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Forgotten St. Louis Brothel Owner And Millionaire Comes To Life In Musical

Most people in St. Louis likely have never heard of Eliza Haycraft, one of the city's wealthiest citizens in the late 1800s. But a new musical could change that. 

Fly North Theatricals' latest musical, “Madam,” is based on the last few years of Haycraft’s life. At her peak, she ran five brothels, earning a fortune of about $28 million in today’s dollars. And she used that fortune and power to make her own rules and wielded them over men.

“This is a woman in the early 1800s who was illiterate, and she made her own choices and didn't allow a man to control her,” said Kimmie Kidd-Booker, the actor who plays Haycraft. “She controlled everything she did. And that was pretty remarkable.”

But Haycraft faded into anonymity after her death in 1871. Booker didn’t know about her before she landed the part. The brothel owner's story is one of St. Louis’ greatest mysteries because there is little information on her. But there is some.

Haycraft was born on Valentine's Day in 1820 in Callaway County, Missouri, and was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery in 1871, said Dan Fuller, event and volunteer coordinator for the cemetery. Haycraft was Eliza’s married name, and she had several sisters and one brother. Haycraft also owned at least 19 pieces of real estate. 

But Fuller said the reason there hasn’t been a lot published on Haycraft might have everything to do with her job title.

“‘Madam’ didn’t get you a lot of front-page exposure, mainly because of your clientele,” Fuller said. “And the reason why she did not go completely quietly is that she was a very moving force charitably.”

In the St. Louis of the 1860s and '70s, Haycraft was known for giving a lot of money away. She donated to organizations that supported widows and orphans of soldiers from the North and South. She also supported a number of women’s charities.

An 1871 article published by the Daily Democrat, a now-defunct local newspaper, said her funeral procession attracted thousands of mourners. But Haycraft’s gravesite is unmarked. The cemetery’s board is allowing a marker for Haycraft in the future. It’s also looking for people related to her Haycraft.

Eliza Haycraft was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery. Her gravesite is unmarked, but the cemetery board is allowing a marker in the future.
Credit Bellefontaine Cemetery
Eliza Haycraft was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery. Her grave site is unmarked but the cemetery board is allowing a marker for Haycraft in the future.

“We’re pretty comfortable in saying there are relatives to Eliza out there, and we're in an attempt to try and reach out to some of them,” Fuller said. “There's always the possibility that some of those folks still have part of the items of the estate.”

There’s at least one person connected to Haycraft in Missouri, a descendant of Haycraft’s husband. After meeting her, Fly North Artistic Director Colin Healy composed the music for “Madam.” Bluff City Theater, a Hannibal-based theater company, commissioned him to write the play.

“With Eliza, there was a lot of negative space,” Healy said. “There was a lot of these like point A to point B that is separated by a lot of time or a lot of content. And there's the space for historical fiction.”

Healy and director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga worked to bring Haycraft’s story to life by incorporating showtunes and blues music, in an effort to appeal to a broad audience and introduce Haycraft’s story to the masses. Kimmie Kidd-Booker said it's about time Haycraft’s story gets the respect it deserves.

“This was a woman who helped people,” Booker said. “I wish I knew more about who she helped, because I would not be surprised if there are generations or families that still live in St. Louis that she probably helped.”

“Madam” runs at .Zack through Feb. 2.

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

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Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.