Monthly Archives: May 2018

Bad Girls of Northern Colorado, Part II

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

This article is excerpted from Jan’s book, “Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado, 1860-1930″ and originally appeared in American Western Magazine.

It could be said that Denver and Boulder sported the most notorious red-light districts in Colorado during the 1880’s. In 1880 the Boulder News and Courier commented on a scuffle at Susan Brown’s, one of five bawdy houses in lower Boulder. The fight “resulted in the complete demolition of one of the ladies, whose head came in contact with an empty beer bottle.” Like Denver, Boulder’s shady ladies were also fond of racing their horses through town. Indeed, the city of Boulder seems to have been rife with shameful cases involving its prostitutes. A news item in 1881 told of two young ladies, on their way from a prayer meeting, who were accosted by a pimp from the row.

Eventually, the law began imposing restrictions and rules on the prostitution industry. In 1881, the mining town of Caribou in Boulder County voted to outlaw gamblers and loose women from their new community. Most surprisingly the law was easy to uphold, perhaps because Caribou was located at an elevation of nearly ten thousand feet, subjected to hundred-mile-an-hour winds, and suffered terrible snowstorms with drifts that could top twenty-five feet in height.  Prostitutes plying their trade within the community of six hundred were easy to spot, and besides, there was no railroad to Caribou.

In answer to Caribou’s new law, the shady ladies, gamblers and saloon keepers relocated to the old mining town of Cardinal two miles south. Known alternately as Cardinal City and New Cardinal, the revitalized town was a true “sin city” occupied specifically by saloon keepers and prostitutes for vices and pleasures of the flesh. From there, the girls could service those who made clandestine trips not only from Caribou but also the nearby mining towns of Nederland, Blackhawk and Central City.

By now, prostitution had been present in Colorado for at least 20 years. For the first time since its inception, the first generation of Colorado’s soiled doves was slowly falling to the wayside. Denver prostitute Lizzie Greer was one of these. By 1881 Lizzie had lost all of her money and had turned to alcohol to drown her sorrows. The Denver Republican noted she had been living for years in back alleys and along river fronts, purchasing liquor when she could and eating out of the garbage bins of local restaurants. Lizzie was last noted as being found sleeping in a lumber yard and taken to the County Hospital. After her death, the sight of Lizzie’s ghost lingering near the undertaker’s parlor was the subject of Rocky Mountain News stories as late as 1885.

For every harlot who met her end, there were others to take her place. In 1882, there were approximately 480 prostitutes working in Denver. Boulder was doing just fine, and the prostitution population had spread as far as Fort Collins. By 1883 the city was up to 13 saloons, 3 drugstores, 5 brothels and several gaming houses, all of which sold liquor. In desperation, city authorities finally upped the price of their liquor licenses from $300 to $1000 dollars. The plan worked. Fort Collins was soon back down to just six saloons, while many of the town’s shady ladies moved on to greener pastures.

Fort Collins’ idea appealed to other Colorado communities, but the prospect of making fines off of the illicit businesses was simply too great. Often, however, many prostitutes lacked the money to pay their fees. In 1884, a black prostitute named Mollie Gordon was brought to court in Boulder with her white patron and charged with fornication. Both parties offered to marry in order to justify their actions. The idea of interracial marriage, which was deemed illegal, incensed the judge and both were fined. Neither Mollie nor her partner could pay and went to jail.

In addition to their financial woes, prostitutes were also suffering continuous complaints from their communities. Boulder newspapers were among those voicing their discontent. “The first thing a person sees on lighting from the cars in Boulder,” complained the Boulder County Herald, “and the last seen on getting on the train are these institutions of infamy.” In August of 1886, 300 respectable Boulder ladies signed a petition against the red-light district and presented it to city council. The petition was countered by the opening of a new brothel in what had been Boulder’s first schoolhouse. The Boulder County News continued its tirade against houses of ill repute in 1888, after several local boys from good families were arrested for visiting a brothel. “If young men have no more self-respect or respect for their parents or friends than to seek such low resorts, the whole community shall be made acquainted with the fact so they may be treated accordingly.”

The bad girls of Boulder paid little attention to such ravings. In 1888, the marshal was called to madam Etta Kingsley’s house, only to find the black madam wielding a ten-inch carving knife at another working girl. Both women were arrested. Such incidents prompted the Colorado General Assembly to pass a law prohibiting women from entering saloons or being served liquor in 1891. The law had no sooner been passed when Denver prostitutes Blanche Morgan, Ardell Smith, Mattie Fisher and Mollie White were arrested for successfully conspiring to kill William Joos with an overdose of morphine so they could rob him of $55.

