C 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins
Excerpted from Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930 (University of New Mexico Press, 2004)
Special thanks to St. Margaret of Cortona, the patroness saint of fallen women.
The term “red-light” has long been used to describe districts of prostitution. In America, its origins date from the days when railroad men left their red signal lanterns outside the brothels while paying a visit to a lady of the evening so they could be found in an emergency. The sign of a red lantern on the porch became known as a way to identify brothels, which often appeared as legitimate homes or businesses on the outside. And, true to its romantic shade, the color of red was used by many a prostitute in her decorating schemes. Many red-light districts got their start alongside railroad tracks, where numerous saloons already abounded. There, railroad employees and visitors alike could stop for a pleasure visit.
In the West, red-light districts became especially popular among lonely miners and other men who came to seek their fortunes sans their families. As early as 1870, ordinances were passed in the city of Denver prohibiting prostitution. Apparently the new laws were of little avail. The Rocky Mountain News of July 23, 1889 commented that saloons were “the most fruitful source for breeding and feeding prostitution.” In 1891 the Colorado General Assembly passed a law prohibiting women from entering saloons or being served liquor in Denver. Nevertheless, most brothels did serve alcohol—also known as nose paint, tonsil varnish and tongue oil—freely and at very high prices. Bottles of wine could sell at five hundred times their cost, thereby covering other losses. In Denver, brothels served beer in four-ounce glasses at $1 each. In comparison, one could purchase a schooner of beer in other parts of town for just a nickel. Expensive or not, it was well known that almost anything could be obtained where the red lantern hung.
Many red-light districts served as their own private communities. Within their boundaries, prostitutes worked, ate, slept, confided in each other, fought with and stole from one another, and established rank among themselves. In these small and often forlorn looking neighborhoods, women hoped, dreamed, and tried to see through the dimness of their futures. Their place of employment was also their home, where they were treated for illness, looked after the sick, and dressed the dead. Drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning, both intentional and accidental, were common. Most experienced girls and madams knew how to handle funeral arrangements. Even if the family of the dead could be found, relatives often refused to claim the body.
Within the prostitute’s home, her immediate “family” consisted of her co-workers and her boss. Jealousy and competition, however, were just as likely to rear their ugly heads among women within the same house or district. More than a few soiled doves sought friendship and comfort in some of their customers. Often male companionship was the only hope a prostitute had for a lasting friendship of any kind. Sometimes women were fortunate enough to marry their consorts, but woe to the woman who became pregnant with no prospective husband. Her inconvenience put her out of work and cost the madam money.
Abortion was always an alternative, but not a very pleasant one. Toxic poisons could be used to induce abortion, but could easily prove fatal for the mother as well. Back-room abortions, performed by unskilled midwives, could also have disastrous results. Women who chose to give birth raised their babies in the brothels, pawned them off on relatives or friends, or sent them away to school—if they lived. One of Leadville’s back alleys was so well known for the number of dead infants found there it was named “Stillborn Alley.” Daughters of prostitutes were sometimes trained by experienced professionals to follow their mothers into the business. One of the most notorious brothels in Denver during the year 1882 was kept by a madam, her daughter and two nieces.
No matter its legalities, prostitution was in demand and flourished wherever men were willing to pay for it. The average “trick” cost anywhere from 50 c to $10, depending on the girl or the house. In the more elite parlor houses of the city, a customer could expect to pay $100 or more for an all-night stay. The price also largely depended on the availability of women in any given camp or city. Women who managed to ply their trade with only a few competitors could often make enough to retire within just a few months.
Brothel tokens were introduced as an easy form of payment in many bordellos and parlor houses. Also called love tokens or brass checks and thought to be of Greek origin, such coins usually came in the shape of today’s fifty-cent piece or dollar gambling token. Variations included oval coins, buttons, business cards, or even slips of paper. Not all brothels used checks, but many did. The checks kept the girls and the customers honest.
