Monthly Archives: April 2018

Mollie May, Early Sweetheart of Leadville

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Colorado Central magazine in November, 2014.

It is no secret that prostitutes were some of the most mobile pioneers of the West. The law, family members and lust for money enticed thousands of women to traipse from state to state, town to town, camp to camp. One of the most prominent well-traveled prostitutes in the west was Mollie May. Born Milinda May Bryant to German and Irish immigrants in about 1850, Mollie was said to have lost her virginity to a “lustful suitor”. By the 1870’s she was working as a prostitute and performer at Jim McDaniels’ Theater in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In 1876 the couple moved to Deadwood, South Dakota.

The Black Hills Gold Rush and Deadwood were just beginning their foray into the history annals of the future. In the “Badlands District”, Deadwood’s euphemism for its red light district, Mollie’s admirers included Jim May, a local Black Hills freighter whose brother was the notorious bounty hunter Boone May. Boone and Jim once had an altercation over Mollie at the Gem Theater near the “Badlands.” One brother shot at the other, missed, and hit Mollie instead. Thankfully, the bullet hit a steel rib in Mollie’s corset, saving her life.

In her book, Old Deadwood Days, Estelline Bennett describes a similar account of a shoot out between prostitute Lou Desmond and an unidentified woman. As in Mollie’s story, a bullet struck one of the girls but deflected off her corset. Whether these two events really happened or became a part of one another in the telling is unknown.

It is known for sure that during another skirmish, part of Mollie’s ear was bitten off by another Gem Theater prostitute, Fannie Garretson. The dispute was over “Banjo” Dick Brown, who married Fannie in November 1876. The ear-biting incident apparently happened while Mollie, Fannie and Dick were jaunting along in a closed carriage.

Perhaps the fight with Fannie Garretson made Mollie decide to move to Colorado. Upon her arrival, she almost immediately gained a bad reputation in Silver Cliff and Bonanza for running around with an outlaw named Bill Tripp. She also spent some time in Pueblo, where she became known as the girl of gambler Sam Mickey. Sometimes, Mollie went by the name Jennie Mickey.

By 1878, Mollie was in the new boomtown of Leadville. She staked her claim at 555 5th Street, in a section of the expansive red light district. With her was her old friend, Jim McDaniels, who had shipped an amazing 40,000 pounds of theater scenery to Leadville and opened a new place called McDaniels’ New Theater.

Mollie did well in Leadville. In 1880 she employed ten girls and two men at her brothel. She also had the only telephone in town. One night, longtime Leadville resident Lewis Lamb “committed suicide” in front of a neighboring bordello. The only witness was a bully Lamb had known from childhood, former marshal Martin Duggan, who had just attempted to run over Lewis with a sleigh he was delivering. It was widely suspected that Lewis had not committed suicide at all, but was actually shot to death by Duggan.

Mindy Lamb, Lewis’ wife, swore revenge on Duggan, promising him: “I shall wear black and mourn this killing until the very day of your death and then, Goddam you, I will dance upon your grave.” The quote was widely circulated, and a few days later Mollie May stopped Mindy on the street. “You don’t know me,” she told Mindy, “but I wanted to tell you that what happened to a decent man like your husband was a dirty rotten shame and I’m really sorry for you.” The women remained friends, often chatting right in front of Mollie’s place.

Also in 1880, Mollie’s old enemy Fannie Brown surfaced. After traveling with Dick Brown during 1878, the couple separated and Fannie—like many other “Black Hillers” seeking greener pastures—wound up in Leadville. In 1879 she performed at McDaniels’ New Theater, an event that reached the newspapers at Deadwood. Perhaps fearing Mollie, Fannie left Leadville shortly after her performance. Mollie also made the papers again, when a raid netted seventeen prostitutes on the row and two young men jumped from her second story window to avoid arrest.

Mollie also had altercations with other prostitutes, including her neighbor, Sallie Purple. The Leadville Democrat reported that the women got into an argument. Insults were exchanged between their brothels, then gunfire. The battle ended two hours later with no injuries. “Both parties are resting on their arms,” chortled the Democrat, “and awaiting daybreak to resume hostilities.”

They say Mollie sold her house in about 1881 to the city, which used it for a city hall. Mollie, meanwhile, built a new brothel that was among the finest houses in town. Silver millionaire Horace Tabor was rumored to be a silent partner. Mollie continued dealing with the everyday issues of her profession. In 1882, she charged Annie Layton with stealing a dress. The argument escalated in court when Annie accused Mollie of running a house of ill fame, and Mollie retaliated by revealing that Annie was employed as a prostitute. Ultimately, all charges were dropped.

