Humans have exchanged money and goods for sex for thousands of years. In fact, sex work is often regarded as one of the world’s oldest professions, and one many continue to engage in today.
The majority of sex workers operate as “sole proprietors,” while others are employed in entry-level positions, such as exotic dancers. Then, there are those who have scaled the ranks, opening their own brothels and inns, and capitalizing on the sex industry. These “madams” often wield extraordinary power and wealth. But due to the criminalized nature of sex work, and the negative social stigma attached to the industry, many madams live in a constant double bind, maintaining one life as an ordinary citizen—sometimes as a wife and mother—and another as a criminal.
“The life of a respectful, law-abiding citizen, where marriage and motherhood come into play, increases the chances a woman would not get discovered in the double life as a madam,” Mark Frank, a social psychologist and an expert in deception, tells A&E True Crime.
As Frank explains, trying to keep one life straight can be a challenge, but keeping two lives straight is an enormous task, and that extra mental effort can be exhausting.
“I think many of these individuals ‘get into character’ with one life, versus the other, and that seems to ease a bit of the burden,” says Frank.
A&E True Crime takes a look at four women who lived secret lives as madams.
Rose Laws: ‘Gold Coast Madam’
Rose Laws grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee. She married at a young age and relocated to Illinois with her husband, where she gave birth to five children in eight years. Her husband often beat her, and after almost dying once, Laws left. When she returned for her children, she discovered they had been placed in a “brutal” orphanage. It took her years to get them back.
Laws divorced in the 1960s and purchased a motel in Addison, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Here, she began her self-described “hanky-panky” business, acting as an “agent” for women. Given what happened with her children, this may have been a difficult, if not risky, choice.
“Most women who are sex workers and mothers live in fear of criminalization and of their children being taken away from them,” Siobhan Brooks, a sociologist who studies the effects of sex work on women, tells A&E True Crime.
Laws eventually moved the business to downtown Chicago, where she earned the nickname the “Gold Coast Madam.” She employed sex workers from coast-to-coast, who serviced clients all over the country for rates up to $900 an hour. She kept her clientele listed in a black book with more than 5,000 names, including pro-athletes, Hollywood celebrities, mobsters, lawyers and judges, among others. Her franchise became known as “The Circuit.”
Authorities exposed the operation in 2002 after receiving a tip and arrested Laws. She pleaded guilty and served 22 months in prison.
In a 2010 interview, Laws told WLS-TV Chicago that despite raising her children in the motel that doubled as a brothel, she kept the business hidden from them. In her memoir, Gold Coast Madam, Laws writes: “God knows why I got into this business. It was to save my kids. But I chose to stay. I enjoyed it, I was good at it, and I’d still do it today if I could.”
Sydney Biddle Barrows: ‘Mayflower Madam’
A former debutante born into wealth, Sydney Biddle Barrows started a high-end escort service named Cachet in 1979 after leaving a two-year college program and finding herself unemployed. Barrows became known as the “Mayflower Madam,” because of her family’s heritage and connections to several Mayflower passengers.
Some of Cachet’s clients included high-powered business executives, foreign diplomats and oil sheiks. Barrows ran the business under the alias Sheila Devin, while maintaining her personal social life as Sydney Biddle Barrows. Unlike some madams, Barrows never met with clients out of fear of being recognized.
Authorities raided Barrows’ operation in October 1984. Her arrest shocked her family and friends, who didn’t know she had been living dual lives.
Facing up to seven years in prison, Barrows pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of promoting prostitution and was fined $5,000.
Since the mid-1990s, Barrows is now a high-end customer service consultant.
Julie Moya: Madam with a Heart
Julie Moya married, had a child, and divorced while still a teenager. Struggling to make ends meet, she turned to sex work as a means to survive. She later remarried an Argentine drug kingpin and began running drugs for his operation. She was arrested in the 1990s while delivering three kilos of cocaine to a client in New York City.
“Some people who live double lives want out of a current life, but are afraid to step out, thus they start a new one without discarding the old,” says Frank.
A mother of three, Moya returned to sex work, this time building a profitable escort service known as Julie’s of New York. At its height, her business, which began in 1993 and included five Midtown apartments and her home on Long Island, brought in an estimated $2 to $3 million-per-year. Her clientele included police officers, lawyers, doctors and music producers, among others.
Known as the “madam with a heart” because she rescued so many animals, Moya was arrested in 2005 on more than 50 charges, including promoting prostitution, but pleaded guilty for a reduced sentence. She was released from prison in 2007.
Like Laws, Moya doesn’t seem to regret living a double life. “I had a great time,” Moya told the Daily News in a 2007 interview. “I miss my brothels. I miss my girls. I miss my life.”
Paige Birgfeld: ‘Carrie’
Paige Birgfeld, a Colorado mother of three, went missing in 2007. Before her disappearance, people described Birgfeld as a “supermom,” who juggled multiple jobs to provide for her family, including exotic dancing and being a Pampered Chef consultant. What they didn’t know is that Birgfeld also ran an escort service called Models Inc. and went by the pseudonym “Carrie.”
Brooks says those working in the industry often deal with “shame, mental health challenges, possible drug abuse and violence,” leading to the secrecy and some tragic outcomes.
Birgfeld’s remains were found in 2012 by a hiker in the Wells Gulch area of Mesa County, Colorado. Authorities arrested Lester Ralph Jones on November 21, 2014 after they discovered he had made calls to Birgfeld’s escort phone just before she went missing. They had also found Birgfeld’s car on fire in a parking lot near Jones’ workplace three days after she disappeared.
Jones was found guilty of first and second-degree murder and is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.