The practice of using such tokens worked something like this: the customer purchased his token or tokens directly from the madam. Upon finding the woman he wanted, the customer in turn gave the token to her. At the end of the night, the girl returned the tokens she had received to the madam. This prevented the girls from making their own cash deals in the privacy of their rooms. It also prevented customers from taking advantage of the house. Tipping was usually allowed, however, permitting the girls to have a little pocket money. A popular claim among sources in Cripple Creek is that some girls could turn in as many as fifty tokens per night. Some of the smaller denominations, such as dollar tokens, could be used in slot machines as well. Such forms of payment remained in use as late as World War II.
Brothels did not usually lack either notoriety or popularity once they were established. For those new to town, however, and especially in larger cities, forms of advertising were limited. Soliciting in the newspapers would often have been out of the question even if prostitution were legal. Most papers pounced on the girls’ misfortunes, exploited their actions, jeered at their attempts to improve their situations, and displayed only mild sympathy when they died. Therefore, brothels had to resort to unusual methods for attracting customers. Business cards with a brothel address, some with what was considered vulgar language for the day, could be passed discreetly to prospects or even slipped into their pockets without them knowing. Some of the less expensive forms of advertising included discount nights, hiring bands to parade the streets and solicit, or driving new girls in a buggy around town. “Virgin auctions” were also widely advertised to attract more business.
In larger cities like Denver, a directory of dance halls, gambling dens and brothels was easily obtainable if you knew whom to ask. Called Blue Books or Red Books, these handy directories were a skewed version of the social registries passed out among elite societies. In the early days, “Blue Book” was construed to mean “Blue Blood”. Many a madam plagiarized the “Blue Book” title in hopes that wealthy men would consult the books looking for acceptable houses of business and find their brothels instead. In time, the Red Books were published as a tongue-in-cheek alternative. Ultimately, the illegitimate Blue Books and Red Books of any city’s seamy underside directed travelers and newcomers to established pleasure resorts. They also helped those unfamiliar with the city to avoid trouble with seedier establishments.
The 1895 Travelers’ Night Guide of Colorado was unique in that the booklet advertised brothels statewide, with scenic photographs of the state interspersed throughout. The sixty-six-page guide was conveniently made to fit in a vest pocket. Among the advertisers in this book were Pearl DeVere of Cripple Creek, Bell Bristol and Lucille Deming of Colorado City, Nellie Clark of Grand Junction, Clara Ogden of Lake City, Gussie Grant of Telluride, and Jennie Rogers and Georgie Burnham of Denver.
The ads contained within such directories were free to be bold by the standards of the day. Messages such as “Twenty young ladies engaged nightly to entertain guests” and “Strangers Cordially Welcomed” told wayward visitors of the best houses to go to for fun. Advertisements were rarely brazen or crude; prospective customers were told what they needed to know in polite verbiage. Occasionally working girls competed by taking ads out against each other, accusing certain other houses or girls of bad business practices or highlighting other uncomplimentary aspects.
Elite parlor houses often requested letters of recommendation from satisfied customers, which they displayed for new prospects. Occasionally, engraved invitations were sent to prospective clients for grand openings or special parties. Sometimes the girls would wear their fanciest dresses on the streets as a form of advertising. Other times, madams took their employees on excursions to nearby mining camps. Under the guise of a “vacation,” the girls could drum up new or temporary business.
Sometimes the girls undertook this task themselves. In 1911 and 1912 and Cripple Creek prostitute register records a number of women such as Maxine Murry, Mazie Paterson, Katie Price, Laura Scott, Dora Willison and others, who appear to have only been visiting from Denver for a week or two before returning home. Quite possibly, these women were “on loan” from their Denver bordellos or looking for new business, or even scoping out business opportunities in Cripple Creek.
Lower-class brothels advertised more freely. A common pitch was for the girls to sit, invitingly dressed, in second-story windows and call to prospects down below. In the cribs, usually located in the poorer section of the district, women were not beyond leaning out of their doorways inviting passerby to “C’mon in, baby.” During the 1880’s and 1890’s in Denver, open soliciting was legal for many years. Horse races down main streets, water fights to show off their wares, and public pillow fights were even more brazen methods of advertising.