Next, Mollie became the subject of yet another scandal when news circulated that she was buying a nine-month-old baby named Ella from a couple known as Mr. and Mrs. Moore. The madam stayed silent until a local newspaper voiced concerns about her intentions. In May, Mollie contacted the Leadville Herald and gave an exclusive interview, explaining that the child belonged to a decent woman who was too poor to care for her. Mollie was caring for the baby until the mother could contact relatives for assistance. She ended the interview by angrily reminding the general public of all the charities she donated to on a regular basis.

Despite Mollie’s claim, Ella’s mother never reclaimed her child and Mollie adopted her. She was called Ella Moore, even though Mollie said the Moores were not the child’s parents. As soon as she reached school age, Ella was sent off to St. Scholastica’s Institute in Highland, Illinois. Her guardian was listed as one Robert Buck.

Mollie May died April 11, 1887 from what the Leadville Weekly Chronicle called “neuralgia of the heart.” Her funeral was one of the largest processions in Leadville and even Mindy Lamb insisted on attending. The services took place in Mollie’s brothel before a $3,000 hearse and eight carriages accompanied Mollie to Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery. Her obituary, which circulated as far away as Pueblo, stated, “She was a woman who, with all her bad qualities, was much given to charity and was always willing to help the poor and unfortunate.”

Mollie’s estate was valued at $25,000, with $8,000 in diamonds. Her personal property sold for $1,500, and her house was purchased by one Anna Ferguson for $3,600. The papers speculated the money would go to six-year-old Ella Moore, but little else is known about the child. In 1901, the Leadville Herald published an article about twenty-year-old Lillian Moore, adopted daughter of Mollie May, who attempted suicide in Leadville. Doctors saved her life and she was last seen on a train headed to Denver where, like so many others, she disappeared without a trace.

The Murder of J. Pleasant Marksbury

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine in 2006.

Misunderstandings will happen. At least that is the best explanation as to how J. Pleasant Marksbury (also spelled Marksbery and Marksberry) came to be killed by Ute Indians near Florissant, Colorado, just fifteen years before gold was discovered at Cripple Creek.

The Utes called the region between Manitou Springs and Florissant home for thousands of years before white settlers appeared on the horizon. The area was ideal for gathering berries and hunting wildlife during the summer months. The Utes’ preference for the mountains included the area around the Cripple Creek District and Mt. Pisgah, which was used as a hunting ground. Even today, teepee circles are still visible in the yard of at least one Cripple Creek residence.

Major James B. Thompson was among the first white men to take note of the Utes camped along 4-Mile Creek near Florissant in 1869. But the largest influx of Utes occurred during the winter of 1874, when Ute leader Ouray and 600 members of his tribe camped roughly 20 miles south of Florissant near Mt. Pisgah. That winter especially, Utes were a common site to the settlers at Florissant. The Indians traded frequently with Judge James Castello, who had established a general store and post office at Florissant in 1872. But the mixture of Native Americans with newly arriving white settlers was bound to result in some skirmishes. The worst of these happened in December, resulting in the death of Jamis Pleasant Marksbury.

Born in Kentucky, Marksbury was well traveled by the time he came to Florissant. The 1850 census found him working as a physician in California. He later married Sarah Pierce, also of Kentucky. By 1859 the couple had moved to Missouri where a daughter, Jeanette, was born. Following the birth of a second daughter in 1862 the family next headed to Colorado and settled for a short time in Summit County. Later they moved to Golden where their first son, Summit, was born in 1863. A fourth and final child, Perry, was born in Golden in 1870. Despite supporting his family on miner’s wages, Marksbury soon earned enough to secure a hay ranch on the Tarryall River about 16 miles from Florissant.

Men like Marksbury and Castello openly traded with the Utes around Florissant and even as far away as Colorado Springs. During one such visit in the spring of 1874, a Ute named Antelope sold a horse to one Nat Colby for $20 and a revolver. Later, Colby traded the horse to Marksbury for some cattle. Because the transaction took place in Colorado Springs, local braves were apparently unaware of it when Marksbury rode the horse to Castello’s store. Ouray’s war chief, Shawano, recognized the horse and believed it stolen. Per Shawano’s instructions the horse was unsaddled by another Ute. A squaw then hopped aboard the animal and took off for the camp.

