c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins
The Passing of Faro Dan
Cactus Nell in the gaudy gown
Of a dance hall vamp in a border town
Had tried her wiles on a man who seemed
To read her smiles as he stood and dreamed
And he paid no heed to the tell-tale leer
Of the brothel queen as she lingered near
But turned and looked to another place,
Removed from the glare of her painted face.
The she-thing paled with a tang of hate
At the slight implied by the measured gait
Each step seemed telling as words might say
He despised her breed and the tinseled way
And she raged within as the dance hall clan
Observed the move of the silent man
And she made a vow that the man should pay
For the public slight—in the brothel way.
A whispered word and hurried plan
Was told in the ear of Faro Dan
Then Nell wandered out on the dance hall floor,
Then stopped a bit as an idler would
Quite close to the place where the stranger stood
And Nell, with the hate of her creed and race
Stepped close and spat in the stranger’s face.
The silence fell and the place was still
Like a stage that was set where the actors kill
And the stranger stood and calmly viewed
The taunting face of the woman lewd
Then his eyes were turned till they rested on
Her consort near, with his pistol drawn
Then he slowly grinned and turned his head
To the brothel queen, where he calmly said,
“I reckon girl there’s been a day
When a mother loved in a mother’s way
And prayed, I guess, as her baby grew,
She never would be a thing like you
And so for her and the child she bore
I’ve pity gal, and I’ve nothing more.”
Then turning again to Faro Dan,
“I’m calling you hombre, man to man.”
The call was quick as a lightening flash
And the shots rang out in a single crash
And the stranger stood with a smoking gun
And viewed the work that his skill had won
Then walking slow to the dance hall door
He turned to the awe—struck crowd once more.
“I just dropped in from Alkali,
And now, I reckon, I’ll say goodbye.”
—Myrtle Whifford, Kansas City, Missouri, 1926
Prostitutes came from all walks of life. Some escaped poor or negligent homes as young girls. Others were widows with children to feed, or were unskilled in labor with no other hope for making a living. More than a few were lured into prostitution as a viable way to dance, drink, kick up their heels and have a good time. Still others came from fine upstanding families from the east and were educated or talented musicians and singers. Some, such as Mattie Silks of Denver, were simply looking to make some good money. “I went into the sporting life for business reasons and for no other.” Mattie once said. “It was a way for a woman in those days to make money and I made it. I considered myself then and do now—as a business woman.” Mattie always claimed that she was never more than a madam and never worked as a prostitute.
In fact more women approached their profession on a strictly-business basis than is widely thought. One former customer recalled how most girls would remove only the essential clothing to transact their business and hurried their customers along. “When it came to the actual act, though, the routine was standard…Then she’d wash you off again, and herself. Then she’d get dressed, without even looking at you. You could see she was already thinking about nothing but getting downstairs.” Brothels in general were in the business to make money, and their employees had to keep customers on the move.
Even more women turned to prostitution as an alternative to dull or abusive marriages. It was no easy matter, being married in the Victorian era. Given the harshness of the times—no electricity, back breaking chores, a plethora of vices such as gambling, drinking and drugs, and pro-creational rather than recreational sex, it is no wonder many marriages ended in divorce. The misery doubled with the death of a child, or if either spouse was given to drinking or beating the other. So, when Ed Harless’ wife turned up missing in Victor, it was no real surprise to anyone except maybe Ed.
The Harless’ first appeared in Victor in 1902. Ed was a miner at the Portland Mine, residing with his bride at 321 South 4th Street. But he apparently balanced his time between Victor and Denver, where he had another home. It was probably during one of his absences that Mrs. Harless unexpectedly packed her bags and caught the next train out of town. Ed went looking for her, much as any husband might do. He found her in Silverton, and the November 29 Silverton Standard reported what happened next. Harless had arrived from Victor the day before. According to the newspaper, he had been consulting a spirit medium in Denver regarding his wife’s whereabouts. The clairvoyant informed Harless that he had to look no further than Silverton to find her.
Harless beat a path to Marshal Leonard’s door in Silverton. After a short investigation, the good marshal led Harless to a bordello on Silverton’s notorious Blair Street. As was the case with so many before her, the price of Mrs. Harless’ freedom was to land in a strange town with no support. Prostitution was a viable way to get some cash, and the girls on the row had beckoned her in. The two men entered the room occupied by Mrs. Harless. As the marshal stepped to the window to let in some light, the woman let out a scream. The marshal turned in time to see the husband “drawing an ugly looking revolver”. Leonard wrestled the gun away from the angry man and promptly deposited him in the city pokey. Harless was fined $50 and costs.
Women who left their marriages for a more exciting life in the prostitution industry often failed to find the freedom they sought. The Boulder County Herald in 1881 reported on a young man from Kansas who found a female acquaintance from back home working in Boulder. The two were married, thus saving the girl from the clutches of prostitution. In 1884 the newspaper Kansas City Cowboy wrote about a woman who changed her mind after turning to prostitution: “A well dressed gentleman stepped into the dance hall and to his surprise found his long lost sweetheart, whom he had given up for dead. After wiping the tears away, the lover commenced asking how come she was living in such a place. The lovely unfortunate with dazzling eyes gazed up at him and said, ‘Charlie, I don’t know. It has always been a mystery.’ The couple left on the late train for Pueblo where they will be joined in the happy bonds of holy wedlock.”