When the come-ons grew crude, soliciting was 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. A more drastic measure of advertising was “hat snatching.” A girl would grab a man’s hat from his head and escape into the brothel with it. The hapless male would then attempt to go inside and retrieve his hat without falling victim to the pleasures within. In Central City, the refined Wakely sisters were known to grab passing miners and dance with or sing to them in order to lure them inside the bordello.
The prostitute went by several other names. She was known as the soiled dove, lady of the evening, jewelled bird, fallen angel, shady lady, that other woman, lady of the lamplight, frail sister, fille de joie, nymph du pave, the fair Cyprian, the abandoned woman, scarlet woman, painted hussey, fancy girl, bawd, good time Daisy, trollop, strumpet, harridan, woman of the town, wanton woman, moll, norrel woman, erring sister and—least attractive—hooker, slut and whore. And there were other terms: carogue was another word for harlot, specifically, “a woman who, in revenge for having been corrupted by men, corrupts them in return.” During the early 1800’s, blowens were prostitutes or women who cohabited with men without the sanctity of marriage.
The average prostitute was about twenty-one years old, although some were as young as thirteen or as old as fifty. No matter her age, the prostitute’s ultimate goal was to make money fast, marry well, and become socially acceptable. At the very least, she desired to become a courtesan or mistress to a very rich fellow who might marry her someday. Being a courtesan required being beautiful, intelligent, educated and sophisticated. Achieving such wit and charm took training and practice. According to Lawrence Powell:
“Most also were required, in the upscale sporting houses, to learn to play a musical instrument, take singing and elocution lessons, comportment lessons, and imitate the high fashion mandates of society. They had to be able to pass for a governess or companion to a rich man’s child or elderly parent. If they succeeded, they were sometimes housed in an unmarried man’s home. In any case, they had to be presentable in order to travel with wealthy patrons and obtain the coveted role of mistress versus chatelaine. Madams ran “charm schools” which mimicked the schools for young wealthy daughters of society.”
A girl would be lucky indeed to land in such a prestigious position. Meanwhile, she worked hard and late, generally preferred drugs to fattening alcohol, and did what she could to make a life for herself. In her spare time she cleaned her wardrobe and linens, read, did needlework or gardened. A good number of shady ladies also became quite adept at card games, since it helped pass the time between customers and made for better entertainment when playing against clients. Cats and dogs made suitable companions for prostitutes. A favorite pet was the French poodle, because the little dogs were easy to keep in small quarters. Often, her pets were the only loyal friends a girl had.
Prostitutes in general hoped to find freedom and wealth quickly and perhaps even enjoyed their job at the start, with the impression that not much work was required. Younger girls earned less than their older, more experienced counterparts, but they learned quickly that if they stayed too long in one place they risked being labeled old-timers. Jennie Bernard, for example, was noted as paying fines for prostitution in 1896. In 1912 Jennie surfaced in Cripple Creek looking for work. By then she was a good sixteen years into her profession, and was likely moving more and more often as her looks and talents faded. To avoid moving constantly or falling into disuse, a working girl had to make her money and get out of her career as quickly as she could. Many did not, and only a small percentage got out the profession and went straight before their career ruined them altogether.
Denver prostitute Belle Grant was one who got out of the profession. In her day, Belle was a notorious madam known to become violent when drunk. Her talents at knife fights and shootouts were no secret in town. During the winter of 1887, Belle telegraphed another prostitute named Lil, who was living in Aspen. The girls decided to move to Salt Lake City together. At Pueblo, however, Belle had the inexplicable urge to disembark and stay the night. When she went to bed later that evening, Belle later claimed, she received a visit from the ghost of her mother, who sat on the bed, placed her hand on Belle’s head, and told her that if she continued on her wayward path the two would never meet in Heaven. The next morning, Belle lost no time in sending Lil on to Salt Lake City while she herself returned to Denver, where she began hanging around the churches and taking in sewing. She eventually went to work for the Salvation Army.
