Mayflower Madam Pleads Guilty to Promoting Prostitution Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Sydney Barrows, a descendant of Mayflower pilgrims, drew national attention when she was charged with running a prostitution service that catered to an exclusive clientele. She pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of promoting prostitution. While losing some status as a socialite, Barrows profited from the scandal through the sale of her 1986 book Mayflower Madam and through marketing her life story.

Summary of Event

On the evening of October 11, 1984, police delivered a search warrant at 307 West Seventy-fourth Street on the upper West Side of New York City, the main office of Cachet, an exclusive escort service that opened for business in 1979. The owner of Cachet was Sydney Barrows, a thirty-two-year-old graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, who majored in fashion buying and merchandising. [kw]Mayflower Madam Pleads Guilty to Promoting Prostitution (July 19, 1985) [kw]Prostitution, Mayflower Madam Pleads Guilty to Promoting (July 19, 1985) Cachet Barrows, Sydney "Mayflower Madam"[Mayflower Madam] New York City;"Mayflower Madam"[Mayflower Madam] Barrows, Sydney "Mayflower Madam"[Mayflower Madam] New York City;"Mayflower Madam"[Mayflower Madam] [g]United States;July 19, 1985: Mayflower Madam Pleads Guilty to Promoting Prostitution[02160] [c]Prostitution;July 19, 1985: Mayflower Madam Pleads Guilty to Promoting Prostitution[02160] [c]Law and the courts;July 19, 1985: Mayflower Madam Pleads Guilty to Promoting Prostitution[02160] [c]Sex crimes;July 19, 1985: Mayflower Madam Pleads Guilty to Promoting Prostitution[02160] [c]Sex;July 19, 1985: Mayflower Madam Pleads Guilty to Promoting Prostitution[02160] [c]Business;July 19, 1985: Mayflower Madam Pleads Guilty to Promoting Prostitution[02160] [c]Publishing and journalism;July 19, 1985: Mayflower Madam Pleads Guilty to Promoting Prostitution[02160]

Sydney Barrows, the Mayflower Madam, at a news conference with a television producer.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Barrows, a socialite who could trace her ancestry to Mayflower pilgrim William Brewster, pleaded guilty on July 19, 1985, to promoting prostitution and paid a fine of five thousand dollars. Legal problems at Cachet had begun two years earlier with a seemingly benign conflict with the building’s landlord in November of 1983. Wishing to raise the rent in the apartment-restricted Manhattan but hindered by a signed contract, the landlord attempted to evict Barrows for running a business in her apartment. Adding to the controversy with the landlord was Barrows’s firing of a call girl, who later sought revenge by going to the police. Shortly thereafter, employees reported that Cachet was under police surveillance.

After arresting a Cachet escort, police obtained a warrant to search Cachet on October 11. They seized documents, business records, and business machines, including an overfilled paper shredder. The following day Barrows learned that police had a warrant for her arrest. With her legal advisers she surrendered to the district attorney. She later explained that she did not surrender to police because she believed the officer in charge was using the action on Cachet to ensure his own promotion. Barrows posted bail and was released from custody.

Media competition in New York is especially fierce. In the first few days after the police bust of Cachet, much of the reportage was speculative. By the third day of reporting, the media had discovered Barrows’s identity (she had been using the name Sheila Devin at the time of her arrest). Media reports, which described Cachet as a million-dollar, exclusive escort service, were filled with inaccuracies, especially in conflating the terms “bordello,” “escort service,” and “brothel.” Cachet was an escort service that hired out women to spend time with paying clients. It did not “sell” sex, at least not explicitly. Escorts included university students and professors, women working in semiprofessional jobs, and career women. Each woman was scheduled for three nights of escort work per week. Sex between client and escort was acceptable only if the sex was “straightforward”; that is, it had to be conventional.

Prosecutors pressed Barrows to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence and fine. However, regardless of her plea, the fine would remain substantial—possibly fifty thousand dollars (which Barrows did not have)—and she would receive some jail time or probation. Her defense announced its intention to go to trial in an attempt to force the prosecution to liberalize its plea offer, which it did not do. The case went to the grand jury, which handed down its indictment just before Christmas, 1984, charging Barrows with promoting prostitution in the third degree.

