c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article were part of a presentation for the Cripple Creek Labor War Symposium at Penrose Library, Colorado Springs, in June, 2004, and appeared in The Colorado Labor Wars 1903-1904: Cripple Creek District, published in 2006.
There is an old western proverb that goes,
The miner came in ‘59
The prostitute in ‘61
And between the two,
They made the native son!
That little ditty was even truer than we might think, since prostitution was a major industry during the settlement of Colorado, and a presence in every boom town across the state. In a place where the chief industry was mining, men could outnumber women as much as 20 to one. Often, miners and prospectors would migrate from far away places and settle in a town or camp until they could afford to send for their families. The process could take months or even years, during which lonely men yearned for the sight of a woman—any woman. Thus red-light districts and brothels were highly acceptable among male-dominated communities, including company towns and especially in mining towns.
The city of Victor was no exception to the rule. Evidence of Victor’s illicit nightlife was already blatantly present during labor strikes which took place in the Cripple Creek District during the years 1893 and 1894. During the strikes, Mrs. Haillie Miller, a local prostitute, was employed by mine owners to bed striking miners and obtain information from them. It was a very limited success, for Haillie was often far more interested in the whiskey before her than listening to an unhappy miner rave about his job.
Despite that failure, prostitutes played an important role in the life of both miners and mine owners. Most brothels served not just as a place to procure sex or play a little poker, but they also offered security and discretion. Men could talk more freely in a bordello than they could in the bars and businesses or at work, or even at home, and the soiled doves kept their secrets. As a result, these women earned the respect of their clients. It was a nice exchange: the girls were able to make their living, and the miners found a place to relax, enjoy themselves and get their minds off of their dangerous working conditions.
Many prostitutes made loyal friends out of their favorite customers, a varied lot from all walks of life. A good many of them were miners and young single men, but they could also be millionaires, business owners, laborers, city officials, and even law enforcement officers, husbands, and fathers. At the same time, many prostitutes in the district were prominent madams with extensive holdings at the local bank. Many a mine owner’s indiscretions were never divulged to the public, saved by those working girls who zipped their lips.
Many prostitutes also invested in mining stocks, which was very fashionable for the day, much like owning the latest dressware or having a poodle. Such investments were very much a status symbol, and so naturally the gals who bought stocks in the mines supported both the mine owners and their employees.
Lola Livingston & Spencer Penrose
In fact, many girls rented from or catered to the millionaire mine owners around the Cripple Creek District, almost serving as double agents much like Mata Hari did during WW I. But, they also could be bought. A favorite story is the time an associate of Spencer Penrose was sent to collect the rent from Cripple Creek madam Lola Livingston. Forty minutes later the red-faced associate returned without the money, with the explanation that he and Lola had decided he should take the debt out in trade.
Millionaires protect status
By about 1895, the District millionaires were finding it necessary to protect their class status. Prominent men like Penrose, Charles Tutt and Winfield Scott Stratton were forced by their wealth to quit making appearances on bawdy Myers Avenue in Cripple Creek and the red light district in Victor in order to save their reputations. But making gobs of money failed to stop these men from their love of working girls.
Spec Penrose in particular seems to have gotten into trouble with various girls, at least until his new wife, Julie, straightened him out. There was a widely circulated story about Penrose’s involvement with a horse trainer named Sally Halthusen. Sally wasn’t exactly a prostitute, but she was looking for a rich husband. It was said Sally had already been paid off once by the father of a man she was looking to marry. Eventually Spec’s brother talked some sense into him and he stopped seeing Sally, at least in the public eye.
Incidents like this were enough to make the millionaires of Cripple Creek hire private call girls to come to their homes. Still, embarrassing incidents were known to rear their ugly heads now and then. One call girl, Candace Root, sued millionaire Winfield Scott Stratton in 1895 for $200,000, with the charge of breach of promise to marry. Candace claimed Stratton lured her to his bed, and also that she was pregnant. The case was dismissed. Penrose and Tutt, who owned a racetrack and casino up at the town of Gillette and several brothels and “theaters” along Myers Avenue, were also fired upon. The Cripple Creek Morning Journal called their Topic Theater a “variety den and skin dive” and said their dance hall should “be removed with the rest of the filth.”
By the time Victor was officially incorporated in 1895, the city was chock full of saloons and whorehouses. Most of them were along portions of 3rd and 4th Streets, but unlike most larger cities, other red-light houses could be found scattered all over town. Victor, with its large male population of miners, also was unique in that brothels seemed welcome to coexist with other businesses throughout the town—at least for a little while.
In 1896, the miners in Victor got a taste of what was coming when they heard about labor strikes going on Leadville. One of the stories that made its way to Victor was about Laura Evens, later a prominent madam in Salida, who played an important part in the Leadville labor war herself. Union men were blocking the entrance to one of the mines, much like they did at the town of Altman in the Cripple Creek District during the 1894 strike. No one was allowed to leave. It was Laura who showed up under the guise of visiting a friend who had not been allowed to leave, and was permitted to enter. What the guards didn’t know was that she was smuggling the payroll for non-union miners under her skirts. Her effort was rewarded by a dinner invitation to the mine owners’ home plus $100.
In time, Victor’s proper women began objecting to the number of prostitutes plying their trade in town. Victor began regulating the red light industry with fines and required health exams. Then Victor suffered its infamous fire in 1899, which burned down much of the town. When it was discovered the fire began behind a dance hall on south 3rd, Victor’s prostitutes were even more ostracized.
By the time the labor wars began in 1903, Victor’s red light ladies had lost much respect. A good number of them were siding with the striking miners, which of course angered the mine owners. At the time, however, there were at least a handful of girls who were willing to spill their guts for a certain price. The 1903 labor war was much more violent than the strikes of 1893, and even Victor’s prostitutes fell victim to the turmoil.
One of the most devastating incidents to take place happened on September 1, 1903. At that time, and for some years before, the newspapers had been making light of the plight of prostitutes who fell victim to abuse, drug addiction, and alcohol. A pro-union miner named Slim Campbell had been arrested for striking, but was released. Like thousands of other miners, Slim was frustrated and angry. Later that evening, Slim procured the services of a working girl and brutally murdered her. The mine owners blamed the Western Federation of Miners for allowing Slim to escape, even as they themselves continued to condemn Victor’s prostitutes for offering refuge to men on both sides of the strike.
A few men, such as world traveler and author Lowell Thomas, defended Victor’s bad girls. After all, they too were caught up in this bloody and heart-wrenching war. Thomas delivered newspapers in Victor as a boy, and his route included several brothels. Thomas described the ladies who, he said, “came to their doors in their wrappers, and sometimes less, and appeared relieved to find only the newsboy. They often chatted with me and I answered respectfully, as I had been taught to do, and this seemed to please them inordinately…after learning about what went on behind those shuttered windows I remained respectful to the girls, and they were always nice to me. When I finally got my burro I promptly led it over and showed it to them. They seemed proud, too.”
Not surprisingly, it was a woman of questionable character who became the first female ordered to leave the district during the strikes. On about June 25, 1904, just a few weeks after professional assassin Harry Orchard blew up the depot at Independence, Mamie McGorraity of Victor got drunk and began traipsing up and down Victor Avenue. Mamie was arrested when she greeted a soldier with profanities, and calling the man a “scab herder.” Mamie was arrested and taken to city jail. Upon her release she was told to leave the district, but the paper did not report whether or not she did so.
Like everyone else in the district, Victor’s prostitutes waited out the strikes to their end, and it worked. In at least one way, they were very much like their male counterparts in the community: they were just trying to make a living and earn a little cash in order to survive.