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.