An 1894 flood in Boulder did its share of the damage to the red-light district, with officers carrying several soiled doves and their pets to safety (Madam Kingsley, a pug dog in each arm, proved especially difficult to rescue due to her excessive weight). But the uncontrollable incidents in the red-light district were further emphasized later that year, when a prostitute named Trixie Lee was murdered by Maud Hawks.

While lodging at the Boulder House, Mrs. Hawks’ husband went on a drinking spree and ended up at Madam Kingsley’s. After procuring a carriage, Hawks and Trixie purposely drove past the Boulder House, where Mrs. Hawks sat out in front. It was said that Trixie shouted an insult at Mrs. Hawks as the carriage drove by. Angry, Mrs. Hawks obtained a pistol and threatened to kill Trixie. Mr. and Mrs. Mel Warren, proprietors of the Boulder House, had a long talk with Mrs. Hawks to no avail.

Later that evening, Mrs. Hawks was taking a walk with her mother when she spied her husband once again, this time walking with Trixie and another prostitute, plus three other men. One of the men pulled Mr. Hawks into the bushes, but Mrs. Hawks and her mother approached Trixie. Flashes from gunshots were seen by the editor of the Boulder Daily Camera from the newspaper building nearby, as the fatally wounded Trixie fell to the ground. Maud and her mother, Mary, were both charged with manslaughter, but found not guilty. “[T]he life of a scarlet woman weighs nothing in the balance against the avenging right of a woman wronged,” observed the  Daily Camera.

Likewise, 1894 was the beginning of several unlucky incidents in Denver’s red-light district. The most prominent was a series of mysterious murders of prostitutes. Three murders in particular caught the eye of authorities, possibly because of their similarities: a towel had always been stuffed in the victim’s mouth, and there was never a sign of forced entry. Thus, the girls were assumed to have fallen victim to one of their customers. The first woman to die was Lena Tapper, who was strangled in her home on Market Street in September. Next, twenty-three-year-old Marie Contassot was strangled to death on October 28. Despite the deceased’s swollen  purple face, eyes bugging from their sockets and the presence of a rope nearby, the Coroner listed Marie’s cause of death as unknown. Likely suspects in Marie’s murder included her sister Eugenie, a pimp named Charles Chaloup, and Marie’s beau, Tony Saunders. Alternately known as Tony Sanders and Antonio Santpietro, Saunders led a double life as both a Denver policeman and a pimp on Market Street.

Denver newspapers spread panic with headlines, declaring “Jack the Ripper” was in town and dubbing Market Street “Strangler’s Row.” But despite upgraded security in the red-light district, a third murder happened in November when Kiku Oyama also was found choked to death. After Oyama’s murder, the better-class parlor houses shut down or shortened their business hours for a time. Most of the lower-class, one-room crib girls could not afford to cease business and were forced to remain open. Police began taking a harder look at murders that happened in the red-light district, but there were no more murders immediately after the death of Oyama.

The murders and mayhem in northern Colorado ultimately inspired a number of organizations to take things into their own hands. Among them was the Citizens’ Reform League, which set about cleaning up Boulder in 1897. Somewhat surprisingly, the plan appears to have worked more than any other employed in Colorado—even if it did take awhile to put into effect. In 1901 prostitutes were still paying fines in Boulder, but as of 1909 Boulder’s red-light district had been closed down for good.

Georgetown was also upholding its ordinances prohibiting “women, lewd or otherwise,” from entering bars, but the law was still hard to control in Central City. Madam Laura Evens, a successful madam of Salida, recalled a night in 1909 when she escorted five of her girls and a musician to Central City for a party. “One evening, after a successful game of poker, one of the players, tho’t to revenge for his losses, to humiliate me by mentioning—how us poor unfortunates were ostracized from decent society (which at that was least of our thoughts) stated, ‘he would like to escort me to the lodge dance.’”

Incensed, Laura bet the man $50 that she could attend the dance in a disguise so discreet that nobody would recognize her. The bet was on, and Laura showed up at the dance—dressed as a nun. Upon pretending to faint as a means of leaving the dance, Laura lost no time in collecting her money from her escort. “Imagine my friend’s surprise,” she wrote, “when even he did not recognize me in this costume as I had succeeded in going to a Ball that I was ordinarily ostracized from.”

