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This story was originally published in the 1996 Winter edition

Batavia's most famous madam


Growing up with Edna Gruber

by Georgia Mullen
Photos courtesy of Edna Miller

Edna Gruber

Picture a prostitute. Hollywood has given us the good hearted Irma LaDouche, the long-legged Pretty Woman, and now, the flighty Mighty Aphrodite. But a tiny, pudgy, apron-garbed grandmother as Queen of the Night? That vision is left to reality.

Many people around Batavia tell stories about Edna Gruber, the city's most famous madam. Tales about her generosity, her compassion, her love of children. Her foul mouth, her year in jail, her link to the Mafia. Edna Miller, who plans to write a book about her notorious grandmother, does not want to hear other people's stories.

“Who needs them? Those are their stories! They're not my stories. Basically, they're just heresay,” the retired English teacher declared.

Edna Miller's memories of her grandmother are much more personal. Much more painful. Much more mixed into a pot pourri of emotions that at age 63 Miller is still trying to temper, and at times rationalize. Forty-three years after madam grandmother's death, Miller is still confused. Unsure whether to condemn or accept the woman who gave her everything...and nothing.

Consequently, it's difficult to decide if this is another story about Edna Gruber, the whore house madam, or Edna Miller, the granddaughter she raised within the halls of prostitution. Perhaps it is simply a story of a Genesee Country family. Another story of how children are manipulated by events, or, more graphically, how children are powerless to control the events that hammer in around them.

Edna Gruber started scrubbing floors in a barroom after quitting school when she was 13. Born in Buffalo July 28, 1892, she came from a very deprived background, Miller said. Edna married Joseph Gruber when she was 15. Their daughter, Florence, was born a year later in 1908.

It's a mystery how Edna Gruber got into prostitution, Miller said. In fact, she knows nothing about her grandmother from 1908 to 1916.

“The story is that she was raped,” Miller said. Supposedly, Gruber was determined to never allow a woman to go through that experience.

Gruber purchased Batavia's Central Hotel in 1926 and renamed it the Palace. The red brick structure at 101 Jackson St., just south of the New York Central Railroad tracks, had five rooms downstairs, nine bedrooms on the second floor and six unused rooms on the third floor.

In 1935, Edna Miller was 3 years old and, for some unknown reason, already living with her great-grandmother, Katharina Russell, in a house next door to the Palace Hotel. That year her mother, Florence, died in an accidental fire in Sandusky, Ohio. Her father, Charles, did not live with the family, which also included 5-year-old brother Bill. When Edna Gruber brought her daughter's body to Batavia for burial, she also brought Bill; while the children lived with Katharina, it is obvious that Grandma Gruber—or Gobby as they called her—was the adult in power.

One day Miller's estranged father arrived in Batavia looking for his wife and children. Gruber took him to St. Joseph's Cemetery. “You want to see your wife? Well, there she is.” Gruber pointed to the headstone.

“She never recovered from my mother's death,” Miller said. “She raved endlessly about how wonderful and beautiful she was.”

Charles wanted to take his children back to his native Danville, Ill., where he was living. Gruber would have no part of it. When Charles refused to leave, she had him beaten.

“If you don't get out of town, you won't make it out of town,” Gruber told him.

“She had the connections,” Miller said. “She was a possessive person. People were possessions. She worked hard for what she wanted and she got whatever she wanted. She was a very strong woman and a very determined woman.”

Charles left and only saw his children sporadically, except for one year-long contact from March 1941-42 when Edna Gruber was sent to prison for “operating a disorderly house” (see sidebar: Edna goes to jail).

“He came back and ran the house wide open for a year and no one tried to stop him,” Miller said. In '42, when Edna was 10, her great-grandmother died and she and Bill went to live with Gruber—back from prison—at the Palace Hotel.

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