Occasionally too, young girls joined the industry for no other reason than because they were wild. In 1899 the Silverton Standard reported on a boarding house waitress who stepped out for a break and wound up “drunker than a fiddler” at a local dance hall. “The event was but a repetition of the girl’s old tricks.” reported the paper. “She is young, her parents reside here and if they have no control over her she should be sent to the home for incorrigibles.”
No matter where they came from, most working girls counted on being banished and shunned by their families, who were naturally shocked and ashamed at their actions. If at all possible, the average prostitute launched her career far away from her hometown and lied about her job position in her letters back home. Stories of prostitutes whose families discovered their true occupations were so numerous that they inspired song such as this:
Oh, we never mention Aunt Clara,
Her picture is turned to the wall,
Though she lives on the French Riviera
Mother says she is dead to us all!
At church on the organ she’d practice and play
The preacher would pump up and down
His wife caught him playing with Auntie one day
And that’s why Aunt Clara left town.
With presents he tempted and lured her to sin
Her innocent virtue to smirch
But her honor was strong and she only gave in
When he gave her the deed to the church
They said that no one cared if she never came back
When she left us, her fortune to seek
But the boys at the firehouse draped it all in black
And the ball team wore mourning all week
They told her that no man would make her his bride
They prophesied children of shame,
Yet she married four counts and a baron besides,
And hasn’t a child to her name!
They told her the wages of sinners was Death
But she said if she had to be dead
She’s just as soon die with champaign on her breath
And some pink satin sheets on her bed
They say that the Hell-fires will punish her sin,
She’ll burn for her carryings-on
But at least for the present, she’s toasting her skin
In the sunshine of Deauville and Cannes
They say that’s sunken, they say that she fell
From the narrow and virtuous path
But her French formal gardens are sunken as well
And so is her pink marble bath
My mother does all of her housework alone
She washes and scrubs for her board.
We’ve reached the conclusion that virtue’s its own
And the only reward!
Oh we never speak of Aunt Clara
But we think when we grow up tall
We’ll go to the French Riviera
And let Mother turn us to the wall!
It’s more exciting…Mother turn us to the wall!
In most cases, the girls’ backgrounds echoed their lifestyles in the industry. In about 1905, a sad-eyed mulatto woman named Dorothy “Tar Baby” Brown arrived in Silverton. Born in Chicago, Tar Baby had been raised in an orphanage. Despite being one of the toughest girls on the line at Blair Street, Dorothy eventually married Frank Brown who was on the police force. An acquaintance recalled that the Brown household was filthy. Dorothy would roll her own cigarettes and flick the used butts onto the ceilings and walls. The Browns had one son, who died in an accident in 1954. Tar Baby died in 1971 at Durango.
In order to truly disguise their identity, many soiled doves sported one or more pseudonyms. Fake names and nicknames were common. They were used to elude the law, make a fresh start or avoid undesirable people in a girl’s life. In some cases, prostitutes planning to move on were actually able to bribe the local newspapermen, upon their departure, to print an “obituary”. The demise of a girls’ pseudonym would prevent any questions about a woman’s whereabouts, securing her safety from the law and others and allowing her to move on with an all new identity.
Finding these women’s real identities is a task that will never be complete. Cripple Creek’s prostitute register for 1912 lists a Jessie Ford, along with her physical description and the listing of her birthplace as Des Moines, Iowa. She had recently come from Denver. Because her name is noted as an alias, however, Jessie’s story may never be known. Another was Bertha Lewis, whose real name is not listed. Bertha arrived in Cripple Creek in January of 1912 from Denver. The only other known facts about Bertha are that she was born in Kansas, she was black, and she left town on March 10.
Because the majority of prostitutes used pseudonyms, tracking them from town to town was difficult for the law and others. An interesting coincidence which illustrates this fact is the number of women with the uncommon surname of “St. Clair” who appeared in Cripple Creek and later Colorado City. The 1896 Cripple Creek city directory lists one Eve St. Claire rooming at 335 ½ Myers Avenue. There was also an Ida St. Claire who roomed at 133 W. Myers in 1896, working as a laundress. The 1900 directory lists Miss Irene St. Clair at 420 East Myers. Then in 1904-05, Jeanette St. Clair is listed in the Colorado City directory at 615 Washington. In 1907 yet another St. Claire, this one known as Miss Celia, resided at 341 Myers Avenue in Cripple Creek.
The directories mentioned above rarely list any other St. Clairs, prostitutes or otherwise. Miss Millie Lavely is another puzzle. In 1900 she lived at 420 Myers Avenue. Five years later, Millie was living at 315 Myers. The 1907 city directory shows no Millie Lavely, but does show a Miss Millie Laverty residing at the Old Homestead Parlor House. Whether any of these women actually shared a connection will likely never be known.
