While most people are familiar with prominent historical figures like King Louis XV, Napoleon Bonaparte, and King Charles II, little is known about the mistresses who shared their beds and sometimes mothered their children. These 10 famous prostitutes made prominent names for themselves during their time, and many of them were respected models, entrepreneurs, artists, actresses, and explorers. Their lives were full of mystery, intrigue, and the occasional murder by erotic asphyxiation.
Phryne is one of the few prostitutes whose beauty can be admired in museums of fine art. As a courtesan in Ancient Greece, Phryne was known for her good looks and modeled for famous painter Apelles and sculptor Praxiteles. It has been speculated that Phryne’s modeling and prostitution made her so wealthy she was able to contribute to the rebuilding of the walls of Thebes after Alexander the Great destroyed them in 336 BC Like many prostitutes, Phryne was subject to public ridicule and was put on trial for unclear religious reasons and was reported to have bared her breasts to the jury. Phryne was defended by one of her lovers, the orator Hypereides, and was ultimately set free.
Veronica Franco was a fascinating woman from the Renaissance period in Venice. Aside from being a prostitute, Franco was well educated and published several volumes of poetry. She also created a charity that provided help to courtesans and their children. Franco’s most notable client was Henry III, King of France and in 1565 she was listed as an expert in a popular Venetian guidebook for prostitutes. Towards the end of her life in 1577, Franco was taken before the court on charges of witchcraft but the charges were dropped. Much of her life after her brushes with royalty is unknown, but scholars believe she died relatively poor without social or financial support.
Madame du Barry
Jeanne Bécu, known to the French court of Louis XV as Madame du Barry, was well known in her time for being the official mistress of Louis XV. Bécu got her start in prostitution in Paris where she acquired many high-ranking aristocrats as clients and eventually made her way to the Palace of Versailles where a depressed and lonely Louis XV discovered her. Bécu was quickly married to a noble and secured a title to grant her access to Louis XV’s court, and entered the mix of factors that destroyed France’s foreign affairs. Bécu was sent to a nunnery after the death of Louis XV and ultimately died at the guillotine during the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris in late 1793.
Sally Salisbury, whose birth name was Sarah Pridden, was a gutsy and extremely popular prostitute in 18th century London. She began prostituting in her early teens and by the age of 14 she was working in a high-class brothel that attracted lords and aristocrats. Salisbury was known for being beautiful, funny, and, all things considered, pretty feisty. She was involved in a public scandal where she stabbed a brothel patron, John Finch, who was the son of a countess and a lord, over a pair of opera tickets. Salisbury met an unfortunate end when she was imprisoned and shortly after died of complications from syphilis.
Nell Gwyn is most famous for her role as mistress to King Charles II of England, with whom she had two sons. As a young woman, Gwyn was enchanted by the English theatre and set out to become an actress. Although she was illiterate, she studied her craft at a performance art school where she was rumored to have shacked up with famous male actors Charles Hart and John Lacy. Gwyn worked her way up the ranks, acting in several comedic plays, and eventually became present in high English society where she became acquainted with King Charles. Gwyn was one of 13 mistresses to the King and while she never secured a title for herself, one of her sons was given the title Duke of St. Albans.
Emma Elizabeth Crouch was born in London in the 19th century. Crouch wasn’t an average prostitute who lived on the streets. She attended a boarding school in France where she became well-educated and obtained high society social skills. After a terrible encounter with man who raped and then paid her in London, Crouch became a mistress in a notorious bar and brothel, The Argyll Rooms. While traveling in Paris, Crouch took the name Cora Pearl and began to make a name for herself as a courtesan to wealthy men. Pearl became a huge celebrity in Paris and slept with many famous men such as Napoleon Bonaparte. She was also known for having a flashy style and rocked bold hair colors such as lemon yellow.
Catherine Walters was a beautiful fashion icon and English courtesan who seemed to have all of London at her feet in the 19th century. Walters had it all; she was pretty, popular, educated, and had several extremely wealthy benefactors. She wore her clothing skintight and people would gather in Hyde Park to see her ride horses. Some of her clients included King Edward VII and Napolean III, and unlike many prostitutes of her time, her life didn’t end in complete ruin. She retired at 80 and had both money and a favorable legacy.
Tales about New Orleans Storyville red-light district in the early 1900s would be incomplete without a mention of the prostitute, brothel madame, and entrepreneur Lulu White. White ran a brothel, the Octoroon Parlour, that housed nearly 40 women. The brothel was a hub for jazz lovers and gentlemen looking to explore the five parlors and 15 bedrooms reserved for special guests. White was forced to close her establishment in 1917 when she became subject to gender discrimination by the city of New Orleans. White holds a place in contemporary culture as she was mentioned in a song performed by Louis Armstrong, “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” and was the honorary namesake to Boston’s jazz club Lulu White’s.
Most people know Martha Jane Canary Burke, a.k.a. Calamity Jane, as a frontierswoman and cowgirl who fought the Native Americans alongside Wild Bill Hickok, but she was also a prostitute at the Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch in eastern Wyoming. Despite her rough-and-tumble reputation, Jane was pretty with dark hair and eyes. Ultimately Jane chose a different career path and began dressing as a man because it allowed her to move freely and get jobs that no woman would have been given. She worked on cattle drives, became an explorer, and starred as a storyteller in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Sada Abe was a low-level geisha when she contracted syphilis and had no choice but to begin prostituting in Osaka’s famous Tobita brothel district. During her travels to Tokyo, she crossed paths with a kinky lover, Kichizo Ishida. In May of 1936, Abe was catapulted into the public eye when she was arrested for murdering Ishida by erotic asphyxiation. Abe was clearly mentally disturbed and had problems controlling her jealousy. After Ishida died, Abe cut off his genitalia, put it in her kimono, and carved her name into his arm. This event caused widespread panic across Japan, and Ishida’s testicles were put on public display for a short time after World War II.