Dead Whores and "Lot 98"

My friend who posts as Angeline DC on Literotica has posted Chapter 2 of her story “The Bidding of Lot 98.” This is the second time in a couple of weeks I’ve pimped one of her stories, but I should note that it’s the first time she’s posted anything new since August of last year, and before that it was 2002. It just so happens when it rains it pours.

For folks who follow my interactive theatre events, this is the sequel to the piece that provided the inspiration, though not the actual background for the “Holland House” scenario(s), so that may be of interest.

Dead Whores

Not too long ago Deborah Jeanne Palfrey went into a garden shed in Florida, put a nylon rope around her neck and spent the last few moments of her fifty two years of life kicking her life out on the end of it. For those of you who live on Mars (or to be fair in Germany), and have never heard of her, Palfrey was a madam of sorts. She didn’t own a gaudy house with Victorian furniture, but she booked call girls and provided them for sex to men in the DC area. This got her the name “Washington Madam.”

Palfrey was indicted and convicted for a welter of charges that spring from the fact that her business was illegal. When your business is illegal then doing it becomes racketeering, money laundering and using the mail for illegal purposes. For the record, Palfrey was no tyrant. She wasn’t really a madam either, she was an agent. She had clients who would pay good money and were presumably somewhat safe. She put young women with a college education and outside work in touch with them, and in return took a 50% cut, which considering she was advertiser, and ultimately carried most of the risks, seems not unfair.

Palfrey’s suicide seems to have been a willful act and maybe a comment. A woman with Palfrey’s contacts and means could not have been unable to arrange for a more painless exit, nor under any illusion that death on the end of a nylon rope would be pretty. But Palfrey had an intimate connection to another dead woman who died on the end of a rope for her crime of prostitution, Brandy Britton.

Palfrey told ABC News she would never go to Federal Prison. She’d told Washington writer Dan Moldea, who was considering writing a book about her, that “I am not going back to prison. I will commit suicide first.”

[Updated to include Palfrey’s suicide note to her Mother and Sister

One might think she was cowardly, a Hollywood pampered queen unwilling to contemplate prison. But she spent eighteen months in prison for a 1993 conviction for running a Prostitution ring in California. So you have to believe that she knew what she was facing. She could expect four to six years. I do not know that if I faced being locked up as a fifty two year old man and spending the last four to six really healthy years of my life in Federal Prison, to emerge nearly sixty years old, I would not strongly consider a quicker and more permanent solution. At the very least she knew what she was facing.

But Palfrey isn’t who I really want to write about. The person I really want to talk about is Brandy Britton, a person that even most friends who follow these things don’t know ever existed.

Britton was a double major in biology and sociology, the first in her family to earn a degree. She was remembered as very bright. Her career suggests she was temperamental. She became a PhD and eventually ended up being dismissed from University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Britton may not have been an ideal person or an ideal employee. According to NBC News: In 1999, Britton lost her job at UMBC and filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the university. In dismissing the suit, which was is on appeal, a federal judge in Baltimore cited complaints about Britton from UMBC students and colleagues, and an accusation by the National Institutes of Health that Britton falsified data on a federally funded research project. Britton had taught sociology at the school beginning in 1994.

We don’t know much about why the gender-discrimination suit.  Normally I’m inclined to give some credit to people who bring forward gender-based suits, but the dismissal seems pretty stiff, I’m not aware UMBC has particularly bad practices, and her colleagues don’t seem to have been particularly supportive.  There are statements that she’d had another suit against a previous employer.  Maybe she was wronged, and just didn’t manage to make friends.  It’s also possible she wasn’t the sort of person you’d be sympathetic to, an embittered harridan, raging against others in her department and provoking hatreds, the sort of person everyone gives a sigh of relief to see go.

There is certainly some suggestion she was depressive and temperamental. My personal guess would be a depressive personality who covered for failures at work badly, and may have tended to come back too aggressively when questioned.  It’s not an unknown pattern for people who are attracted to a secret sex life have trouble getting on well with others, particularly of the same gender in their enviornments.  The suits? I suppose if I lost my job my attorney would advise me to sue on any grounds I could come up with. If I was desperate and had a couple of kids and an expensive house, I might.

Like Palfrey you can color Britton as somebody who didn’t want to deal with how the other half lives. She was turning tricks to keep her $400 suburban home in Howard County, and working out of her house, which is probably what got her in troubles. The area she was working is not tolerant of anybody whose sexual habits stray too far from June Cleaver. And there’s a legitimate complaint about running a business in your home. But that’s small fine caliber antics.

Classically Liberal says: Busybody neighbors bare some of the responsibility. They noticed “men pulling up in fancy cars and staying only briefly”. What is missing? They didn’t notice any deterioration of the upscale neighborhood. They didn’t find drug dealers or other prostitutes hanging around outside the door. In fact they didn’t see anything except men periodically driving up to Britton’s home. But they suspected she was having sex and in America that’s practically considered tantamount to genocide. One can have sex, of course, provided they hide the fact and feel guilty about it.

