Legendary brothel owner Big Nell

I lived in a white, middle class town, and never saw the dark side….at least in my town.

Travel east seven miles and you were in another world.

The city of Newburgh was as inner city as the city of Chicago is today, only a great deal smaller.  The 30,000 inhabitants were primarily black and Hispanic, and many neighborhoods were strictly off limits to us lily whities.

One of the legendary figures of Newburgh was a woman rarely (perhaps never?) seen, a  brothel owner and madam- a gigantic black woman named Big Nell.

On any given day in the Valley Central high school cafeteria, at the male lunch tables, talk would eventually turn toward Big Nell.  Some of the discussion points…

1. Someone had spotted Big Nell.

2. Big Nell had a stable of at least fifty women.

3. The varsity football team made an appearance at Big Nell’s, and were given the royal treatment (much scoffing at this one.)

4  Big Nell was the richest person in Newburgh (probably).

5. Big Nell drove a gigantic pink Cadillac (more on this).

I had no personal knowledge of  Big Nell, and no secondary knowledge of her…until this happened…

A late evening, breathless phone call came from my Buddy Vinny..

 Vinny worked at Lloyd’s supermarket in Newburgh after school, mostly in the grocery division.  He was bagging groceries for a large black woman, and several passersby offered a highly respectful greeting to the customer they called Nell.

At this point, Vinny was thinking he might have struck gold.

The manager tapped Vinny on the shoulder and told him to bring the woman’s groceries out to her car.

When they reached the car, ‘Nell’ popped the trunk on a gigantic, mid sixties Cadillac (not pink), where Vinny deposited the groceries.

After Vinny closed the trunk, ‘Nell’ gave him a five dollar tip!  FIVE DOLLARS! In 1966!!!

Vinny called me that evening..

“Greg, she was yuuugge!  And she wore all sorts of jewelry, and a tight leather dress.  Greg, for sure, it was Big Nell!”

Being the all time gatherer of facts in the universe, I wanted a description of every grocery item, every detail about her car, and a rehashing of her personal appearance.


There really was a Big Nell.

In 1970, while I was away at college, Big Nell hit the national news, for all the wonderfully wrong reasons…

Turns out her brothel was scheduled for ‘rehabilitation’ in an urban renewal program…

while a neighboring Dutch Reformed Church was scheduled for demolition.

So, only in Newburgh, brothel stays, church goes.

Everyone in the dorm heard about this, and they all dutifully stopped me in class, in the cafeteria, or knocked on my dorm door.

Lost track of Big Nell, but if I make the thirty mile trip to Newburgh, I might get lucky.

Have to think about that.


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