It was not always easy to conceal one’s identity. The authorities certainly knew every alias of Bessie Blondell, a.k.a. Bessie McSean, a.k.a Dorothy McCleave. In June of 1912, Bessie arrived in Cripple Creek and began sporting at 373 Myers Avenue. A native of Ohio, Bessie had last worked in Denver. On August 16, the city clerk recorded that Bessie had departed for Denver once more on the 7 a.m. train, adding the note, “From there she goes to El Paso, TX.” Blondell was Bessie’s married name, and her husband had been convicted in El Paso, Texas, for smuggling. He was sentenced to two and one-half years at Levenworth Prison. Bessie was also under indictment for smuggling. Her ultimate fate is unknown. She may have wound up in New York, where a woman of her name died in 1981. And there were other women such as Cripple Creek prostitute Sophia Green of Mackey, Idaho, who sometimes used the last name of her husband, Brockey Jones.
Choosing a pseudonym must have been a fascinating game for working girls, whose new names could mean taking on a whole new persona. Coming up with a fake identity had its challenges, and many girls obviously had fun with it. Witness such tongue-in-cheek names in Cripple Creek as Jack Williams, Dickey Dalmore, Jonny Jones, Teddie Miles and Grace Miller, a.k.a. Grace Maycharm. Other names were symbolic or taken from local landmarks, ethnic origins or even status symbols of the day. Vola Keeling, alias Vola Gillette, likely fabricated her new name in Cripple Creek from the nearby town of Gillett. Not at all surprisingly, Louise Paris was a French prostitute working in the French block of Myers Avenue in Cripple Creek. The name frequently denoted where the girl was from, as in the case of Colorado girls China Mary, French Erma, Dutch Mary and Irish Mag, Austrian Annie, Kansas City and Denver Darling.
Other times, a girl’s nickname played on her talents. Names like the Virgin, Few Clothes Molly, Featherlegs, Smooth Bore and Sweet Fanny let prospective clients know what they could expect from these women. Sometimes the girls chose their own pseudonyms; other times they were dubbed by their clients or other girls on the row. Many of those names, however, were not complimentary. Such women as Two Ton Tilly, Ton of Coal, Noseless Lou and Dancing Heifer probably had little to do with fabricating their nicknames.
Other less romantic names included Dirty Neck Nell, Dizzy Daisy, Tall Rose, Greasy Gert, Rotary Rose, PeeWee, T-Bone, Rowdy Kate, Mormon Queen, Lacy Liz and Nervous Jessie. Salida prostitute Lizzie Landon was also known as White Dog Liz. One of the most insulting names was imposed on Lottie Amick, a.k.a. the Victor Pig. Lottie had been living in Colorado since at least 1898, when she married one Oliver C. Chase in Colorado Springs. By June of 1911, Lottie was living at 342 Myers in Cripple Creek. On January 7 of 1912 she moved to Victor, where she probably picked up her degrading pseudonym. She returned to Cripple Creek in June, and in May of 1913 departed for Colorado Springs.
And then there are a few names whose origin will never be solved, such as a pair of girls in Pueblo who called themselves the Hamburger Twins.
There is little doubt that many girls had fun making up new names and using them to fool authorities, sometimes right under the law’s nose. The Cripple Creek register of prostitutes for 1911 reports on two different women named Alice Clark. Both arrived on September 22 from Denver, and both took up residence at 435 Myers. One was black and one was white. One was a year older than the other and both had about the same build. The striking similarities noted for two completely different women lead one to speculate whether one or two officials took the descriptions—and which one of the girls was really Alice Clark.
It was also a common practice for prostitutes to use several different pseudonyms during their careers. Sometimes, the name was duplicated as in the case of two Pueblo women who were both named Dutch Kate. The first was found dead in 1876 with bruises on her body and her jewelry missing. The second Dutch Kate made the papers in 1882 for chasing a man up and down Union Avenue with a knife, “threatening to have his heart’s blood”. She eventually was incarcerated without further incident.
Whatever her name every prostitute strived to look and be at her best at all times, despite her hectic, hazy and downright dangerous lifestyle. Dress was very important to prostitutes, whose vanity knew no limits and whose job was to look, smell and feel good. Of her co-workers in Cripple Creek, dance hall girl Lizzie Beaudrie recalled: “Some of the other girls had short lawn dresses with a drop yoke and little ruffles on the bottom of the skirt. Not a girl wore a tight fitting dress or very much jewelry, and the girls all looked clean.”