Britton was publicly humiliated when the Howard County Police trolled her, set her up, raided her and arrested her. Interestingly her reaction seems to have been a war between defiance and despair. She cited a book on sex work and demanded a jury trial. I remember reading about the case and had hopes that despite all the safeguards in our criminal system against anyone actually getting a word out to question the basic validity of the laws we might see an extremely well educated, self-confident, sex worker with a clue as to the ability of the word “jury nullification” to bring a courtroom to a halt, take the stand in an open trial. She’d lose of course, but the punishment wouldn’t be that severe.

In her mind she’d already lost. Her finances were hopeless, and a local blogger believes that she was still doing sex work shortly before her trial to raise money. Her attorney says her house was in foreclosure.

I wish she’d fought, but it is a bit much to ask any human being to put themselves into the dehumanizing three ring circus of a court for our benefit. A part of me thinks she was cowardly. Palfrey thought she was cowardly and said it in very nearly so many words.

But there is more here than meets the eye. The Post says: She was a sharp researcher whose dissertation focused on abused and battered women who then found herself, a few years ago, filing domestic-violence charges against her second husband: “He . . . tied me up with strapping tape” and “stabbed me in the neck,” she told police…. [Afriend] talked about Britton’s fears that she would lose the house where she had raised two children, now grown, as a single parent and where she had been living with her two potbellied pigs, dog and two cats.

While anyone can end up with an abuser, her dissertation topic and subsequent choices suggest a pattern of abuse in her life. In the end the Law was her final abuser.

Britton had other signs of instability. Close friends suggest she was paranoiac. “…she believed, “they” were tapping her phones and bugging her home. It was too much, she said, and she found herself thinking: ” ‘I’m going to lay down and die. I’m so depressed.’ “

In the end flight won out over fight. She hanged herself in the home she feared losing.

She’d worked for Palfrey, who was well aware of her death. The Chicago Tribune says Last year, Palfrey said she, too, was humiliated by her prostitution charges, but said: “I guess I’m made of something that Brandy Britton wasn’t made of.”

One cannot help but think that Britton was strongly on her mind in those last few minutes, before not breathing became her principal concern. In the end the two women died for the same sin…providing a sexual service to Washington men.

Monica Hesse had a rather compassionate writeup in the Post. She described the fate that befell the recipients of these services:

Maybe we feel sad because of the gendered irony. The powerful men whose names surfaced in the scandal, the ones who did not appear in the courtroom, who did not have to discuss their menstrual cycles publicly, have all remained unscathed.

David Vitter is still that good-looking junior senator from Louisiana. Harlan K. Ullman (creator of “shock and awe”) is listed as a senior associate on the Web site of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Former State Department official Randall L. Tobias, who previously oversaw AIDS relief, promoting abstinence and a policy requiring grant recipients to swear they opposed prostitution, slunk back to Indiana after his resignation. There, he was appointed president of the board of the Indianapolis Airport Authority. The city’s mayor said that America “believed in second chances.”

Britton’s attorney, Flohr who said she was “kind and generous” asked “Her death underscores an important question: Was the public benefited at all by the resources spent on her arrest and prosecution?”

I wanted to write a rant on the injustice of the whole thing and instead wrote an obituary. I think this speaks for itself.

Now here is my two cents. These women committed the crime of having sex with strangers. They provided a service I’ve used. They took risks to make the service available and found plenty of consumers. Aside from scandal caused by legal investigation, they didn’t hurt anyone. Moralists can argue that they “hurt” the fabric of society by providing outlets for sex other than married life. For my part I am going to defer to Tristan Taormino who wrote better than I did about Eliot Spitzer’s choices in her Voice column.

All I will say is this. Brandy Britton may have been depressive, and had financial trouble. But I do not think that there is any serious chance that either of these women would be dead if it was not the case that our country makes prostitution a crime.

In most civilized countries, including Canada and Britain, neither woman was doing anything seriously criminal. Palfrey could be charged under “Procuring and living off the income of prostitution” In Canada, but enforcement is sporadic and rare, as the law is aimed at street pimps. A few changes to her operation to make it a portal would probably bring it under Candian Law. Britton would have had to do outcall, which I think we’d agree is not unreasonable.

I am not aware that life, or the state of morals in these countries is any worse than life here. And if it was, is it worth dying for.

It’s not just that. Humiliation comes up in the case of both women. Why should sex-work be humiliating? At best, some of the great courtesans of history are famous and honored. At worst, working the street, I don’t see it as any worse than any other low wage job. But we don’t treat it that way. Society provides plenty of people as customers to prostitutes, but it is humiliating to be one. I understand the social structures that dictated that approach, but like many things it needs to change.

I tend to take prostitution for granted. I dealt with it back in street days, and know from anecdotes and discussions that it’s much safer and more civilized in the era of Craigslist.

But in the end there are still people who get punished and they are not the people like me who use the services. They are the girls who provide them. And when it happens it makes my blood boil and I want to hurt someone but there is nobody to hurt and it would not do any good. So I write a blog post and preach to the choir. But on some level I feel if even one more person knows about these things, maybe it will matter.

So that’s all I have to say. That I don’t think this is right and it makes me ashamed for us all.

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One Response

  1. Palfrey’s suicide notes have been released. At least one describes her trial as a “modern day lynching.” I am inclined to agree.

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