top of page

Yep, I Visited Miss Laura’s Social Club

I went to a brothel.

I admit it. No secrets here.

You may, or may not, ascertain its true business trade by its name, Miss Laura’s Social Club.

Front entrance, double doors, with Miss Laura's Social Club printed in window glass above.
Many a gentlemen entered through these doors at Miss Laura's Social Club. **

The young lady I met there was quite attractive. Long blond hair, slim, five-feet-two or so.

But, there’s a catch, isn't there always? She’s married, to a soldier, and though she goes by the name of The Historical Harlot on Instagram and TikTok, she’s really not.

Well, the harlot part anyway.

Truth is, Emma is a tour guide at Miss Laura’s Visitor Center in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and an historian. If you have questions about bordellos and “ladies of the evening” from around the turn of the 20th century, she’s the person to talk to.

Fort Smith reclaimed the honest-to-goodness brothel 22 years ago and turned it into a visitor’s center. 

You might say it’s evolved from a certain kind of “visitors” center, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, into another, probably more respectable, one.

Miss Laura’s History

Back in the late 1800s, Fort Smith was a happening place.

Historic bed with large wooden headboard, stylish wardrobe in back, iron bathtub and stained glass exterior window.
First floor room set up as a bedroom at Miss Laura's Social Club. **

Miss Laura’s was one of seven, count them, seven, bordellos, on what was referred to as “The Row” along Fort Smith’s Front Street.

Originally opened as a hotel in 1896, that lasted only a couple years before Miss Laura Ziegler purchased it, renovated it, and officially opened it as a brothel in 1903.

Here’s the fun part, well, one of the fun parts, she purchased it with a bank loan for $3,000. That’s equivalent to around $115,000 today. 

She repaid it in 17 months. You might say she had a lucrative business model.

A little injection of historical perspective is probably appropriate at this point. Prostitution was legal. Most of it was controlled locally. Those employed at Miss Laura’s and other brothels on The Row, were required to pay a fee to the city for a license permitting them to ply their trade.

It wasn’t until 1910, when the US Congress passed the Mann Act, that prostitution began to become illegal. Though that didn’t necessarily put the brakes on things entirely. More about that in a bit.

Miss Laura’s was considered THE place in town. Her goal was to make it the classiest of the brothels, and she succeeded. Some of Fort Smith’s most prominent figures frequented there, connections Miss Laura was able to rely upon when any challenges arose.

Patrons were entertained by more than the ladies, with downstairs areas filled with drinks, a little gambling, dance and music belting out from Fort Smith’s first player-piano.

Bedroom door with name, Dixie, etched into glass transom.
Upstairs rooms at Miss Laura's are named after some of the ladies who worked there. **

Miss Laura was a tremendous promoter, Barnum & Bailey had nothing on her. She referred to her girls as “Daughters of Joy” and she developed the reputation for having the most refined, healthiest girls on The Row. Unlike most brothels, the ladies weren’t allowed downstairs unless they were fully clothed.

All of that allowed her to charge $3 a visit, a little over $100 today and three times the $1 charge at her competitors.

She even had her own currency, casting a metal token equivalent to $3 in cash; worth one “favor” at the brothel.

Miss Laura saw the writing on the wall after Congress passed that law in 1910, selling her place a year later to Big Bertha Dean in 1911, for $47,000.

For those of you doing the math, in simple terms, that means she made $1.5 million on her original investment. She was just 50 years old.

With her flamboyant past, big personality and great wealth, you’d think there’d be more to Miss Laura’s story after this. But, no one knows what became of her after she sold the business. She seems to have just disappeared.

An oil storage tank explosion the year before she sold it burned two nearby brothels to the ground and severely damaged others. With the changes in law, the remaining establishments soon began to deteriorate.

Small metal tin that held three condoms with Merry Widow on cover. Merry Widow was a popular brand of condoms around 1920.
Merry Widow tin for holding condoms. **

Even so, Big Bertha, through what I am sure were a number of back door deals, was able to keep the place open for more than three decades until her death in 1948.(Told you the Mann Act didn’t stop things entirely.)

The building passed to a man living there, rumored to be Big Bertha’s romantic partner. He abandoned it sometime after that and by 1963 the city was threatening to tear it down.

Local businessman, Donald Reynolds, stepped in to save the building. Coincidentally, on a personal note, Reynolds was founder of Donrey Media Group that owned many newspapers across the country. In my first years out of college, I worked at three of them.

The building was placed on the National Register of HIstoric Places in 1973. Restoration was completed in 1984 and it was reopened as Miss Laura’s Social Club and Restaurant. You can still see the bar and beer tappers installed at that time. 

The restaurant didn’t last all that long but that might be good news. The idea of a visitor center began to take hold soon after that and, in 1992, that’s what it officially became.

Miss Laura’s Today

Walking into Miss Laura’s today is walking into the past. Most of the two-story building has been renovated to look very much like it appeared at its peak.

Your first impression is that you’d walked into a classic Victorian home of that era.

Large painting of topless woman lounging on couch.
Painting from Miss Laura's Social Club. **

It’s only upon a closer inspection that you realize something is up. 

First floor displays exhibit “business appropriate” items. 

Photos of Big Bertha and other ladies who worked at Miss Laura’s.

A framed license issued to an “Inmate House of Prostitution” for five dollars hangs on the wall. The “inmate” not being a prisoner, but one of the ladies working at the bordello.

A round metal container, roughly the size of a pill but intended for condoms, not medications.

8 x 10 glossy magazine advertisements from the 1940s warning of the dangers of venereal diseases.

Upstairs it becomes more obvious what the real business was. 

Ladies underthings hang in front of the closets. 

The names of some of the more well-known ladies appear in the glass windows above each door.

Exterior view of two story box-like Victorian house painted green.
Miss Laura's Social Club **

And a portrait of a lounging, topless, woman hangs on the hallway wall.

But, very big but, before you think the whole thing is some lude, bawdy, showcase, it’s not. 

It’s very much an historical location, a museum. Maybe with a slightly unique subject matter, but not unlike a countless number of older homes that have been recreated into local historical museums across the country.

To learn more about Miss Laura’s, check out this story from Ozarks Farm & Neighbor.

If you’re interested in learning more about how a brothel like Miss Laura’s operated, and the ladies who worked there, the center recently did a great live chat on their Facebook page.


**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address,, or a link back to this page.


post photo.jpg

Never saying,
"I wish I had"

Thanks for stopping by. Hoping you find something you enjoy in here. Click on that little Read More button right below to learn a little more about me and why I never want to say, I wish I had.

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
bottom of page