Further up the fashion ladder, Laura Evens recalled paying between $100 and $150 for her gowns in Leadville at Madame Frank’s Emporium during the year 1895. “We wore heavy black stockings embroidered with pink roses.” she remembered. “No short skirts and hustling in doorways like the crib girls.” Indeed harlots in smaller, wilder camps such as the town of Gothic dared to wear dresses clear up to their knees. But the fancier girls would take any measure necessary to procure their fancy gowns. Once Ethel Carlton, wife of freighting and bank millionaire Bert Carlton of Cripple Creek, gave some of her old gowns to a servant to distribute among the poor girls in town. Later, as she gazed upon a wagon full of soiled doves going by, Mrs. Carlton recognized her cast off dresses. Her servant, apparently, had taken the gowns right down to the row and sold them for a profit. Mrs. Carlton was said to be quite amused by the incident.
Fashion was at least as important among the red-light ladies as it was to those in decent society. Every inch of detail was carefully paid the utmost attention, as illustrated in Lizzie Beaudrie’s detailed description of a woman she noticed standing at the bar for a drink one night at the Red Light Dance Hall. “…She wore a velvet suit, a short, pleated skirt up to her knees, a white silk blouse with a sailor collar trimmed with narrow lace, long sleeves with turned back cuffs and a little Eaton jacket to match her skirt. The skirt and jacket were trimmed with gold braid. The suit was black. She wore black stockings and spring heel patent leather slippers. Her hair was cut short and curled all over her head…”
If the women of the red-light district paid attention to such details, so did the general public—especially the media. In April of 1872, the Pueblo Chieftan gave a somewhat humorous account of a scuffle between Esther Baldwin and her girls and Sam Mickey, a Denver gambler. Upon sending Baldwin into “a scuttle of coal”, Mickey “followed up his advantage and went for the rest in rotation, and in less time than we have been writing it, the floor was covered with false teeth, false curls, false palpitators [probably false breasts], patent calves, chignons and other articles of feminine gear too numerous to mention.” The Leadville Chronicle noted a similar scuffle when reporting a fight between inmates of the Red Light and the Bon Ton: “The fight was short and bloody. The air was thick with wigs, teeth, obscenity and bad breaths.” Even Central City wasn’t safe, when “a span of girls on Big Swede Avenue tried to kill each other night before last. They only succeeded in burning some dry goods and conflagrating a lamp.”
Hair, teeth and facial makeup were other important facets of every day life. Many women, such as Cripple Creek prostitute Marion Murphy, bleached their hair. Records on these women indicate that bleaching was a trend brought with such eastern beauties as Bertha LeRay of Chicago. In the days before dyes and manufactured hair products, bleaching was a very dangerous process during which one could suffer burns to the skin as well as the eyes. Harlots such as the mulattos Mary Buchanan and Lillian Bryant, who worked in Cripple Creek in 1911 and 1912 respectively, bleached their hair with most interesting results. In Lillian’s case, the Chicago lovely’s black hair was bleached to a wild red color. An unfortunate fact that is easily forgotten is that many girls also had poor teeth, not having the luxury of a toothbrush or lessons on how to use it. Thus, many girls had missing, gold-filled or gold-capped teeth. Cripple Creek prostitute Marie Brady had four of her upper front teeth filled with gold. Her co-workers, Ruth Allen and Lillian Bryant, had both gold crowns and gold teeth.
Once they were dressed in their best finery, the girls were ready to go to work. Whether they worked in a parlor house or a dance hall, part of their job involved socializing with customers in some sort of party atmosphere. Much of the time, however, their actions were rigidly controlled. If they lingered with a customer too long or engaged in too much conversation and not enough sex, they were reprimanded. Outrageous behavior was not permitted except in the lower class brothels and bars. The Alhambra Saloon in Silverton posted strict rules for its dance hall girls:
“1. No lady will leave the house during evening working hours without permission.
2. No lady will accompany a gentleman to his lodgings.
3. No kicking at the orchestra, especially from the stage.
4. Every lady will be required to dance on the floor after the show.
5. No fighting or quarreling will be allowed.”
The social life of a prostitute was minimal outside of the work place. Children were a sight near and dear to many prostitutes simply because it was rare to see them and easy to procure their trust. Colorado pioneer Anne Ellis recalled a day her young son visited a house of prostitution quite by accident in Bonanza. “[A] t one time in my married life, their house was just back of mine on the mountainside…once my creeping baby disappears, and I finally spy him, his yellow curls shining in the sunlight, crawling step by step up this flight, and I watch him to see he doesn’t fall backward, letting him go, much to the disgust of my neighbors, but I know these girls can’t hurt him, and he may help them.”
Cripple Creek resident Art Tremayne recalled when he was a child in the 1920’s, a visit to his step-grandmother’s home required passing a local brothel. As the boy and his mother walked along, young Art noticed some women in the second story window of a house, waving down at him. Art waved back. “I thought they were the nicest people,” he remembered. Art’s mother knew better. Grabbing her son’s hand, Mrs. Tremayne whisked down the street and out of sight of the shameful women.
Such innocence endeared children to prostitutes. They were not as biased or judgmental as adults, and they were willing to run errands for the girls. Prostitutes often sent messengers and newsboys to buy their drugs for them at the local pharmacy. In the interest of discretion, the girls would send the boy with a certain playing card and money to the drug store. The pharmacist, upon receiving the card, knew what the girls were ordering. The boys usually received a good tip for completing the mission.
