Good Girls Gone Bad: An Overview of Prostitution in the West

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in True West magazine.

There is no better way to liven up a conversation than to bring up the intriguing subject of prostitution history in the West. After all, talking about sex is interesting. The thought of someone paying for it brings up a facet that diverts from societal and cultural ideals about how and when sex should be employed. It also brings forth a slew of questions, from how business was conducted to how the industry maintained a business relationship with governments big and small. In between are enough bawdy stories to make a sailor blush.

Writers about prostitution have covered pretty much every aspect of this naughtiest of subjects. Their offerings have ranged from official documents classifying prostitution as a crime to news articles both serious and lighthearted, with lots of gray area in between. Many history books have served well to give the reader some excellent insight into the red light underworld. Unfortunately, even the most scholarly history can easily be romanticized as a number of B-grade movies and television shows will attest. 

Although prostitution in the West could indeed be gritty and dangerous, it was not always so. The industry’s fascinating timeline dates to the days of mountain man rendezvous, when certain Native Americans offered their wives and daughters for sex with their Anglo “guests”. Most tribes regarded sex as a very healthy and integral part of life. The Assiniboine Indians of the Great Northern Plains commonly lent out their daughters for sex, always in trade for goods. The more the girls brought, the greater the respect for them and their families. Extreme promiscuity, however, was largely frowned upon among by all Native Americans.

One of the earliest cultured women to make their presence known in the west was Santa Fe’s celebrated courtesan, Madam Gertrude Tules. Known by many other names, Gertrude first appeared in New Mexico in 1815. In 1822 she married Manuel Antonio Sisneros and set about alternating her time as a mother with honing her gambling skills. She began playing cards professionally in about 1825, traveling to outlying camps and even paying fines as she continuously won at the tables. By 1841 Gertrude was single again and romancing powerful and intelligent men who could assist in her career even as she opened her first brothel. 

Gertrude served an elite group of customers that included churchmen, army officers and politicians. Her presence at social affairs was often noted by the papers but in time descriptions of her fluctuated. “An old woman with false hair and teeth,” commented pioneer wife Susan Shelby Magoffin. “Young and blooming as ever,” reported the Santa Fe Republican. Beauty was, indeed, in the eye of the beholder.

By the time of her death, in 1852, Madam T had amassed a considerable amount of wealth in property, jewelry, winnings, brothel proceeds and debts owed to her by other gamblers. By then, more and more predominantly male settlers were coming West. The need for female companionship grew. Exploring, mining and surviving in the early camps of the Rocky Mountains was harsh and lonely. In some places men pined for women to the extent they would pay just to view or touch female undergarments, whether or not a woman was wearing them. Any man bringing his wife to the frontier was considered rude if he declined to bring his mate to social functions and permit her to dance with other men.

Many of the few but brave women making their way from the east were looking for riches via the skin trade. At the very least, they probably hoped some lucky miner would strike it rich and marry them. As pioneers began settling the west beginning in the late 1840’s, a series of mining camps, boomtowns, whistlestops, towns and cities began springing up. Almost without exception, these places became home to at least one or two soiled doves, if not a full on roaring red light district.

A number of red light districts evolved into the social centers of their communities. Places like Butte Montana, Cripple Creek Colorado, Cheyenne Wyoming, Albuquerque New Mexico and many more supported large populations of prostitutes who actually contributed heavily to city economies in the way of business licenses, fees and fines. Within the industry, the true professionals learned how to handle customers, what to charge and how to avoid drug abuse, violence, pregnancy and social diseases.

As the industry grew, so did the number of women who approached prostitution as a true business profession. It was a limited success; prostitutes working above the bars or in the seedier whorehouses rarely made enough to retire and often ended their lives by suicide, overdose or illnesses associated with in living in squalid places on the primitive frontier. Gonorrhea, Syphilis and Chlamydia, potentially fatal maladies, ran rampant during the 1800’s. An 1865 hospital report in Idaho City, Idaho stated that one out of every seven patients was suffering from venereal disease. Botched abortions and murder rounded out the number of women who died while working as prostitutes.

Madams who had more control over their businesses fared better, but not much. Witness the legendary Pearl DeVere, who arrived in Cripple Creek in 1894 and soon was running the most successful parlor house on Myers Avenue. By the time the first of two devastating fires in1896 burned her brothel to the ground, the divine Ms. DeVere had enough clout to borrow money from a New York investor and build an even better pleasure palace. Six months later, she overdosed on morphine following one of her Saturday night soirees.