When Marksbury discovered his mount was missing he went back into the store and confronted Shewano, who accused him of stealing it. Marksbury had already had one other confrontation about the horse the previous summer, when some other Utes saw him with it on the Snake River, said it was stolen, and demanded $10. Although Marksbury refused to pay up, he was allowed to keep the pony. But the argument with Shawano took on a more sinister glint. Harsh words were exchanged and in the ensuing scuffle Marksbury wrestled away Shawano’s gun, claiming he would keep it until his horse was returned.

Marksbury next appealed to both Major Thompson and Ouray, who said Antelope was now claiming the horse had been sold to Colby after it had been taken from him by some other Utes. When ten days had passed with no word from Thompson, the frustrated Marksbury took matters into his own hands and appeared at the Ute camp with E. Kranner or Kromer. Marksbury waved some papers he claimed to be special orders from both Thompson and Ouray to surrender the pony. Naturally, the Indians had no idea what the paper was or what it said. Nor did they seem inclined to do much about the recovery of the horse as Kromer led it away. Marksbury followed behind, acting as rear guard.

When Tabweah, another Ute leader, learned of the incident from his wife he, along with another Ute gave chase and soon caught up with Marksbury and Kromer. The men tried to reason with Marksbury, but later said the white man began making “threatening demonstrations with his rifle.” Tabweah, they claimed, shot Marksbury in self defense. Kromer later testified that Marksbury screamed “Oh God! I am shot dead.” Kromer asked “Where are you shot?” and Marksbury replied he was shot through the heart. Kromer then said, “Can I do anything for you?” But by then Marksbury had already fallen from his horse and was lying dead in the high country prairie grass.

Word of the Marksbury murder spread, and before long a bevy of angry settlers gathered at Castello’s. The judge was able to talk everyone out of acting rashly as a coroner’s jury was formed in Colorado Springs. The jurors included George Welty who had a ranch not far from the Ute camp, John Nolan who later ran a saloon in Cripple Creek and L.C. Barnard, whose namesake creek still runs through Teller County today. Telegraphs were sent to and from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C. Ultimately Major Thompson gave orders to one Charles Jockmus to go to the camp and arrest Tabweah. Upon his arrival Jockmus summoned Chief Ouray and Tabweah was duly taken into custody.

Tabweah was taken to Denver, locked up in the county jail and tried in a white man’s court. Newspapers that had sensationalized the Marksbury killing by Indians were strangely silent about the outcome, but it is known that Tabweah was released due to lack of evidence. The decision angered many, especially Thompson who later expressed his satisfaction when Tabweah was killed in Middle Park a few years later. Interestingly Thompson justified Tabweah’s death over thirty years after Marksbury was killed, even though his reports dated 1871 through 1875 noted several occasions where white men did indeed steal horses from Utes.

Thompson’s account also claimed that Marksbury’s companion on his trip to the Ute camp was his son Summit, not Kromer. According to Thompson the incident basically played out the same, with Summit leading the horse away from the camp as his father followed. The boy recalled hearing a shot and turning just in time to see his father fall dead from his own mount. Dropping the lead rope of the stolen horse, the boy “streaked” for home.

Coincidentally Summit later became a champion foot racer. After his father’s death, Summit’s mother struggled for a short time to keep the hay ranch going. A bad summer storm, however, washed out the crops and drowned most of the farm stock. Neighbors came to the rescue with supplies and milk cows, but Sarah Marksbury soon moved to Georgia Gulch to run a boarding house at a mine. Her oldest daughter, Jeanette, married and when her husband was elected County Assessor the family moved a final time to Breckenridge.

Summit, meanwhile, married a woman named Sarah in 1891. By 1900 the couple, along with their six year old daughter, were living in a boarding house in Cripple Creek not far from where Summit’s father had met his untimely end. Summit’s career as a runner ended in 1903 when he was banned from the sport for cheating. A year later he divorced from Sarah and in 1908 a Denver newspaper reported that Summit was begging on the streets of that town. Summit, the paper said, was “one of the most noted athletes in the West” but had recently been arrested for vagrancy.

The arrest, and perhaps his family, brought Summit to his senses. By 1910 he had married a second time and was living in Larimer County. When Jeanette died in 1918 Summit, who was living in Alma at the time, attended her services. Sometime after that he moved to California, dying in Los Angeles in 1951. In Cripple Creek and Florissant, the story of the Marksburys was carried on by other pioneers who remembered the incident. Indeed, J. Pleasant Marksbury’s bad end did little to prevent other settlers from homesteading. Even today Marksbury Gulch, named for the family homestead near Lake George, pays homage to this determined family.