Belle Grants’ story is unusual in that she successfully saved herself from prostitution. If she had chosen to remain in her career, she probably would have aspired to become a madam. Many madams were prostitutes who were no longer attractive but had vast experience in the business. A few were employed as “parlor ladies” for dance hall owners. Madams oversaw, owned, or controlled most aspects of their business, from fancy parlor houses to dance halls and down the line to lower-class cribs. Their goal was to make money, and lots of it. Acting as sophisticated and discreetly as possible to avoid trouble with the law was essential. Some madams were so discreet that even their girls did not know the customers’ names.
Despite their bad reputations, most madams stayed on the good side of the law by donating to local charities, schools, hospitals and churches. Many took in the sick, the poor and the orphaned. Most helped find employment for their jobless friends. They also contributed involuntarily—they paid monthly fines or fees required by the court, and their building rent was higher than that of any legitimate business in town. In Salida for instance, madams were fined as much as $100 monthly, and their girls paid $25 and up. Almost all city councils passed laws prohibiting prostitution, but timely payment of fines for breaking those laws usually assured a madam her business was safe.
Because of their many financial obligations, madams worked to maintain excellent credit. Good standing at the bank was important should any problems occur. Some madams kept a “ceremonial” husband for legal and financial reasons. Such men were usually longtime friends or lovers who could be trusted. Their job was to vouch for their “wife’s” reputation, sign legal papers, serve as bouncers, and generally help the madam out of any unpleasant messes. Men were rarely prosecuted for their participation in the prostitution industry, but there were exceptions. In 1874 a Mr. Baron of Pueblo answered charges of being drunk, visiting a Mexican house of ill fame, and assaulting the occupant—for which he paid a total of $10 in fines.
In 1886 local newspapers in Silverton reported on a local ball where, after escorting their respectable companions home, many of the men returned for a second dance hosted by ladies of the demi-monde. “The indignation of the respectable ladies of our city,” commented the paper, “is just.” The Boulder County News voiced similar sentiments in 1888 after reporting on several local boys from good families who 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.”
If a prostitute collided with the law by disturbing the peace, fighting, being on the street at the wrong time, swearing or being intoxicated in public, her madam had to answer for her. If the madam was unavailable or unwilling to bail her out, the prostitute usually could not pay her own fine and had to work out her debt in jail: doing time, cleaning, or even trading sexual favors for her freedom.
The prostitute’s wardrobe consisted of evening wear, afternoon “costumes” and lingerie. Additionally, the girls required plenty of powder, other cosmetics and perfume. Since many prostitutes could get no credit, they were forced to purchase their personal items through the madam and were therefore always in debt to her. Most girls paid their own room and board, purchased their personal beverages, and disbursed about half their fee to the madam.
Prostitutes were also expected to obey house rules, which their madams oversaw with a firm hand. A few madams could be cruel or violent, making sure their girls were too indebted to them or too scared to leave or failing to care for them when they fell sick. When a Tin Cup prostitute calling herself “Oh Be Joyful” expressed her desire to marry a local rancher her madam, Deadwood Sal, refused to give up the girl’s contract. In desperation, the rancher and his friends rescued Oh Be Joyful in the dead of night, and the two were married in a cabin on the hill above town before galloping off to live at the rancher’s spread.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, it was not uncommon for madams to have to evict, sue or even swear out complaints against their girls and others. Boulder madam Frenchy Nealis sued saloon keeper James Nevin to reclaim her furniture from an apartment above his bar in 1877. In 1882 Mollie May of Leadville charged Annie Layton with stealing a dress. In turn, 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. In 1885 Silverton madam Mable Pierce filed a complaint against employee Bessie Smith for welshing on a loan and stealing back her own clothes, which she had used for collateral. Within a week, Mable sued Jessie Carter for the same offense. A few months later, Mable also sued Jessie Carroll for disturbing the peace.
