Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Mary Stepp, Notorious Springfield Madam

A year or so ago, I wrote on this blog about Martha Misner, the queen of the Springfield madams around the turn of the 20th century, but there were a number of other notorious women operating in the city around that time as well. One was Mary Stepp.
I wrote in my Wicked Springfield book about an incident involving Mary Stepp that occurred in 1900, but she was an even more notorious character than I realized at the time. She was already well known to Springfield police as a "female brute" when her home was raided on January 24, 1898. Officers found Mary and another scarlet woman entertaining two men while Mary's eight-year-old daughter and another young girl looked on. Mary was arrested, and authorities planned to take Mary's daughter, Dutchie, away from her and place her in a girls' home. While Mary was out on bond the next day, however, she sent her daughter to stay with her sister near Kansas City. Charged with keeping a bawdy house within 100 yards of a church, Mary agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and was given three months in jail.
In early December of 1898, Mary and another woman were arrested for causing a disturbance at the local Salvation Army. They came into the place intoxicated and made themselves obnoxious to the "peace loving lads and lassies" on the premises. Mary Stepp, commonly called Mother Stepp, was described at the time as a "well-known character" who was a "curious mixture of good and bad--mostly the latter." She was known for her "debauching carousals," but she was also known occasionally to lend a hand to someone in need.
In the spring of 1899, Mary again faced a charge of keeping a bawdy house, and the case went to trial in early May. The jury split 4-2 in favor of conviction, resulting in a mistrial. The Springfield Leader-Democrat lamented the fact that nothing could apparently be done to keep the "old crone" from running a house of ill repute out of her "dilapidated shack" on Phelps Avenue. Mother Stepp, according to the newspaper, had lived in Springfield for years and had been arrested "times without number" but had never faced serious jail time.
In July of 1899, Mary reportedly tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of morphine after her lover left her. Learning of Mary's deed, the man came back and helped nurse Mary back to health.
In mid-May of 1900, Mary was arrested and convicted of disturbing the peace of the Mrs. T. J. Young family. Mrs. Young accused Mary of using loud and indecent language in their neighborhood on North Evans Street, known as "Cully Row," because a man named Cully owned most of the houses there.
In the fall of 1900, Mary got involved in the case that I wrote about in Wicked Springfield. Around the first of August, she had taken in a fifteen-year-old girl named Lizzie Rice with a promise to cure her of the "mumps." Lizzie had run away from her home near Rogersville about a year earlier. According to Mary's later testimony, Lizzie had taken up the sporting life before she came to live with Mary, and it was a venereal disease, not the mumps, that she treated the girl for. Not long after Lizzie came to live with Mary, Mr. Young, Mary's neighbor, reported to a police officer that Mary was keeping an underage girl in her home and using her for immoral purposes. The cop visited Mary's home, but Mary denied the girl was underage and said she was already a whore before she came to live with her. A month or so later the officer, after determining the girl was still living with Mary, arrested both of them. Lizzie's father was notified, and he came to Springfield to take the girl back home. Mary was charged with keeping an underage girl in her house for the purposes of prostitution. She was convicted at her trial the next year and sentenced to two years in the penitentiary.
Mary came back to Springfield in late 1902 after serving 18 months at Jefferson City and being released under the three-fourths good behavior rule. She vowed to stay out of trouble and generally succeeded in doing so. The last trace I've found of Mary was in November of 1908 when she made a complaint against another Springfield woman for disturbing the peace. Mary's main complaint was that the other woman had referred too strongly and too loudly to Mary's previous record. Mary declared that she had not been in court since being released for prison six years earlier. Mary wanted the police to make the woman quit talking bad about her, but she didn't want to have to appear in court to accomplish her purpose.

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