By Sue Botos
Most people would probably take the discovery of an infamous madam on the family tree and sweep it into the closet with other skeletons. But Deb Lape became fascinated with the story of her great-great-grandmother Elizabeth “Lizzie” Rogers-Lape-Hoffman-Larzelere-DeWitt-DeWitt-Veon-Shelter-France. The resulting journey took Lape through several Ohio towns and hundreds of old newspaper stories and accounts. But as the title of her first book says, she is still “Looking for Lizzie.”
Always interested in genealogy, Lape, a Westlake resident, first heard about Lizzie at age 19. But she said it was the digitization of old newspapers that ignited her search. “When that happened, there was an explosion of opportunity to find out more about her because they didn’t hesitate to write about her,” Lape said in a phone interview.
Piecing together the newspaper accounts, interviews and information found on genealogy websites, Lape began to tie together the threads that were Lizzie’s life, beginning with her 1853 birth in Whitley County, Ky., weaving through Chicago, Ill., where she survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and the Ohio towns of Dayton, Lima, Marion, Cuyahoga Falls, Akron, Stow and New Cumberland. But there was one common thread. Despite eight husbands and the customs of the time, she was able to own her “businesses.”
“When I started to research her story, I was embarrassed and curious about such an oddity in the family. But when I dug into the story and found what she was doing at a time when women barely owned property … and how she was fighting in the courts with the best lawyers money could buy, I thought she was a smart businesswoman,” Lape recalled. “As far as I could tell, she didn’t lose very often. She was tenacious.”
Even though Lape said Lizzie’s story literally “jumped out of the computer” as she put the puzzle together, a book was not what she had in mind. Because she had to share her findings, she sent them, bit by bit, to her father, Bob Lape, a veteran journalist. Her stepmother, Joanna Pruess, also a writer, “literally looked over his shoulder” and became caught up in the tale.
“She called me up out of the blue and said, ‘Deb, you’re writing a book. You’re not just writing little vignettes,’” Lape recalled. Pruess put her in touch with editor Wendy Raymont, whom Lape said helped lay out a plan. “She said, ‘Don’t tell the story in the order in which you discovered it, tell it in the order of Lizzie’s life,’” Lape noted.
Taking Raymont’s advice, Lape was neither too coy nor too explicit about Lizzie, who began her career in Chicago, supposedly making her best customer Jeremiah Lape husband No. 1. (All of her marriages ended in divorce.) She owned several properties during her career, including the notorious White Pigeon saloon and “resort” in Marion. Legend has it that future president Warren Harding may have visited Lizzie’s establishments as a young newspaper editor in that town. Lape said one of the jewels she discovered was a letter to the editor of the Shelby Ohio Daily Globe, written by Lizzie in 1904, stating that she was changing her ways. “I’d written the whole book, then Lizzie confessed to me,” Lape said.
Lizzie had two children, Arville Lape, Deb’s great-grandfather, and, much later in life, a daughter, Mary Veon. “She made some bad choices for her son,” Lape said, noting that Arville often seemed abandoned, and spent time in the Mansfield Reformatory. “But she got a second chance with her grandson,” Lape said. According to journals kept by her grandfather Cleo, Lizzie was a caring grandmother, raising him like a brother to Mary.
Lizzie’s trail ends, according to Lape, in Cleo’s 1918 journal entries. She said she has no clue if Lizzie moved on, married yet again after divorcing her last husband or succumbed to the Spanish influenza epidemic raging throughout the country at the time.
“I thought this was a gem of a story. It resonated because a lot of times people just marginalize people like Lizzie; it’s very easy to do. But when you look closely, you can see her struggles and issues,” Lape said.
Asked if she sees anything of Lizzie in herself, Lape said that while she has a quieter personality and more centered “moral compass,” they do share love of family. “We both loved my grandpa. We (her family) came from her and some of her survives in us. When I want to feel stronger, I say I better channel my inner Lizzie.”