Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. It’s also one of the world’s most lucrative. But since prostitution is illegal in most parts of the civilized world, people have had to get creative with how they run a prostitution business. That creativity has led to some remarkably profitable and influential businesses that you may have never known about. Here are the top 10 prostitution rings in American history.
The glitz and glamour of Hollywood might not seem like a profitable place to form a prostitution ring, but Heidi Fleiss proved otherwise when she put together one of the most powerful "madame" services in U.S. history. The especially provocative thing about her prostitution ring was her clientele: rich, famous, successful movie stars and celebrities. Ms. Fleiss was once quoted as saying, "I took the oldest profession on Earth and did it better than anyone on Earth."
The Dumas Brothel was America’s longest running house of prostitution, doing big business from 1890 to 1982 when it closed down to become a museum. Located in Uptown Butte, Mont., the brothel is so well known in the region that it has been listed as a National historical landmark. The girls at the Dumas Brothel were well known for working hard, partying hard, and often dying hard. Many report that the Dumas Brothel is haunted by its former patrons and working girls.
The Mustang Ranch made prostitution so acceptable and profitable, that a majority of the rest of the counties in the state soon legalized prostitution after the Mustang Ranch opened. Located in Storey County, Nev., just outside Reno, the Mustang Ranch thrived in the 1970s as one of the largest live-in brothels in the world. After its owner was convicted of federal sex charges, the brothel was forfeited to the federal government and auctioned off. It has since reopened and continues to thrive under new management.
A well-organized prostitution ring catering to the Houston elite was run like any other business by a husband and wife pair. With two websites and a huge list of contacts, the couple were entrepreneurs in every sense of the word: only the product they were selling was illegal. The couple even hired administrative staff to run their website call system — a feat many legitimate businesses can’t match today. The working girls were said to be intelligent, driven, and well-trained.
Known as the "D.C. Madame," Deborah Jeane Palfrey established a well known "sex fantasy" service that went under the moniker "Pamela Martin & Associates." When federal authorities caught wind of her operation, they charged her with various prostitution-related crimes. Palfrey was the ultimate businesswoman, requiring her "gals" to sign contracts stipulating that no sex would be involved in an appointment, requiring a dress code, and insisting on punctuality. All working girls had to have college degrees and day jobs in order to work for the agency. Palfrey lost her court battle, and ultimately took her own life — a tragic end to a story straight out of Hollywood.
Any ZZ Top fan will know of the town of La Grange where the Texas Chicken Ranch is located. Broadway fans might know it better as "the best little whorehouse in Texas." Yes, it’s a real place, and an old one at that. Prostitution was legal, and even institutionalized in the mid 1840s, and the Texas Chicken Ranch was the preeminent brothel of its time. It continued to operate until the early 1970s when concerns about the Chicken Ranch’s ties to organized crime led to its shutdown. However, the circumstances of the shutdown and the alleged link to organized crime are controversial, and many believe that the Chicken Ranch should never have been shut down at all.
Few prostitution rings can boast the high-rolling prices charged by High Class NY, a prostitution ring catering to the elite Wall Street traders of New York City. The operation charged up to $10,000 per hour for appointments, and also provided customers with cocaine and other narcotics. It was organized through a series of websites that contained codes for use in setting up appointments and phone calls. The ring was eventually infiltrated by federal authorities and shut down. Talk about high society excess in the Big Apple!
The East Bay prostitution ring was geographically enormous, spanning six cities and half of the third largest state in America. It was also one of the most notorious exploiters of immigrant women in recent memory. Asian immigrants were frequently brought in specifically to serve as prostitutes in the ring and cycled through the areas dozen or so brothels. It took a massive effort from California and federal authorities to infiltrate and shut down the sophisticated ring, with the eight proprietors eventually being charged with human trafficking violations in addition to the prostitution charges.
The Bunny Ranch has been the subject of an HBO documentary that thrust it into mainstream American discourse. Famously situated in Reno, Nev., the Bunny Ranch features some of the most famous characters in pornography and prostitution. It is so successful, even at a time when Nevada is in a debilitating economic recession, that state senators have proposed taxing the establishment as a means of raising funds to offset a massive state budget shortfall. Few brothels can say that they were an essential part of the solution to an economic downturn!
In 2002, police busted one of the biggest prostitution rings Los Angeles has ever seen. The prostitution ring was run by five Russian immigrants, who employed at least 50 Russian women from around LA, Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood. The prostitution ring was very lucrative and earned up to $8 million over the course of two years. The ringleaders operated under a business named Russian Fortuna, where they posed as travel agents and provided limo and escort services to its customers.
March 14, 2012