Barrows’s defense had five components: First, it exposed the double standard of a criminal justice system that prosecutes women who provide escorts for hire but seldom prosecutes the men (johns) who pay for the service. Defense attorneys in the Barrows case hinted to the prosecution that they would read the list of prominent men who purchased services from Cachet to the jury in open court. Second, the defense argued that selective prosecution also was applied to the charge of promoting prostitution. Among those who run escort services and brothels, women tend to be prosecuted while men are seldom prosecuted.

Third, the defense illustrated the illogic of the expense of money, time, and labor devoted by authorities in closing Cachet—an expense that exceeded that of other crackdowns on escort services or bordellos. Even the authorities agreed that Cachet was not implicated in acts of violence or drug use and was not associated with organized crime or police Police corruption corruption. Why, the defense asked, the expense for Cachet? Fourth, the defense argued that Barrows ran an escort service, which was not in the business of selling sex; rather, Cachet was paid by men for the young women’s time.

Fifth, the defense challenged the validity of analyses of Barrows’s handwriting. Prosecutors attempted to prove that her handwriting matched the writing on documents seized at Cachet. The defense would support handwriting analyses only if Barrows’s handwriting could be picked from ten samples provided to the prosecution experts by the defense. As a result of this demand, the prosecution experts excused themselves from the case.

Fearing the defense would name Cachet’s wealthy and powerful clients, the district attorney’s office continued to press Barrows for a plea bargain so that the case would not go to trial. Barrows pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of prostitution in the third degree, for which she paid a fine of five thousand dollars.

After her legal troubles, Barrows published her autobiography Mayflower Madam: The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows (with William Novak), which detailed the organization and operation of Cachet, emphasizing the unique factors that made the escort service so successful. In the book’s first few chapters, Barrows discusses her working-class background, childhood, education, and the ethics of running an escort service. The last few chapters explain Barrows’s struggles with the criminal justice system and how her defense was successful in trivializing the prosecution’s criminal case against her. The core of the book, however, is a detailed description of Barrows’s management principles and staff training procedures.


No long-term negative impact came from Barrows’s conviction. In fact, she profited from the scandal. Mayflower Madam is now used as a management training manual for commercial escort and sex services, and the value of the book has not been overlooked by trade journals and businesses and organizations selling sex-related products or services. Barrows’s life story was featured as a television biography and was the focus of a 1987 film starring Candice Bergan.

The police crackdown on Cachet, if it had any immediate significance, was its potential for revealing the names of the escort service’s clientele. Interestingly, Barrows’s eight-inch-thick “black book” was lost or stolen in the chaos of the police raid of Cachet. The black book contained the names, descriptions, addresses, and professional affiliations of male clients, many of whom were corporate executives, religious officials, foreign representatives to the United Nations, sheiks, socialites, and celebrities. It is possible, maybe even probable, that the black book was used for the purposes of financial or political blackmail.

In a wave of police actions, other escort agencies, including those of Alex Adams and Heidi Fleiss, were raided shortly after Cachet was shut down. Many have argued that the policing of organized commercial sex establishments is intermittent, and that this policing is based on what Nebraska madam Josie Washburn argued, in 1909, political or professional aggrandizement. Because commercial prostitution is traditionally owned, supported, and served by the community elites (politicians, legal officials, business owners), it is the elites who determine when and if commercial prostitution will be policed. Barrows, Sydney "Mayflower Madam"[Mayflower Madam] New York City;"Mayflower Madam"[Mayflower Madam]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Alex, and William Stadiem. Madam 90210: My Life as Madam to the Rich and Famous. New York: Villard Books, 1993. A discussion of the experiences of Hollywood’s foremost madam, Alex Adams, creator of the notorious madam to the stars, Heidi Fleiss.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrows, Sydney. Getting a Little Work Done. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. In this self-help-style book, Barrows offers advice on balancing sex and career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Washburn, Josie. The Underworld Sewer: A Prostitute Reflects on Life in the Trade, 1871-1909. New ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Provides historical insight into the life of late nineteenth and early twentieth century madam Josie Washburn. Provides contrast and comparison with modern commercialized sex agencies. Originally published in 1909.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiltz, Christine. The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld. New York: Faber & Faber, 2000. Examines how a commercialized sex agency can exist for decades with little police interference and, as Josie Washburn argued a century earlier, how the shutting down of these agencies is used as a successful political campaign tactic.

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Categories: History