The hurt at being ostracized by society must have been great to many a prostitute, especially those who willingly donated to local charities, churches and schools. In the mode of the day, the good deeds of the red-light ladies were unreciprocated, and the girls rarely received credit for their benevolent acts. City authorities sought to make an example out of Colorado City madam Mamie Majors by arresting her for maintaining a house of ill fame in 1905. Two friends, druggist Otto Fehringer and saloon owner N.B. Hames, bailed her out of jail along with Mamie Swift and Annie Wilson. Despite Mamie Major’s pleas in court and testimony of her many good deeds, the District Attorney painted a picture of a destitute, hardened and horrible woman who was getting what she deserved.
Although prostitutes were generally banned from public functions, some theaters and other public facilities did reserve special sections for them. The girls were required to enter by a less conspicuous door, and their reserved seating was usually in the back of the theater, out of public view. The girls generally attended such functions with each other, as no decent man wanted to risk being seen in public with them. In the mountain town of Montezuma, a local madam known as Dixie was allowed to attend baseball games so long as she remained seated at the end of the stands and away from decent folk. Perhaps to spite them Dixie, whose real name was Ada Smith, usually showed up for the game dressed in her best. Moreover, she boldly did her shopping at the Rice grocery store in Montezuma. Initially, only Mr. Rice would take her orders. Eventually her proper and business-like manners paid off and the rest of the family began waiting on her as well. Of special note was Dixie’s habit of buying milk by the case to feed the stray cats and dogs around town.
Friendships among the girls on the row were important for several reasons. For one thing, establishing friendships lessened the chance of getting into fights. Also, it was rare to associate with people who were not in the profession. One exception was the unique relationship between a proper lady named Mindy Lamb and the notorious Mollie May of Leadville. One night in 1880, Mindy’s husband, Lewis, allegedly committed suicide in front of Winnie Purdy’s bordello. The only witness was a bully Lewis had known from childhood, former marshal Martin Duggan. Duggan had just attempted to run over Lewis with a sleigh he was delivering to Winnie, and it was widely suspected that Lewis had not committed suicide at all, but was actually shot to death by Duggan.
It was said Mindy swore revenge on Duggan, promising him: “I shall wear black and mourn this killing until the very day of your death and then, Goddam you, I will dance upon your grave.” A few days later, Mollie May stopped Mindy on the street. “You don’t know me,” she told Mindy, “but I wanted to tell you that what happened to a decent man like your husband was a dirty rotten shame and I’m really sorry for you.” The two women became friends, often having a chat right in front of Mollie’s place. Not surprisingly, Mindy’s family was unaware of the friendship until she insisted on attending Mollie’s funeral in 1887.
Women who made lasting friendships on the row felt lucky indeed. Laura Evens recalled fondly her friendship with Etta “Spuds” Murphy, whom Laura affectionately called Spuddy. The two apparently met in Leadville in 1895. Laura liked Etta’s business sense immediately. “Spuddy saved most of her [money]. Sewed $100 bills in her petticoat.”
Laura extended a rare protective tenderness towards Spuddy. Part of her benevolent feelings was sympathy. “She was putting her brother through medical college,” Laura later remembered, “and when she went back east to attend his commencement he refused to recognize her. Now, wasn’t that a rotten thing to do?” (21) Laura and Spuddy parted ways in about 1896. Laura went to Salida, while Spuddy departed for Pueblo. For Laura, there were many great memories of being in Leadville with Spuddy. She once recalled the night in 1896 she and Spuddy rented a sleigh drawn by a horse named Broken-Tail Charlie. After a cruise around Leadville, the women drove the sleigh right into the famous Leadville Ice Palace. “Broken-Tail Charlie got scared at the music and kicked the hell out of our sleigh and broke the shafts and ran away and kicked one of the 4 X 4′ ice pillars all to pieces and ruined the exhibits before he ran home to his stable.”
Another time Laura and Spuddy managed to rent two chariots from the Ringling Brothers Circus that was in town in exchange for an “elephant bucket” of beer. The ensuing race down Harris Avenue ended when Laura crashed her chariot into a telephone pole. One of Laura’s customers saved her from arrest. In fact, Laura’s male friends in Leadville were many. Once, during labor strikes as union men blocked entrance to a mine, Laura showed up under the guise of visiting a friend who had not been allowed to leave. She 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.
A third story of Laura’s escapades was recounted by the lady herself to Fred Mazzulla in 1945. In 1909 Laura escorted five of her girls and a musician to Central City for a party. “One evening, after a successful game of poker, one of the players, tho’t to revenge for his losses, to humiliate me by mentioning—how us poor unfortunates were ostracized from decent society (which at that was least of our thoughts) stated, ‘he would like to escort me to the lodge dance.’” Incensed, Laura bet the man $50 that she could attend the dance in a disguise so discreet that nobody would recognize her. The bet was on, and Laura showed up at the dance—dressed as a nun. Upon pretending to faint as a means of leaving the dance, Laura lost no time in collecting her money from her escort. “Imagine my friend’s surprise,” she wrote, “when even he did not recognize me in this costume as I had succeeded in going to a Ball that I was ordinarily ostracized from.”