By 1915, the threat of statewide prohibition was enticing many soiled doves to retire or fly elsewhere. Even Denver’s red-light district was officially closed down, although it was said that most of the hotels downtown adopted an unwritten policy allowing two prostitutes per hotel. Within a year, however, liquor was declared illegal in Colorado. The bordellos of Denver were virtually gone with only a handful of prostitutes continuing to ply their trade. Throughout the year, a mere 15 women were arrested for keeping “disorderly houses” in Denver. Four others were arrested for keeping houses of prostitution, and only 10 girls were arrested for being inmates of brothels. By then, hundreds of Colorado camps and towns had been abandoned as the last mining booms drew to a close. Prostitution as it was known in the West was over.

Bad Girls of Northern Colorado, Part I

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

This article is excerpted from MacKell’s book, “Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado, 1860-1930″ and originally appeared on

With the founding of Denver in 1858, it is no surprise that most of Colorado’s earliest prostitution first flourished in a wide radius around the Queen City. With the exception of Colorado City (now the west side of Colorado Springs) and such southern, predominantly Mexican communities as Pueblo, the northern portion of Colorado was almost exclusively home to the world’s oldest profession for a good decade before its ladies of the evening migrated to other parts of the state.

Denver’s very first “white” prostitute was said to be Ada LaMont, a 19-year-old beauty who married a young minister and came West with him in about 1858. Midway through the trip the minister disappeared, along with a young lady of questionable character. Ada arrived in Denver alone—but with a whole new outlook on her situation. “As of tomorrow,” she said, “I start the first brothel in this settlement.”

Just behind Denver was another early camp, Boulder. After its inception in 1858, the population fluctuated in accordance with gold discoveries nearby. At first, Boulder’s houses of ill repute were scattered throughout town. Soon, however, most of the houses were congregating at the end of Railroad Street or Waters Street (now Canyon Boulevard) between the 1900 and 2100 blocks (Incidentally, some say that Pearl Street was actually named for a prostitute. Others say it was named for a respectable woman who was an early pioneer).

At this early date, miners in the 1859 Pikes Peak or Bust gold rush were arriving in the new West primarily alone, without female companionship. Many had left their families behind, hoping to bring them out later as profits allowed. For many men, Colorado was a desolate, lonely place. Pioneer Albert Richardson remembered how he and his comrades sorely missed the presence of a lady in their midst. “We were all in the habit of running to our cabin doors in Denver on the arrival of the ladies,” he said, “to gaze upon her as earnestly as at any other natural curiosity.”

The companionship prostitutes offered was initially welcome, at least in most places. A brothel at Nevadaville, located above Central City, was cleaned out by irate citizens in 1860. But the average ratio of men to women in Colorado was sixteen to one, and hundreds of soiled doves had little trouble establishing themselves in the towns to which they flocked.

There is little doubt that even in those early years, it was easier to flourish in smaller camps in towns than under the watchful eye of authorities in larger cities. At places like Hahn’s Peak, just north of Steamboat Springs, Poverty Flats supported saloons and brothels. Further south, at the camp of Jamestown between Longmont and Boulder, prostitutes lived in an area alternately known as Lower Jimtown or Bummerville.

By 1864, Central City—the site of Colorado’s first mining boom—had succumbed to the wiles of prostitutes. A news article in the Miners Register that year complained heavily of a Madam Wright, who had been operating for some time on respectable Eureka Street directly below the Methodist Church. Most interestingly, however, the Register did concede that it was possible to permit prostitutes to operate in any given city. “Perhaps such creatures should be permitted to live in a community,” admitted the writer, “but they certainly ought to be severely treated for their offenses against morality and law, and compelled to remove to some remote locality where their presence will not be so annoying.”

Citizens of Central obviously expressed mixed feelings, as illustrated by an 1866 intentional fire that wiped out another den of sin. Throughout the 1860’s, newspapers were rife with such stories as that of Moll Green and Elmer Hines, who were on trial for a murder committed at Green’s house. Arrests for loud parties, lewd language and even vandalism were also the norm during this time. With time, however, Central City at last fell victim to the same vices as every other mining town in the state, even as city authorities threatened to close them down as early as 1868.

