Some of Lynchburg’s sex workers were entombed beneath monuments. Others were buried in potter’s fields, in unmarked graves.
Since the early 1980s, Nancy Jamerson Weiland has been researching the madams and prostitutes who lived in Lynchburg during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“I was writing a novel and I was doing the research for the novel and the research took over,” she said.
On Sunday, about 100 people showed up to the tour she gave in Old City Cemetery, highlighting some of the “bawdy” women and their worlds.
Weiland, in a big black hat and a white blouse with a high collar, dressed in what she said would benefit a 19th century madam. She gave a teaser early on when she alluded to the possibility a couple of the women may have been distant relatives of hers.
“There’s always a little intrigue,” she said with a smile.
She began the tour at the grave of Lizzie Langley, where an engraved obelisk marks her passing.
The story of Agnes Langley and her daughter Lizzie had many twists and turns, all gleaned from Weiland’s research.
Both Agnes and Lizzie were tied to running a “house of ill repute.”
Agnes Langley was a free black woman, also described as mixed-race, who married a free black man, Pleasant Adams.
Weiland enjoyed relating how Agnes required Adams to sign a pre-nuptial agreement, stipulating that he wouldn’t take any of her money or possessions but that these instead would be left to her daughter, Lizzie.
Agnes left an estate of $125, Weiland said. When Lizzie Langley died in 1891, she left about $5,000 − more than $90,000 in today’s dollars, Weiland said.
Later, in response to a question, Weiland said she guessed that Lizzie paid for her obelisk herself.
As the tour went along, Weiland visited other graves and told of other families, and of the houses and “red light” districts that were part of the Lynchburg landscape.
Many of the women were widows or single mothers, she said. Some took up prostitution after having a pre-marital sexual experience that led their families to throw them out of their houses.
“There was a bit of a cycle there,” she said.
At the end of her tour, she stopped to speak about Ella and Nora Jamerson, women she said may have been distant relatives of hers. Their story was the saddest part of the tour.
Ella and Nora grew up in a farming family in Appomattox, she said, but Ella moved to Lynchburg and took up prostitution, she said, and Nora later followed her, at the age of 15.
She found records of their later suicides. Nora took an overdose of laudanum in 1894 and Ella leaped into the canal in 1897. The only mourner at Ella’s funeral was her father, who walked all the way from Appomattox.
Weiland said she’s always wondered what made the two women leave home and take up prostitution.
“Maybe they thought anything’s better than working in the tobacco fields,” she said.