Laura Evens’ clients often came to her rescue. 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. In Denver Jennie Rogers’ house was well-known as the place where local lawmakers retired at the end of their workday. Then as now, men gave virtually unlimited reasons for visiting houses of prostitution. In a day and age before such past times as watching sports, attending strip-tease joints and eating at franchises like Hooters, visiting a brothel was socially acceptable in most male circles. Single men who yearned for companionship were frequent customers, and more than a few of them probably shopped for wives. Married men, however, also were known to frequent brothels if only pursuing the cliche idea that they enjoyed cheating on their wives.
Husbands had other reasons for seeking intimacy elsewhere, largely due to their wives being disinterested or uncomfortable—both physically and emotionally—when it came to having sex. During the Victorian era, the personal toilet of a woman was a complicated one indeed. Daily dress, no matter the weather, involved yards of petticoats, slips, pinafores, pantaloons, stockings, bustles and corsets. All were skillfully hidden beneath dresses made of heavy material. In short, Victorian dress was downright uncomfortable. The wearing of tight corsets could cause severe shortness of breath—hence the term “fainting couch” given to lounges designed for one to fall back or lie upon. In some cases corsets could even cause internal injuries to the liver and kidneys. One store catalogue even advertised an instrument devised to push organs back where they belonged by inserting it into the vagina.
These were days when Premenstrual Syndrome, Menopause, lack of estrogen and other issues with the female anatomy were hardly recognized. To make matters worse, recreational sex was forbidden by society. Periodicals and books of the time warned against the evils of intercourse, frightening young girls into believing they would go mad or become depraved—just for having natural feelings. Sex was a forbidden subject, and many adolescents grew up without benefit of a talk about the birds and the bees. Proper girls were brought up believing sex was bad, the exception being to produce children.
Even if a woman felt up to having sex, lack of reliable contraception was an issue of major importance. Mothers who already had large broods certainly didn’t need another mouth to feed. The number of women who died during or after childbirth was alarming in the days before advanced medical practices. One had to be careful, but methods of birth control were limited. Douches of vinegar and water, or sponges inserted into the vagina after sex were thought to wash away or absorb semen (in fact, they probably helped push the semen into the womb). Other homemade contraceptives were fashioned with cocoa butter or Vaseline or diaphragms made from hollowed out lemon or orange peels or beeswax. Poorer women believed squatting over a pot of steaming water or other liquid after sex would help fumigate their internal organs. Some husbands refused to buy condoms, first made from animal membrane and later from synthetic rubber. Others refused to let their wives practice contraception at all. Thus many wives withheld from having sex altogether, leaving their husbands in frustration. (One 1908 advertisement by the Butcher Drug Company of Colorado Springs sold electric vibrators for “vibratory massage” for $25. The ad features a photograph of a young woman in a nightgown, holding the device, which leads one to believe that women were probably able to access other means of gratification.) It was an ailment common to everyone from the poorest to the richest.
With no Internet, only sporadic mail service and nary a telephone to be found, many businessmen were required to travel extensively and often. Their visits to brothels in the cities they visited were likely less discreet. But men were also known to visit bawdy houses in their own hometowns, where it was often more difficult to keep a secret. If their wives discovered these indiscretions, the recrimination could range from divorce to no reaction whatsoever. A woman with a husband who visited the occasional whorehouse was better than a woman with no husband at all—except that the fear of contracting venereal disease might put an end to marital sex once and for all.
Marshall Sprague relates the tale of a wife who seemingly ignored her husbands’ infidelity for a good portion of their marriage. One evening, as the couple dined at a Cripple Creek hotel during their golden years, the wife decided to put an end to her own questions about whether her husband had ever visited a house of ill repute. This was accomplished simply by having a note delivered which read, “How wonderful to see you, Jack dear! I am waiting in the bar! As always, Hazel V.” The “V” stood for Vernon, as in the same Hazel Vernon who had run the Old Homestead and caused many a wife concern. Sure enough, the husband took the bait. “The old fellow read the note, blushed, mumbled ‘My broker’s on the phone’ and scurried off,” wrote Sprague, “eyes alight and looking 30 years younger.”
Because many men who frequented sporting houses, saloons and gambling dens were upstanding citizens by day, newspapers often neglected to mention their names in articles about skirmishes and incidents. Witness a Boulder County Herald article from 1882, describing two men over-imbibed at a house of ill repute. “Accordingly Marshal Bounds and assistant Titus went to said house and arrested X and Y.” Reported the paper, with no other clue to the men’s identities. Another article by the same paper in 1884 identified another male violator only as “R”. Likewise, authorities did a fine job of losing paperwork, scribbling out names and disposing of mugshots, especially those of prominent or wealthy men. If the news was scandalous enough and the men were no more than common miners or from lower-class homes, the papers had no problem naming everyone involved.
