Tillie Carberry, a 65-year-old grandmother, was a stout woman with gray-streaks in her hair. She owned and ran a furnished rooming house on Lime Street, on the corner of an alley. For over 25 years, she rented out the rooms of her house for commercial sex. This house was known as a “disorderly furnished rooming house.”

I know about Carberry because she spoke to an undercover investigator (who came to Lancaster in November of 1913 to study vice) about her life and how she ran her business.  This investigator saved her notes about her conversations with Carberry. And these notes survive today in the Lancaster Historical Society. Some of what Carberry said to the investigator, Minerva Mullen, might not be true, because Carberry was probably trying to inflate the profits of her business to impress Mullen, who was posing as someone seeking to buy a brothel or a furnished rooming house in Lancaster.

The investigator admitted that she was not sure that “Tillie Carberry” was actually her correct name. Her suspicion was correct. Tillie Carberry’s first name was Emma; and in a previous marriage, her full name was Emma Wetzel. Emma Wetzel was arrested in 1897 for keeping a disorderly house on Lime Street.

Semi-Weekly New Era, 8 Nov. 1897.

The investigator described Carberry’s  appearance as “old fashioned.” And Carberry emphasized her family roles when she spoke to Mullen. She raised her sons and two of her grandchildren in this house. 

But Carberry was hardly an old-fashioned grandmother. She ran a thriving business with significant real estate investments. Her furnished rooming house was not a brothel; commercial sex workers were not boarders in this house. But they came here with their clients and paid Carberry $1 an hour, or $2 for longer. A sex worker who was soliciting on the street could use Carberry’s house. This was also a place to buy beer, which was an important part of Carberry’s business. She charged fifty cents for two bottles of beer. She told Mullen she cleared $100 per week, roughly $3000 in today’s dollars.

A beer wagon, “Truman’s Bottled Beer,” from late the 1800s. Image courtesy of LancasterHistory

Carberry’s business practices and the location of the house ensured her success. This house, in 1914, was on an alley. The beer wagon came down the alley to make deliveries. And customers could enter Carberry’s place through a fence on the alley. This location provided some cover for beer deliveries and privacy for clients. Carberry protected the privacy of customers in other ways as well. She always worked the door herself and she protected guests from being seen by other guests. She also bragged about refusing to give any breaks to police officers:

I never go anywhere, stay home, make my money and save it, and everyone is jealous. No one tends the door or customers but me, I never allow anyone to see another.Even the policemen come here with girls. They say, “TILLIE I never pay.” I say, “Well, your money is good here, pay or travel” and I make them pay as well. 

Investigator’s Report, 1913

She was a complicated person–a wife and grandmother, businesswoman, law-breaker and fighter. She had been married four times. She said that her second husband contracted the “disease”–a sexually transmitted infection–and tried to rape her, but she fought him off (she said she bit him) and then divorced him. Her third husband betrayed her by starting an affair with one of the women who brought men to her furnished rooming house. They fought in the house with a potato masher and a butcher knife. She married a fourth and final time. This husband helped her run the house and even worked in the kitchen. The investigator saw him in the kitchen in an apron cooking dinner. The investigator thought he seemed afraid of her because Carberry “appears to have a bad tongue and temper when angry.” 

She earned enough to buy additional houses; her sons lived in two of them. When Minerva Mullen talked with her, Carberry mused that she was ready for retirement. Commercial sex was part of Carberry’s complicated family life. It was a path of security and upward mobility when her husbands proved unreliable and dangerous. She was her own woman.

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