There was more: In 1897 a Creede madam known as Mrs. Joseph Barnett, alias Ardeen Hamilton, shot and killed employee Kate Cassidy. Hamilton admitted to the shooting, but claimed self-defense. And as late as June of 1905, Helen Ward suffered during raids by Colorado City authorities, when a former employee named Annie Rock (probably Annie Rook), testified against her after quarreling with the would-be madam. Ward spent six months in the El Paso County Jail for conducting a disorderly house, despite her compliant guilty plea. Rock was charged with mayhem, but the outcome of her case is unknown.
In spite of the occasional skirmish, a good madam served as a surrogate mother to her girls. Because of their lifestyles, most call girls were ill tempered, frequently depressed, given to drinking, or addicted to drugs. It was the madam’s job to pacify her girls as much as she was able and protect them from the law, clergy, and rough customers. In Trinidad, a Madams’ Association was formed to provide protection and care for the girls. This respected organization followed guidelines resembling a union and included a convalescent home for those who became ill. Trinidad, like Cripple Creek, required a health card issued by an approved physician in order for girls to work. This rule was also practiced in Colorado City, Silverton, and many other towns in Colorado. In Salida, Laura Evens was well known for caring for her girls, including getting them regular health exams and finding them other employment when they no longer made suitable prostitutes.
Naturally, those madams who best cared for their workers also had the fanciest brothels in town. Called parlor houses, these aristocratic businesses were more likely to appear in prime locations within larger cities. City directories usually listed them as boarding houses, but anyone familiar with the city knew what they really were. The average house employed anywhere from five to twenty working girls, plus servants, a musician and a bouncer. The naughty ladies employed there were required to be talented, attractive and classy. According to a prostitute named LaVerne who worked for madam Laura Evens (sometimes spelled Evans) in Salida, “Miss Laura never wanted us girls to talk loud, and we were always taught to watch our language. We parlor house girls never used four-letter words.”
The decor of most parlor houses was lavish and fine to suit its wealthy customers. The average parlor house contained several bedroom sets, furniture and other accoutrements necessary to the business. In Silverton in 1899, Dottie Watson’s house consisted of seventeen floor carpets, one stair carpet, nine bedroom sets with springs and mattresses, two sets of parlor furniture, four heating stoves, twenty-one window shades and an eighteen-by-forty-inch mirror. Arriving guests were generally shown to the parlor, or perhaps a music room or a poker parlor and invited to partake of a variety of entertainment with wine, gambling, music, dancing and dining before the couples retired upstairs.
If a client did not have a special woman in mind, the madam could select one for him. An alternative to this practice is today illustrated at the Old Homestead, now a museum in Cripple Creek. There, girls disrobed and paraded one at a time through a closet with a glass door. The gentleman could then see each lady for himself and pick the one he liked. Regular customers could establish credit, but patrons who did not have credit were required to pay up front. Established clients were catered to, since they were usually wealthy and powerful men in the community. Not all customers, however, were gentlemen. As LaVerne of Salida explained, “We’d take our evening gowns right off as soon as we could. We didn’t want them to get messed up or torn or anything, for sometimes a man…would try to start taking off our gowns himself, and we’d have to beat him to it.”
Working women in the parlor houses were fed nourishing meals, dining on red meat and lots of milk to keep them healthy. After all, their jobs required strength and stamina. Each new customer meant bathing, fresh clothing, and a change of sheets (some girls would place a strip of canvas at the foot of their bed, so the customers’ boots or shoes would not soil the linens). Occasionally girls were “rented out” to stag parties or other events requiring strenuous travel. A first-class parlor house never opened on Sunday, thus giving the ladies a chance to rest and catch up on their personal chores. The parlor house lady was generally well to do, as long as she retained good employment. In Cripple Creek, purchasing mining claims or stocks was as fashionable as buying a new dress.