Sheriffs and deputies were not exempt from having their names published, since in doing so the newspaper could point fingers and thus assist in cleaning up the city. In some towns, however, even well-known lawmen kept their own brothels. But the wealthy, politicians, and other important figures in society could usually count on the papers to keep their names out of it. Besides, newspapers and the general public usually found fault with the prostitutes involved, since it was at their dens of vice that the incidents usually took place.
It could not be said that prostitutes did not aid in keeping their customers’ identities unknown. Some houses of prostitution were so secretive about their prominent customers they gave them masks to wear. The masks were usually made of leather or cloth with cutout eye and mouth holes, and sometimes beards made from real hair. The faces were painted, complete with rosy cheeks and eyelashes. (26) Often, girls could service the same clients over and over again—without ever knowing their names. Even if the girls knew who their customers were, they were forbidden from seeing them, let alone acknowledging them, outside the red-light realm.
Although some women worked solely as dance hall girls, they were treated the same as prostitutes by decent society. Some resentment surely built up between prostitutes and their less sinful dance hall counterparts, many whom never sold their bodies for sex. Just the same, gals such as Tillie Fallon, a dance hall girl in Cripple Creek in 1912, were lumped in with the baddest of girls by authorities. In 1899, The Cripple Creek Citizen reported on a dance hall girl named Blanche Garland who committed suicide with chloroform at the Bon Ton Dance Hall. Although Blanche was not a prostitute, the newspaper spilled forth details about the girl’s life much like they would brazenly reveal the facts about a prostitute in order to humiliate her to her family and friends: Blanche was about 20 years old, had had trouble with her lover the previous evening, and has parents who lived in town. Blanche had formerly been married to William Garland, who had died in 1896 from wounds received in the Spanish-American War.
Naturally, most girls aspired to marry their favorite customer. Mattie Silks of Denver recalled that some of her girls had married their clients and that most of them were satisfied with the union. “They understood men and how to treat them and they were faithful to their husbands. Mostly the men they married were ranchers. I remained friends with them, and afterwards with their husbands, and I got reports. So I knew they were good wives.”
If she couldn’t marry a good man, the best a girl could hope for was to make friends with one or more of her customers. Cripple Creek dance hall girl Lizzie Beaudrie recalled an evening when everyone suddenly disappeared from the dance floor and she heard several gunshots outside. One of the gunmen walked into the hall and expressed some surprise at seeing Lizzie standing alone.
“Say, you, didn’t you hear me shoot?” he said.
“Yes sir, but you weren’t shooting at me, were you?” Lizzie replied.
“Well, why didn’t you run and hide like the rest of them?” the man asked.
“I wasn’t afraid. No, I guess not. So I couldn’t run.” Lizzie answered.
The man befriended Lizzie, commenting, “…you are the only girl who ever spoke a civil word to me.”
The woman who managed to actually secure a lasting relationship with a customer was one lucky girl indeed. More often than not however, women suffered in relationships with men who were alcoholic, addicted to drugs or violent. Many male partners were no more than pimps who saw the chance to make money at a woman’s expense. In 1889, Emma Moore was working for Ella Wellington in Denver. Emma was the wife of C.C. McDonald, who managed variety shows. When McDonald traveled to Montana, Emma fell ill and moved in with Abe Byers, who brought her back to health but began abusing her. Emma returned to work at Ella’s, but at one point the police were called because Byers threatened Emma’s life. On the 23rd of December in 1896, a black man named Clarence Williams was arrested in Poverty Gulch for fighting with his white mistress. Both were arrested and fined $5 each.
Domestic violence was shockingly commonplace in red-light districts throughout Colorado. Newspapers in Silverton were rife with stories of abuse by both women and men. In 1892 prostitute P. Jenny was under a doctor’s care after a skirmish with a miner. In 1897 a woman known as Flossy stabbed a man who had offended her. In 1900, a jealous customer named Ten Day Jack Turner shot a man who was courting his favorite prostitute. After the shooting, Turner went to the brothel of Lillie Reed and clubbed her on the head. Also in 1900 George Lynch was arrested for smashing a mirror over the head of prostitute Sydney Davis.
Lizzie “Liddy” Beaudrie recalled seeing a woman named Jewel who had been in Cripple Creek since the early 1890’s. One side of her face was stunningly beautiful; the other side was hideously scarred from face to neck from a knife fight with a jealous wife. Lizzie was shocked by the abusive treatment she witnessed, even though she herself was a victim. From approximately 1898 to 1904, Lizzie (nee Ellson) worked as a dance hall girl in Cripple Creek. Born in 1882, Lizzie had lived with her grandmother and uncle somewhere in the east since the age of 14. Both “were very kind to me, and I never in all my life had a cross word spoken to me, or a hand raised in anger.”
That all changed in 1896, when Lizzie met Louie Beaudrie, an amusement park employee who literally followed her home and began stalking her. Lizzie found his charms irresistible. “I fell madly in love with him and him with me.” she later wrote. Thus began Lizzie’s relationship with an abusive older man who, as it turned out, lived with his mother. The two never married, but Louie often introduced Lizzie as Mrs. Louie Beaudrie. He also tole her grandmother and uncle they were married.
