c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article are excerpted from Jan MacKell’s book, “Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado, 1860-1930” (University of New Mexico Press, http://www.unmpress.com).
If prostitution is the oldest profession, who was the oldest prostitute in Cripple Creek? The answer would be Blanche Burton, the very first soiled dove to haul her petticoats to town.
Blanche appears to have got her start in Colorado City, now the west side of Colorado Springs. According to census records, she was born in Ireland in November of 1865 and came to the United States in 1881.She was once married to a prominent Kansas man who later moved back east. The couple had a son and a daughter. The boy died in an explosion, and the girl was placed in a convent.
Blanche first appears on record in Colorado in 1889, at the seasoned age of thirty. That year, court records show she was accused of running a house of ill fame in Colorado City. The loophole Blanche dove through to gain her release was quite clever, as her defense successfully argued that she couldn’t possibly run a “house” of ill fame because she actually lived in a tent.
But such harassment was common in Colorado City, and so when word came of a gold boom in Cripple Creek, Blanche took the opportunity to move up there. She and her tent arrived in 1891, where an immediate friendship was struck up with Bob Womack, founder of the gold boom itself. The charming cowboy took Blanche under his wing and encouraged her to pitch her tent and set up business near his cabin in Poverty Gulch.
Almost right away, Blanche discovered the value of being street-wise in Cripple Creek. One of her customers, aptly named Tim Hussey, had been paying for Blanche’s services by giving her interests in his mining claims. An investigation by Womack revealed that the 27 one-eighth interests were all from the same claim. Despite this and other gold camp schemes, Blanche appears to have done well during her first two years in Cripple Creek. She had a limited education, but she could read and write. For several months, she held the title of the first and only madam in town.
By 1893, Blanche was operating a parlor house over a saloon on Bennett Avenue, one of two main business drags. One time Womack rode his horse up the front steps of her parlor house. Whenever Bob fell ill, Blanche would send her girls to his cabin to take care of him. In the meantime, Cripple Creek had turned into a rough and tumble boomtown. Younger girls, some in their teens, came and set up business too. It is not unlikely that Blanche may have felt lost or even left out as newcomers literally poured into the city limits and “old-timers” like herself were forgotten. When Marshal Hi Wilson demanded that all ladies of the evening remove themselves from Bennett Avenue to more discreet quarters on Myers Avenue, Blanche had enough. Upon departing from Cripple Creek in 1894, she considered herself officially retired.
Or did she?
Back in Colorado City, Blanche next took up residence at 812 Colorado Avenue, just around the corner from the northernmost part of the red-light district. But word of Blanche’s reputation spread through town. Three years away, especially in an immensely popular town like Cripple Creek, did little to quell any rumors about her profession. With time, Blanche became a noted recluse with no visible means of income. In 1902 she moved one house over to 816 West Colorado. Also living at the house in 1902 was Miss Blanche Bell, and it is entirely possible that Ms. Burton may have been in business after all with her own small parlor house.
Either way, Blanche continued to contribute to her community and live quietly. All around her, Colorado City seemed in a constant ruckus what with the railroad, progress, and authorities trying to close down the red light district where she herself had once worked. In January of 1909, three mysterious fires wiped out the red light district almost completely, but it was quickly rebuilt. The fires may or may not have had something to do with Blanche’s ultimate fate.
On December 20, 1909, Police Chief McDowell and Patrolman Morse were on an evening stroll when they noted a person who appeared to be on fire running into the middle of Colorado Avenue. The men immediately grabbed the victim and used their overcoats and snow to extinguish the flames. Most of the clothing was burned off, and closer examination revealed it was Blanche Burton laying in their arms. Upon carrying her into the house the men discovered a hanging curtain, called a portiere, also in flames. Surprisingly, the fire was small and extinguished quickly. A broken oil lamp lay nearby, providing the last clue to the mystery.
Two physicians, Dr. G.S. Vinyard and Dr. G.B. Gilmore, were called to the Burton home but there was little to be done. Blanche lived long enough to tell everyone that just a year and a half earlier her barn had burned. Her horse and two dogs had been killed, and in trying to rescue them she almost died herself. The men tried to get her to reveal her true name if there was one, as well as the address of the daughter she allegedly had. Supposedly, Blanche said that her daughter lived in Illinois but nothing more. She died just after 5 a.m. the next morning before she could give any other information.
No doubt the men may have wondered why Blanche chose to mention her burning barn, but they also wondered why a man was seen running west on Colorado Avenue shortly before Blanche’s accident. The man was never identified, nor was there any cash in the house. Furthermore, authorities failed to find any bank accounts in Blanche’s name.
Blanche Burton may have been buried a pauper if it weren’t for fellow madam Mamie Majors. The bold Miss Majors paid for Blanche’s funeral, which was conducted from Beyle Undertaking Rooms on Christmas Eve. Surely it was a sad and grief-stricken party who accompanied Blanche to her grave in Fairview Cemetery. Even the public and the press felt sympathy for the reclusive harlot. The presiding minister praised Blanche’s good heart, explaining that the day before her death she had purchased a ton of coal for needy families in time for Christmas. Her obituary in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph was headlined, “Did Much Good.” The article stated that Blanche was a good nurse and always ready to respond to those in need.
In the years following, Blanche and her counterparts were all but forgotten until Bill Henderson came along. Henderson, formerly the mayor of Colorado Springs, took a special liking to the naughty (but deceased) ladies of Colorado City. Members of the Garden of the Gods Rotary Club were so moved by a speech Henderson gave, they decided Blanche should have a proper gravestone. Accordingly Richard Wilhelm of Wilhelm Monument Company donated the stone, which was erected in 1983 on the anniversary of Blanche’s unfortunate death. It remains today, bearing an appropriately wise inscription based on a poem by Frank Waugh:
The sins of the living
are not of the dead