So close were parlor ladies to the upper echelon that often they made fewer attempts to mask their identities than their lower counterparts. Some brothels in Denver, such as Anna “Gouldie” Gould’s house, actually kept photos of their girls on file. Most prostitutes preferred not to be photographed and identified as working girls, but in Gouldie’s case the practice served several purposes. Upon receiving a discreet phone call or message from uptown hotels, Gouldie could dispatch runners with the pictures and allow the prospective customer to select the girl of his choice. Photographs were also handy for advertising purposes, and they served as proper identification in case of trouble with the law or death.
Pornography was a whole other matter. Photographs of a sexual nature were a valid means of advertising for both the girl and the photographer. Exhibitionists certainly flourished in the 1800’s and beyond, and much pornography of the day reveals a variety of poses from artistic to vulgar. Back then a photograph of a woman in the nude, no matter how artistic, could be considered pornographic in nature. A good many parlor house girls jumped at the chance to have themselves photographed wearing no more than a scarf or lacy lingerie. In cruder photographs the subjects appear to have been poorer girls who could be persuaded to pose for a few dollars or drinks. In more than a few instances, some prostitute pornography includes women who appear to be drugged, humiliated or downright frightened, and the sexual acts they portray are vulgar even by today’s standards. So it was for women who could not control the camera, simply because they did not rate parlor house status.
Unfortunately, many women lacked the talent and good looks required for employment in a parlor house. Others were habitual troublemakers or too old to work in a parlor house. Any girl who failed to live up to her madam’s expectations was unceremoniously shown the door. A few were unfortunate girls who had been recruited in Europe or China with promises of wealth and success in America. Upon arriving in the United States, they became indentured servants to a brothel owner. In the case of Chinese women, many were sold as slaves before they even left China. Even more girls were solicited in eastern cities to come out West, with the guarantee of high wages and a good life. Pimps, saloon owners and dance hall managers could often be found waiting at the train or stage station for girls who had answered their advertisements in eastern newspapers. More often than not, the newcomers found themselves in a strange town with no money, at the mercy of those who had promised them such a good life.
Girls who were recruited elsewhere or could not make the grade in a parlor house worked in common brothels. These houses of prostitution were not as nice, not as reputable, and often not as clean as parlor houses. A brothel, or whorehouse, was housed in anything from a canvas tent to a rented apartment above a gambling hall. Brothels housed in their own buildings usually had saloons. Their employees ranged in age from sixteen to thirty-five and came from a variety of backgrounds. Brothel women earned less (approximately $10 per customer) but served more customers than their higher-up counterparts. They were also more vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and disease. Common brothels experienced high turnovers among the girls, who moved on, were fired, or were forced to find new employment when the brothel closed down.
Dance hall girls, also known as “hurdy-gurdy girls,” worked in saloons and entertained customers with song, dance, and skits. Some also doubled as prostitutes in rooms above the saloons. In Cripple Creek, most dance halls had a small bar in front, beyond which was a railing with a gate. The girls would await their partners beyond the railing, while a “caller” enticed men to pick a girl and dance. The caller acted almost as a pimp, commanding the girls to attract more customers if business was slow. The customer paid the bartender a quarter or so, which included the price of the dance and a beer.
Dance hall girls received about a dime of the customer’s quarter for their share, but they earned most of their money in tips. After the dance, the men and their partners would proceed to another bar, located in back of the hall. In the dance halls, hard-sell customers could be invited to the “wine room” to imbibe further before being seduced. The girls’ actions were rigidly controlled. They were not permitted to linger at the front bar, but could usually talk a customer or two into going to a rented room upstairs. Many saloons had one room cribs behind or on the side of them.
Most dance halls of this sort were within the legal limits of the law. As the Ouray Times commented in 1881, “If a dance hall is well managed, and kept in a proper place, and the prostitutes are not allowed to parade the streets and back alleys, we see no reasonable grounds for complaint, but when they get to scattering here and there…and use vulgar and obscene language…it is high time that there should be some action taken to stop such nuisances. Fire them out.” If a dance hall remained on the right side of the law, however, it could be a fairly profitable business.
