Thirty-eight years, six months, and 24 days after authorities swooped in and shuttered the La Grange Chicken Ranch, the legendary brothel’s last madam has drawn her final breath.
Edna Milton Chadwell died on February 25 at the age of 84 after being injured in a car wreck, her nephew told the Houston Chronicle.
Chadwell began working at the brothel in 1952 and bought it nine years later for $30,000 upon the death of the brothel’s founder, Miss Jessie, Tony Freemantle wrote for the Chronicle.
Chadwell’s nephew, Robert Kleffman, said that while his Oklahoma-born aunt did not speak of her brothel-owning past, she did maintain a “thorough” dislike for investigative television reporter Marvin Zindler, whose reporting forced authorities to crack down on the brothel.
After the brothel closed, Chadwell left La Grange for Gladewater, in northeast Texas, where she married. She moved to Phoenix after remarrying, where she remained until her death.
From her nephew’s telling, the last few years of her life seemed pretty bleak: “She stayed in her house and watched TV and smoked two cartons of cigarettes a week,” Kleffman said. “She just existed that last 10 years. She just existed.”
Al Reinert penned the definitive piece on the Chicken Ranch, the “Oldest Continually Operating Non-Floating Whorehouse in the United States,” in the October 1973 issue of TEXAS MONTHLY. In it, Reinert describes how Edna came to be involved with the operation:
Edna Milton had come to work at the Ranch in 1952, and by the time Miss Jessie died was chief lieutenant in the management of the house. Red-haired and tough-skinned, with clear-green Laser-piercing eyes, Edna evokes an authoritative confidence that could as easily run a Teamsters local as a whorehouse.
She arranged to purchase the Ranch from Faye Stewart’s estate and installed herself as madam, moving into the master bedroom that still contained Miss Jessie’s massive four-poster walnut bed. To all appearances the house absorbed the shift in management as effortlessly as it had the paper alteration of ownership, the only real changes being the installation of air-conditioning and the offering of a limited variety of ‘exotic extras.”
Edna, even before Miss Jessie died, had been in charge when the Ranch weathered its greatest crisis: Texas Attorney General Will Wilson, who wanted to be a U.S. Senator, had sounded the call for a great moral crusade aimed vaguely at making the state safe for the easily outraged, who presumably form an impressive bloc of voters.
State law enforcement officials were dashing hungrily around on the hot trail of sin, very nearly arresting the entire island of Galveston, and it seemed likely that the Chicken Ranch, as the state’s most notoriously renowned whorehouse, would be a sure target.
Edna’s response was to go underground, making the pretense of shutting down while admitting regular customers through the back door. It was good enough. Like all crusades, Wilson’s choked on the heat of its own righteousness and he soon went away. The Ranch slipped back into a normal high gear and went humming along into its future, sweetly indifferent to muffled indignation or pious politicians, prepared to cope when necessary with the inevitable next crusade.
The story of the Chicken Ranch was eventually turned into a stage production and a movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which starred Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton: