On May 1, police in Tarpon Springs, Florida, found the body of “DC Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey, an apparent suicide, hanging from a steel beam in a shed near her elderly mother’s home.
Another woman who worked for Palfrey, Brandy Britton, a former professor at the University of Maryland, who had been arrested on prostitution-related charges in 2006, committed suicide in January before she could go to trial.
As madam to Washington bigwigs like US Senator David Vitter, a Republican “family values” advocate, naturally, and his ilk, Palfrey had the prosecutorial kitchen sink thrown at her — the use of RICO statutes in a prostitution case. She was ultimately found guilty of money laundering and using the mails for racketeering. She faced five or six years in prison, according to sentencing guidelines.
But the gritty entrepreneur vowed she would not go to prison. She threatened to expose her clients and was reportedly planning to write a book.
Palfrey’s death faded immediately into journalistic oblivion. It didn’t even get the usual “conspiracy” post-mortem in which people wonder if the DC gang is capable of eliminating one or two women seen as political liabilities.
Instead, Palfrey was seen through the traditional American lens in which women who sell sex are guilty, and the men who buy it are invisible.
Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer disappeared once he resigned. Three months after “Client Number 9” was caught with his proverbial pants down, charges have not been bought for violating prostitution laws or the Mann Act, let alone for the misuse of public funds.
Many say the world’s oldest profession ought to be legalized. Until then, however, I strongly disagree when the same people call it a “victimless” crime.
Women caught selling their bodies face a misogynist justice system that makes them criminals while their johns are generally bystanders. There are the wives of people like Vitter and Spitzer, mortified and publicly silenced, while their spouses carry on and even thrive, unscathed.
The suicide of Deborah Jeane Palfrey may be a dramatic example of one woman’s determination to control her own destiny, or, conversely, it might be what happens when the fine line between institutional homicide and self-inflicted suicide becomes indistinguishable.
Either way, Palfrey and Britton are dead; Senator Vitter and former governor Spitzer remain free and even powerful.