It is important to note that not all dance hall girls were prostitutes. Some were employed strictly as hostesses, entertainers and dancers. Many dance hall girls were merely aspiring actresses or performers with no desire for the lives they led. Socializing with actresses, however, was frowned upon in decent society, making it difficult for such women to procure any real gainful employment.
A few famous performers of the 1920’s and 1930’s began their careers this way. Among them was Ida Mulle, one of a number of actresses portrayed in provocative poses in photographs issued by Newsboy Tobacco Co. in the late nineteenth century. The casual observer of Ida’s photo may believe she was less than a talented actress. But apparently Ida was fairly successful, starring in the Boston Theater’s production of Cinderella and meriting mention in several publications about American theater and screen actresses.
Others were not so lucky; they were mostly young, unmarried immigrants or the wives or widows of poor miners. No matter their background, however, many dance hall women were eventually swallowed up by the seamy world they lived in, ever fearful that their work as prostitutes might lower their status to that of the crib girl.
Crib girls lived in smaller houses or shacks, sometimes designed as tiny row houses. Like dance halls, cribs were more prominent in small towns and military or mining camps when the West was still quite young. Eventually every city had its share of undesirable cribs. Their occupants were an unfortunate lot. Usually they were prostitutes who had outgrown their usefulness in the larger brothels due to health or age. Often their initial goal was to be self-employed and assured of privacy, but these dreams rarely came true.
Instead, the average crib girl paid high rent to a madam or landlord. Her profits usually went to a pimp, lover, or some other undesirable overlord in her life. Domestic violence broke out often among couples who worked as a pimp and prostitute. The law often turned their backs on those who beat prostitutes, while the public felt that the “whores” got what they deserved. Too often, the death of a working girl served as a grim reminder to others of what brutal and unsafe lives they led.
Streetwalkers were an even poorer class of prostitute. Their accommodations usually consisted of run-down hotel rooms or apartments. Streetwalkers were more likely to be unhealthy and unclean, and they earned much less than their fellow prostitutes. Their one advantage was more freedom, since their lack of any permanent address made them harder for the law to track down. But their plight was twice as bad as those in the upper classes. The streetwalker’s chances of survival were slim. Usually she was destined to sink lower still, to the status of a “signboard gal”. These were girls who were washed up, untalented, ugly or sick. Often they lacked a place to call home, sleeping in back streets, alleys and gutters.
Business with signboard gals was conducted wherever a quick few minutes of privacy could be found, sometimes behind a large street sign or billboard—hence the name. In Trinidad, one signboard gal conducted business behind a billboard at Santa Fe and Main Street. Another worked on top of a former butcher’s block behind a building. Signboard gals charged much less, often no more than a trade for drinks, drugs or food. Their lives were miserable, with no hope for enhancing their future.
While any prostitute could fall into one or more of the categories listed here, the careers of most tended to be consistent with their backgrounds. Some came from poor or abusive homes, and some came from middle- and even upper-class families. Those who grew up in poverty were slovenly and unskilled, while women who were raised properly and with educations usually succeeded at making much money in their profession. In Colorado City for example, Laura Bell McDaniel was from a working class family who lived and worked in the same town as she. Educated and allegedly beautiful, Laura Bell succeeded in running several prosperous brothels in Salida, Colorado City and Cripple Creek.
Blanche Burton also operated in Colorado City and was the first madam in Cripple Creek. Uneducated, Blanche was duped in at least one mining scheme in Cripple Creek but ran a successful business. In 1894 Blanche moved back to Colorado City, where over time she became a recluse. While Laura Bell McDaniel and Blanche Burton were diverse in background and lifestyle, they shared at least two common bonds: both women were in a profession disapproved of by society, and both probably wished they were doing something else.