Madam “Belgian Jennie” Banters of Jerome, Arizona ran several brothels. One of her places included a lavish waiting room where “a trim maid in spangled short skirt and a revealing bodice” brought drinks to clients. Jennie was allegedly extremely wealthy when she moved to Goldroad, south of Kingman. In 1905 her ex-lover broke down her door and shot her. Jennie ran into the street, but the man chased her down and shot her twice more. He left long enough to reload his gun but soon returned. “Observing that she was not yet dead,” reported the Mohave County Miner, “he moved her head so that he could get a better shot, and then deliberately fired the pistol.” Jennie’s killer was hanged for the murder in 1907.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were women like Denver’s Mattie Silks who stated, “I went into the sporting life for business reasons and for no other. It was a way for a woman in those days to make money and I made it.” Mattie ran a number of brothels in Illinois and Kansas before coming to Colorado with a “portable boarding house for young ladies”. During her career Mattie owned several brothels, married at least twice, kept a lover and regularly paid fines for running houses of prostitution. She also had a reputation for excellent service and often sheltered the homeless. Once, she netted a cool $38,000 running a bordello for three months in Dawson City, Alaska. Mattie spent her wealth well, having only a few thousand dollars left when she died in 1929.

Laura Evens of Salida Colorado, was also known for her civic duties, even as she admitted to being a party girl. “I was pretty young when I first became a sporting woman,” she later recalled, “and loved to sing and dance and get drunk and have a good time.” Her carefree attitude aside, Laura would pay young boys in cash to run her errands, admonishing them to tell their mothers, “You earned the money in honest work for a stranger.” She also sheltered abused wives and secretly paid the wages of men recovering from injuries on the job. “I doubt if anybody will ever know how many people Laura helped,” said a Salida politician in later years. “She was an entire Department of Social Services long before there was such a thing.” When Laura died in 1953 at the age of 90, she was buried in a lavender casket.

No matter their good deeds, all prostitutes suffered blatant hypocrisy at the hands of local government. Cities accepted monthly fines, fees, payoffs and taxes from their red light ladies even as authorities continually staged raids and arrests. In 1908 Dora Topham, the leading madam of Ogden Utah, was actually hired by Salt Lake City officials to operate a “legal” red light district. The idea appealed to Dora, who viewed prostitution with a realistic eye. “I know, and you know, that prostitution has existed since the earliest ages,” she explained, “and if you are honest with yourselves, you will admit that it will continue to exist, no matter what may be said or done from the pulpit or through the exertions of women’s clubs.”

Dora truly considered herself a “reformer”, explaining to her prospective employees “the awful shame, degradation, and misery that is invariably the final result of seamy life in the underworld.” Only if the girl was absolutely determined to pursue the prostitution path would Dora hire her. Per Salt Lake City’s approval, Dora oversaw construction of the “Stockade”, a city block surrounded by a high wall with several cribs, six parlor houses, a dancehall, saloons, a cigar store and even a small jail cell. Up to one hundred fifty women could work in the Stockade at any one time.

Unfortunately, the Stockade failed for numerous reasons. Prostitutes around town refused to sell their properties or move into the Stockade under the watchful eyes of authorities, requiring Dora to hire girls from out of town. Employees felt stifled by the stringent rules and regulations. Customers were hesitant to be seen entering the premises. Rules were broken. Raids were still staged to appease county, state and federal laws. There were public outcries. Ultimately, in 1911, Dora was accused of working as a madam by the same officials who had in fact hired her to do so. Dora had enough. She closed all of her brothels, changed her name, and quietly moved to San Francisco.

Authorities took a different approach with madam Laura Bell McDaniel of Colorado City, Colorado. Raised in Missouri, Laura Bell married and divorced before landing in Salida, Colorado as a single mother. After her second husband shot a man to death in front of her, Laura Bell left him and moved to Colorado City. She opened her first brothel in 1888. Most extraordinary was her relationship with her family, who lived nearby. The “Queen of the Colorado City Tenderloin” weathered two fires, sent her daughter to school, ran several bordellos and hobnobbed with the powerful businessmen of nearby Colorado Springs. When she refused to shut down in 1917,  authorities framed her for purchasing stolen liquor. She was acquitted, but died the next day in a mysterious car accident witnessed only by men from the District Attorney’s office in Colorado Springs.

Three major factors contributed to the end of frontier prostitution in about 1918. The first was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, formed as more and more wives came West and discovered what their men had been doing in the new land. Second were numerous military posts who were tiring of their soldiers falling victim to drunkenness, fights, social disease and other maladies associated with prostitution. “Our health tests have proven that if a potential recruit spends twelve hours in Billings, he’s unfit for military service,” a military officer warned Montana officials in 1918. “I am talking about your line of cribs where naked women lean over window sills and entice young boys in for fifty cents or a dollar. Close that south-side line in twenty four hours or the military will move in and do it for you.” Finally, national Prohibition in 1919 served to take all the fun out of partying and greatly reduced the red light districts. Prostitution as it was known in the West is truly a bygone era.

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