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 History.net.
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.