c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine, June 1995
In its heyday, Cripple Creek, Colorado supported up to 350 working prostitutes. Considered to be among the lowest of the district denizens, these fallen women came in a variety of categories. The highest ranking were talented, beautiful young women with fancy dresses, working in the most prestigious of “parlor houses.” Their level of class cascaded downward from there, from lower-class brothels to dance halls to independent cribs “on the row.”
No matter what their status in the underworld, prostitutes were regarded as bad news. In the public’s eye, they lived in sin, used drugs and alcohol, corrupted the young and innocent, and cared little for their future or for anything else but having fun. “Soiled doves” were not allowed on the streets during certain hours by law. Decent folk turned their heads when approaching a red-light area to avoid tainting their innocent minds and pure hearts. Newspapers pounced on the girls’ misfortunes, exploited their actions, and displayed mild mock sympathy upon their demise. No matter how hard a working girl might try to leave her sordid life for a better one, her reputation preceded her.
In spite of the public’s intentions to degrade Cripple Creek’s poorest class of women, prostitutes worked hard to change their lot in life. Most of them, unfortunately, were doomed to live lives marked with misery, depression and poverty until an overdose or some other untimely incident removed them from this world. A few, however, were able to marry and move to places they were unknown. Others chose to move on and set up shop in another town. Sometimes the move was brought on by want of better things, but often unfortunate events were involved which required relocation. The story of Jennie Benton is a case in point.
In Cripple Creek, she was known as Mexican Jennie. She came from Walsenburg in Pueblo County, leaving a long trail of aliases and mystery behind her. Like many of her co-workers, Jennie lacked the sophistication and stability to seek employment in a fancy parlor house. Instead, she worked as a barmaid and dance-hall girl in Cripple Creek’s Poverty Gulch, a low-end neighborhood just beyond the city limits. Jennie’s home consisted of a one-room cabin in the poorer section of the gulch.
By 1909, Jennie had established herself, and her reputation, in Poverty Gulch. Probably hoping to better her life, she had married one of her customers, Ed Keif. For some time, Jennie was known as Juanita Keif. The relationship did not last, and eventually Jennie married again, to Ray Wenner. Whether she divorced Keif or Wenner is unknown, but when the latter left her, she retained his name and became known as Jennie Wenner.
Philip Roberts Jr., a blacksmith at the El Paso Mine, was the next patron-turned-lover. His visits to Jennie’s cabin became more and more frequent. Finally, Roberts moved into Jennie’s cabin on a permanent basis. The two began a four year stormy relationship. Jennie testified later that Roberts became her pimp, drinking constantly and beating her when she didn’t make enough money. Even over the din and bustle of Poverty Gulch, neighbors could hear the two arguing often.
On Christmas night, 1913, Roberts knocked Mexican Jennie to the floor one last time. The hapless woman pulled a revolver from her trunk, shot Philip Roberts, quickly gathered her things, and headed due south.
The process of events after Jennie’s departure took some time. Roberts’ frozen body was not found for five days. By that time, Jennie had a good head start towards her destination. Sheriff Henry Von Phul was dispatched from Cripple Creek to persue her. He left for Walsenburg on January 3, but changed his travel plans in Pueblo when he learned that one Juanita Keif had purchased a coach ticket to El Paso, Texas.
Had it not been for a delay in train service to Juarez, Mexico, Jennie might have never been found by the law. As it was, however, the delay required her to travel to El Paso, swim the Rio Grande River into Mexico, and join a group of army camp followers heading to Chihuahua City. Within this group, she could ply her trade as a means of reaching her destination. Two hundred and fifty miles later, Jennie arrived in Chihuahua City. Once there, Jennie had no choice but to continue in her profession in the Capital Hotel. Although Jennie’s lack of domestic skills forced her back into prostitution, she had at least two points in her favor. Her unusual route of travel helped her elude authorities, and she was now beyond the long arm of United States Law.
What Mexican Jennie did not figure on, however, was the determination of Sheriff Von Phul. After poking around in El Paso and Juarez, Von Phul learned of several celebrations going on in Chihuahua City. Perhaps the sheriff of Teller County had nothing better to do. Perhaps the murder of an alcoholic ne’er-do-well was a priority in Cripple Creek. Perhaps Von Phul wanted to see Mexico. Whatever the reason, the sheriff determinedly took a train to Chihuahua and successfully tracked Jennie down at the Capital Hotel. She was taken to a nearby military lockup to await extradition.
Jennie was a willing prisoner. She did not resist arrest when Sheriff Von Phul took her into custody, greeting him cordially when he appeared before her. When legal debate arose over how to get her over the border, Jennie volunteered to walk across herself. In fact, the “murderess” offered no resistance at all and seemed anxious to return to Cripple Creek. Unfortunately there was no expedient way to accomplish the task.
Upon reaching Juarez, Von Phul had to bribe the magistrate there into releasing Jennie into his custody. Even after she was solely in the hands of the sheriff, Jennie made no attempt at escape. Von Phul was not a trusting man, however, nor was he one to be trusted. In Juarez he had run across Billy Dingman, former Clerk of the District Court in Cripple Creek. Sometime back Dingman had embezzled from the court and escaped with the money. Von Phul agreed to “lose” Dingman’s file in exchange for his assistance in escorting Mexican Jennie across the border. Ah, priorities.
Jennie Wenner was returned to Cripple Creek to stand trial. She pleaded innocence by self-defense, but was found guilty of first-degree murder. After spending six years of a life sentence in the penitentiary, she was released due to poor health. Did she return to her former profession? No one knows for sure, but it is likely. Jennie’s circumstances decided her destiny, and the law decided her fate.