Bertha Clay

Born: Chattanooga, Tennessee (Dec. 3, 1865)

Lived:

     1897 - 601 State Street

     1906 - 115 North Cedar Street

     1915 - San Antonio, Texas

Died: San Antonio, Texas (Jan. 20, 1930)

 

Bertha Clay was a longtime district resident and madam. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on December 3, 1865, Clay first appeared in Mobile in 1897 as the widow of Frank Clay. The couple lived at 601 State Street, one block north of the district. By 1906, Clay moved within the district to 115 North Cedar Street. The 1912 Blue Book lists Clay as the madam of a house at 112 North Cedar Street, with three prostitutes—Bessie Clay, Jimmie Clay, Gussie Carter.[1] Bessie Clay was Bertha’s daughter, perhaps a situation not that uncommon at this time. Jimmie Clay’s relationship to Bertha is unknown. It is possible she was also a daughter or relative, but no other records have been found to confirm their relationship.

    

The mother-daughter duo was involved in one of the districts many acts of violence. In January 1913, Bertha and Bessie went to jail for slaying Joe McGowen, a young man who was infatuated with Bertha. Bessie shot and killed McGowen but argued it was in self-defense. Consumed by grief over McGowen’s death, Bertha attempted suicide in the jail cell the night of her arrest. However, she survived and the women were eventually released without a charge.[2]

 

In April 1915, Bertha and her daughter moved to San Antonio, Texas. Five years later, Bertha died from “cancer of the stomach, nephritis chronic,” which the death certificate states she contracted in Alabama.[3] While other factors can cause chronic nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys), long-term alcoholism is a major contributing factor. Prostitutes, then and now, often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the hardship of their work. It can be easy to romanticize the lives of these women, particularly in literature and film, but they were often subjected to violence and substance abuse, as evidenced by the life of Bertha Clay. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Eric Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.