By 1870, ordinances were being passed in Denver prohibiting prostitution. Even so, a good number of famous ladies of ill repute maintained life-long careers there. Mattie Silks, one of the best known madams in Colorado history, was highly successful in Denver for several decades. Mattie also maintained a ranch on the eastern plains at Wray, namely as a place to keep her 21 race horses. Other famous Denver madams included Jennie Rogers, Ella Wellington, Belle Birnard, Lil Lovell, Verona Baldwin and countless others. Plenty of other notorious women, including Laura Evens, Lil Powers, Pearl DeVere and Cockeyed Liz got their starts in Denver before moving on to other cities.

Together, these lovely ladies of the lamplight unknowingly congregated to make Colorado’s rich history even more colorful. When journalist James Thomson visited Central City in November of 1872, he described in his diary a Saturday night outing: “The prostitutes’ ball at —. Four fellows in four-bedded attic, three with girls at one time. The prize for the best dancer. Girl who had got it four times, refused it 5th. Went and undressed save stockings and garters. Danced wonderfully for five minutes, music playing, hall crowded. Then ‘Here’s the leg that can dance, and here’s the arse that can back it up!’ Redressed and danced with the others till daylight.”

After unsuccessfully trying to establish themselves in town, Central City’s naughty girls eventually migrated to Gunnell Hill above town instead. For years, Central City’s red-light district enjoyed its lofty position while looking down on the city from the end of Pine Street, just a few blocks from the Catholic church. A resident of Central City recalled walking up forbidden Pine Street as a little girl and spying a scantily-dressed prostitute dangling a silver crucifix over the front rail of her porch. Below was a prominent male citizen of the town, on his knees, begging her to give it back to him.

The best remembered of Central City’s shady ladies is Madam Lou Bunch, a three-hundred-pound delight whose presence in town surely could not be missed. But there were others. May Martin was one girl who practiced in Central City. Others included Della or Lizzie Warwick, Mae Temple, the “elegant courtesan” Ruby Lee and Ada Branch, known alternately as the Big Swede. Ada’s house and wardrobe were among the fanciest in town, and Pine Street eventually became alternately known as Big Swede Avenue.

In answer to the rampant prostitution that was now present in so many towns, cities began passing ordinances against prostitution, gambling and drinking. Occasionally the success was limited, especially when residents simply imbibed from their liquor cabinets at home and wandered the streets anyway, denying the city a chance to benefit from fines or money from liquor licenses. This disturbing revelation even enticed Fort Collins to repeal its ordinances against saloons in 1875. The saloon owners and bawdy girls lost no time in taking advantage of the act. Soon, however, ordinary businesses were flanked by gambling dens and taverns.

In fact, the dens of sin continued multiplying throughout the 1870’s. The eastern town of Petersburg, though founded as just another suburban farming community in 1876, took on its wild reputation when Pap Wyman remodeled the Petersburg Inn into a saloon and restaurant. Soon there were no fewer than six road houses at Petersburg, complete with gambling houses, prize fights, and prostitution.

The goings-on at Petersburg were fast echoing throughout the region. Reigning madams at Boulder in 1877 included Julie “Frenchy” Nealis. A Canadian lass named Susan Brown ran two separate brothels in the 1900 block. In the wee hours of the morning of January 30, 1878, one of the houses burned, causing a loss estimated between $2,400 and $3,500. The Colorado Banner noted that this was the seventh time Susan Brown had suffered a fire, and it was a well-known fact that she delighted in fighting one madam Mary Day in public. The Colorado Banner reported in July of 1878, just six months after Susan Brown’s fire, that Mary Day’s bordello had also burned. Madam Day lost no time in confronting Madam Brown, and each accused the other of setting the respective fires. The ensuing scuffle left both women with black eyes and cuts, and Mary Day paid $19 in court costs for causing the fray.

 In 1879 a local newspaper complained that Georgetown had twelve saloons and parlor houses, but not one school. Indeed, Brownell Street had no fewer than five expensive parlor houses at one time, as well as the usual assortment of smaller brothels, taverns and gambling halls. Two of Georgetown’s more notorious madams were Mollie Dean and Mattie Estes. Like so many before her, Mollie met her death at the hands of a jealous lover after being seen with another man. By then Georgetown was as used to violence as any other western town. Shortly after a miner was shot to death in her brothel, madam Jennie Aiken was killed when her brothel burned to the ground. The newspaper hardly batted an eye.

Things were equally bad in Denver, where open soliciting was legal for many years. Horse races down main streets, water fights to show off their wares, and public pillow fights were among the brazen methods of advertising. When the come-ons grew crude, soliciting was finally outlawed and curtains were required on all red-light windows in many towns. Accordingly, “accidental” holes were ripped in the curtains, allowing passerby their own private peep show.