[Written by Megan Branon]
From the late 1800s up to the early 1900s, if you were looking for the “nightlife” in Paducah, Kentucky, you would have been steered in the direction of Court Street. More specifically, probably the 900 block because that’s where a cluster of women resided in “questionable resorts.”
One house on the block was owned and operated by Madam Mollie Neif.
As many ladies in this sometimes discreet profession did, she used an altered version of her name in regards to her business dealings.
Her birth name had been Mary Ann Molter and she was born in 1842. Her parents were born in Germany but ended up in Ohio, there they raised their children.
When Mary was about two weeks shy of her 17th birthday, she married a 21 year old Irishman named James Neef in Paducah, Kentucky. She’d told the clerk that her name was May Molton and her age was 18 years.
When the 1860 census was recorded, James and Mary were in charge of a large boarding house in town. By 1870, their family had grown by three children.
Between 1870-1880, major changes took place in the Neef home. James was now gone and Mary was raising her kids as a single mother. This is where Madam Mollie really gets her start and one of the best things about the 1880 census in Paducah is the blunt nature of the census taker. Among Mary Neef’s household, four women are listed with “prostitute” next to their names. Mary was listed as keeping a bawdy house.
On that stretch of Court Street, at least 17 women were labeled as prostitutes.
I think it is important to note that Mary was the only one listed as a keeper of a house that year (with her own children living in the home as well). Soon after this she begins appearing as “Mollie Neif”
About 1896, citizens had finally had enough of Mollie’s business venture and an injunction was filed against her. They alleged that her house was a “nuisance” and a “detriment to the community.” Judge Bishop sided with the people so Mollie took her case to the court of appeals.
During the long wait for the verdict, Mollie had her old house demolished and decided to act as if she had changed her ways.
When the spring of 1898 rolled around, it appeared that Mollie was having a brand new house built on her property at the corner of 9th and Court.
Several concerned ministers from the city decided to go to Mayor Lang with their complaints. They wanted construction halted since the appeals court had not yet given their verdict.
The mayor did not give in to the ministers however. He informed them that he had it on good authority that Mollie planned nothing more than to open an innocent railroad hotel on the corner lot.
Whether the mayor truly believed that is anybody’s guess but it is interesting to consider that the city took in $400 in fines from the brothels in just one session that same year. There were at least eleven houses operating in Paducah and each were to pay $25. If you outlaw the brothels, you lose a very reliable source of income.. Maybe the mayor was considering the pros and cons of the situation when he upheld the railway hotel story. By December, Mollie was back in business.
In 1900, we find Mollie listed as the proprietor of a “boarding house” at 9th and Court. Her three young female tennants were certainly not rail workers.
Mollie was still operating her house in 1903 and possibly up to 1910. However the census for that year shows very clearly how much Court Street had been altered. A few years prior, the city had changed the name to Kentucky Avenue and nearly all of the known prostitues and madams were gone. In the now 68 year old Mollie’s household, only she and a 28 year old woman named Bessie remained. The younger woman was simply listed as a servant but we can’t know how true that title really was. The once popular house next door now consisted of the exact same arrangement. Perhaps Madam Mollie had finally closed her doors and the infamous Court Street days were over.
Mary Ann Neef died only a couple weeks before reaching the age of 75 years in 1917.
Her epithet stands true to its words:
“Gone but not forgotten”
[photos: Neef family lot, Oak Grove Cemetery]