Florence, Ala., madam subject of 10-year hunt

By Robert Palmer/Times-Daily

She was notorious in her day, known throughout the Florence area as a wealthy and unscrupulous woman.

Today, she is an enigma who has piqued the curiosity of a group of local historians who want to know more about her.

Kate Nelson was what the group of historians describe as a “madam” who operated houses of ill repute around south Florence from the early 20th century until World War II.

“She was the most notorious woman in town,” said Lee Freeman, head of the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library’s Local History and Genealogy Department. “The story is that the military police at the Courtland air base finally shut her down, but we haven’t been able to prove that yet.”

Proving anything definite about Nelson has turned out to be a challenge that a group of men has taken on for a decade.

Bob Bentley, Billy Joe Sledge and Donald Murks are among the genealogy and history buffs looking into the mysterious Kate Nelson. What they have found is a few references to her in census records, court records and sales receipts from long-gone local businesses. Much of what they know about her is based on oral history collected from elderly community members, and by the late Bill McDonald, a published author who for years was Florence city historian.

“Kate was a madam. All the old folks knew about her,” Sledge said.

“We’re pretty sure G.W. Landrum photographed her and the women who worked for her, but nobody was willing to identify them,” Bentley said. “Maybe they were afraid they would have to admit they were one of her customers.”

Freeman said they have talked to Landrum’s granddaughter, Patricia Counts, about the photos, but she told them if they still exist she has not been able to find them.

One thing that is documented about Nelson is that she was indicted and tried for vagrancy in 1929. There was no jury in the case, and the conviction was rendered based on her reputation for operating a house of prostitution and employing prostitutes, according to the court record from that case.

The conviction, however, was reversed and remanded by the Alabama Court of Appeals in April 1931. Sledge said Nelson employed the most prominent lawyers in the area at that time – O.B. Hill Jr. and C.P. Almon, of Florence, and A.H. Carmichael, of Tuscumbia. Carmichael was later elected to Congress.

The conviction was reversed because testimony was given that the three young women living in Nelson’s house were prostitutes, and that Nelson herself was known to be a prostitute and operate a house of prostitution. The appeals court ruled that hear-say testimony was not admissible, and that no testimony was given by anyone with firsthand knowledge of the allegations. The original case also included testimony that men were seen coming and going from the house at all hours, but the appeals court ruled that, too, was inadmissible because no testimony was offered that substantiated what the men were doing there.

Murks said much of south Florence was known as a red-light district during the first half of the 20th century, and that business probably boomed during the construction of Wilson Dam. Work on the dam began in 1918 and was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1927. Hundreds of men were employed for the project, and temporary towns for the workers sprang up around the area.

We found houses she owned, but not who they went to later,” Murks said.

The ruling issued by the appeals court in the vagrancy case states Nelson owned a substantial farm outside Florence that generated a “legitimate source of income.”

Murks said Nelson was known to like thoroughbred horses, and had some kind of business relationship with the owner of the Negley Hotel regarding horse racing.

Florence native Sam Phillips, who went on to become the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll at Sun Records in Memphis, where he was the first to record Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others, was quoted saying he admired Nelson’s business acumen, which influenced some of his business decisions later in life.

Oral history from local residents said when Nelson died, there was an expensive funeral for her, but they can find no record of her death or where she was buried. They do know she was born in 1884 in Missouri, and was married a number of times. Her first mention in Florence is from the 1910 census, in which she was listed as a dressmaker.

Sledge said at least three houses she owned were burned to the ground.

“I guess it was like burning out a rat. Some people wanted to get her out of the neighborhood,” Sledge said. “But she always came back.”

They became interested in Nelson when they found a rumor that suggested Nelson provided the convertible touring car that President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt used when he visited the area in Spring 1933. That scandalized the community, but they later found a newspaper clipping from 1963 in which Sheffield mechanic Harold L. Jones said he prepared the car, and it came from a local Packard dealership.

Sledge, an expert on Lauderdale County cemeteries, said he will let his investigation rest when he finds her burial place.