Laura Bell McDaniel: Queen of the Colorado City Tenderloin

c 2018 By Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article have appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine, Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930, Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains, and Extraordinary Women of the Rocky Mountain West. Look for more on Laura Bell, coming soon courtesy of Ms. Collins and fellow historian Lee Michels!

In 1888, Colorado City — now the “Westside” of Colorado Springs, Colorado — was nearly thirty years old and still growing with a population of 1500. In contrast to nearby Colorado Springs where liquor was illegal, Colorado City sported sixteen saloons. Several prostitutes also plied their trade. The best known of these was Laura Bell McDaniel.

A native of Missouri, Laura Bell first moved to Salida in about 1882. In 1887 she married her sweetheart, Tom McDaniel. But the marriage was rocky from the start. A month after the marriage, McDaniel shot a man named Morgan Dunn to death. Dunn had been suspected of having something to do with Laura Bell’s house burning down, and a large insurance settlement. When Laura Bell reported to Tom that Dunn had tried to kiss her, the ensuing argument resulted in five bullets for Dunn from Tom McDaniel’s gun.

McDaniel was acquitted of the killing, but the couple was understandably uneasy. The two  departed from Salida and in fact parted ways, for Laura Bell appeared to be alone when she next surfaced in Colorado City as a professional prostitute. Within a year of her arrival, she had access to twenty four saloons and little competition.

Unlike many prostitutes who moved frequently, Laura Bell held a long and distinguished place in the Colorado City red light district. It is said she ruled over her respective kingdom with grace and finesse, and her acts of kindness did not go unnoticed.

In 1909, Mayor Ira Foote gave the prostitutes of Colorado City ten days to leave town. The point was emphasized by a fire which burned half of the red light district. A second fire just days later destroyed the rest. Laura Bell was among those heavily insured, and the district slowly rebuilt. In 1911, another ultimatum was issued to the prostitutes, and in 1913 Colorado City was voted dry. Laura Bell stubbornly stayed right where she was. She listed herself as the a “keeper of furnished rooms”, but inside the business was the same.

In 1917, fate dealt a final blow to Laura Bell. In anticipation of nationwide prohibition, the State of Colorado outlawed liquor everywhere except in private homes and pharmacies. Colorado City was almost clean, and it was no surprise when “stolen” liquor was found during a raid at Laura Bell’s stately parlor house.

In court, testimony proved the liquor had been planted, and the case was dismissed in January of 1918. The next day, Laura Bell set out for Denver with her niece, Laura Pearson, and long-time friend Dusty McCarty. The threesome took off in Laura Bell’s spiffy Mitchell Touring Car, with Little Laura at the wheel. Near Castle Rock, the car overturned; Little Laura died instantly, and Dusty was knocked unconscious. That night, 56 year old Laura Bell succumbed to massive internal injuries. She was buried in Fairview Cemetery, and the incident was forgotten. It was the perfect crime, but for certain Colorado Springs authorities who happened to witness the accident. In the end, the accident was ruled just that.

That was the end of Colorado City’s den of prostitution. Laura Bell’s last brothel is now part of a nursing home. Other brothels have become private homes and even churches. The occasional old-timer of Colorado City might remember stories about the past. In the present, Laura Bell’s old haunt has melded into a quiet, comfortable historic place.

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