh police caught up with McMillan the following day. He was found in the bed of a prostitute at a resort near the corner of 8th and South Main. Emma Graves, who ran the house, had tipped off police that her new customer might be someone they were looking for. When the cops burst in, McMillan tried going for his gun. He was immediately subdued, cuffed, and taken naked to the police station. McMillan was swiftly convicted and sentenced to 12 years in the state penitentiary at Waupun.

Archie McMillan

Newspaper reports of the crime were extensive. But it was left out that Mamie had been assaulted that night. Her assailant, James McCary, evaded police for three years. He was caught in Menasha in 1906 and brought back to Oshkosh. Along with his other crimes, McCary was charged with felonious assault “upon the person and body of one Mamie Seymour.” Mamie was gone by the time that came to pass.

Around 4 a.m. on the Saturday morning of February 10, 1905, Mamie suffered a stroke at her Harrison Street home. She died within a half-hour. Mamie Seymour was 40 years old.

Her name had been danced across the pages of the Daily Northwestern for years. Always with something sensational or depraved attached to it. The report of her death began like most other stories about her: with an obligatory mention of her presumed moral corruption. But this time, even the Northwestern gave Mamie her due.

"She was generous to a fault and even those who condemned her life admitted that she has done much for charity. No hungry person was turned away from her place and many poor families have been assisted by her. Many times in charitable work her large contribution would be given under the anonymous name of ‘A Friend’ and it was known that if one only be secured to approach her and ask for money for a charitable purpose a refusal would not result. As a consequence, she aided many people who were never aware of it."
   – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; February 11, 1905.

The funeral was held two days later at Mamie's home. The service was conducted by Rev. E.H. Smith of Oshkosh's First Congregational Church. Mamie had kept family in Michigan unaware of her life in Oshkosh. They were told of her death by Mamie's longtime confidant John Larie, who ran the White Seal Saloon on North Main.

Mamie's estate was valued at over $10,000 (or about $325,000 in today's money). She left her brother Frank Smith $1,500. All the rest went to Larie.

John Larie

The death of Mamie Seymour coincided with another round of calls to have Oshkosh cleaned up once and for all. The clamor, as usual, came mostly from elites embarrassed by the city's reputation as a place of mythic libertinism.

"It is high time that the independent voters assert themselves and demand reform in the moral atmosphere of this city," wrote an anonymous Oshkosh business owner to the Northwestern in 1905. "When we go away from home we soon learn of the reputation that Oshkosh has. It is a state of affairs tolerated only in some of the wide-open western towns, where vice rules for twenty-four hours a day."

Most Oshkoshers would never embrace the kind of reform the gentry hoped to foist upon them. But the old guard, which had fostered the city's "wide-open" atmosphere, was giving way. Judge Merrill, who had been elected mayor of Oshkosh, died in office in 1900. His successor was the Progressive John Mulva, who in 1902 led a movement to have Rudolph Weisbrod removed as Chief of Police. The esteemed Civil-War vet fought off the challenge only to die later that year.

Rudolph Weisbrod, (left) in a photo taken during the Civil War, and Mayor John Mulva.

A new generation was coming to power. Their vision for the city wasn't expansive enough to include the likes of another Mamie Seymour. For 20 years she had flourished here in her own extravagant way. Mamie was utterly of her time. But that time had come to an end in Oshkosh.

The quotes used in this story were sourced from either Oshkosh newspapers or court reports.

I've mentioned Nordheim a couple of times here. This is a neighborhood that is now part of the City of Oshkosh. It's bounded by Libby Street to the north, Harrison Street to the east, Murdock Street to the south, and Jackson Street to the west. Nordheim was annexed by the City in the 1950s.

I first came across the name of Mamie Seymour in 2012 in an Oshkosh police ledger from 1894. Prior to this I knew nothing of her, but her name became stuck in my head. Over the years I came across her name again and again while doing research on other topics. I recently realized just how much information I had inadvertently gathered on her. This story is a bit off topic for this blog, but I felt compelled to share it here.

The 1894 police ledger.


  1. Oh the stories that were woven. Nice work again Lee.

  2. I hope to hear some follow up on Mamie or what happened to the house. There are many local tales about a house of ill repute on Harrison St.

    1. Hi Brian, both of her old resorts were torn down. Sad to say...