At first Lizzie found him handsome, polite and a good singer. Then Lizzie lost her virginity to Louie and got pregnant. “[Louie] got medicine and made me take it and saw that I did, and soon I was alright,” she said of her first abortion. Lizzie was destined to have three more abortions and subsequent miscarriages. As time went on the relationship became more stormy, between Lizzie’s temper and Louie’s jealousy. Lizzie caught Louie cheating on her several times. Louie beat Lizzie when she returned from an innocent visit with her friend Myrtle. He also once shredded a dress she was wearing with a knife.
Eventually Louie went to Cripple Creek, sending for Lizzie sometime in 1898. The two took a room on Bennett Avenue, and Louie played piano in the saloons at night. Occasionally he took Lizzie out. Of Cripple Creek, Lizzie remembered, “There were a few stores, a bank, some restaurants, some drug stores and lots of saloons. The street was lit up and I liked it.” Soon Louie began taking Lizzie to dance halls, nestled in the heart of the red-light district. Lizzie described her first look at Myers Avenue in 1898: “We stood on the corner. I looked across the street. I saw a row of houses with women sitting in the windows. They had low neck and no sleeve dresses. A light shown above them and some were smoking cigarettes.”
Before she knew it Lizzie was employed at Crapper Jack’s, which she politely referred to in her memoirs as Cracker Jack’s. Her boss was Jack, and she quickly made friends with a co-worker named Rose. Lizzie gave all her money to Louie. The two lived and dressed well, and Louie gave Lizzie a ring made from an opal tie pin and a gold watch purchased in Cripple Creek. These brief expressions of love, however, continued to be interspersed with occasional beatings.
One night in 1902, Lizzie caught Louie with a blonde around his neck at his place of work. After a big row and Louie’s promises of love, Lizzie was sent back home for a visit. She returned in about 1903, just after her twenty-first birthday. Louie refused to let her go back to the dance halls, offering to move with her to Pueblo instead. Shortly after the move, Louie went to find work in California. Left behind in Pueblo, Lizzie eventually ran into a friend from Cripple Creek who informed her that in her absence Louie had married the blonde girl she’d caught him with.
Lizzie returned to Cripple Creek immediately and confronted the woman, Jenny Nelson Beaudrie, at the Beaudrie home. Lizzie remembered that Jenny looked frightened upon seeing her. Lizzie pressed her advantage by being rude, but left after ascertaining that Louie wasn’t there. When Lizzie found Louie and confronted him, he spurned her with cruel words and claimed he never loved her. Afterwards Lizzie began drinking heavily. Her friend Rose had to talk her out of turning to prostitution. In 1904, Lizzie married a former customer known as Soapy and moved to Creede, where she lived until her death in 1960 at the age of seventy-eight. In 1944, Lizzie wrote her memoirs of her days as a dance hall vixen. Soapy, to whom Lizzie was married for over forty years, likely had no idea of the manuscript his wife secretly penned. Soapy died in about 1951. As for Louie, he later returned to his hometown and died there.
Lizzie’s story was not uncommon. On the whole, society in general turned its back on such goings-on. Newspapers, with their sensationalistic journalism, just made things worse. The Cripple Creek Times, for instance, made light of the 1904 case of “Slim” Campbell, an anti-union miner in Cripple Creek, who “brutally murdered a woman of the half world” after his release from jail during the 1903-04 labor wars. “He was allowed to make his escape by the sheriff.” In 1910, the Pueblo Chieftain poked fun at Miss Pearl Stevens, a drunken prostitute who called for the Justice of the Peace to come “pinch” Pete Froney for her after the saloon owner beat her. Much to the public’s amusement, Pearl swore out a warrant for Froney’s arrest but canceled it two hours later.
Occasionally, however, even the newspapers sympathized with prostitutes, such as in the sad 1905 case of Silverton dance hall girl Mable Kelly who was beat and kicked nearly to death by pimp Frank Anderson. “He should be given the limit of the law,” declared the paper, adding that upon completing his sentence Anderson should be run out of Silverton and tarred and feathered if he returned.
The other extreme of such relationships resulted in many a heartbreak for prostitutes hoping to marry their customers. In 1876, the Boulder County News reported on Lena Rosa, an inmate at Sue Fee’s brothel. Lena became despondent after receiving a letter from her lover in Georgetown, casting her off. That night, even as another customer slept beside her, Lena rose and took an overdose of morphine. The newspaper commented that thirty-year old Lena had left behind a nine-year-old daughter who was living in St. Louis. Lena’s success at suicide was countered in 1882 by the saving of Frankie McDonald, an employee of madam Sue Brown. Frankie had also attempted suicide over a young man who refused to return her affections by taking morphine and laudanum. The act was repeated with Boulder prostitute Mamie Myers in 1889.
Not all girls allowed themselves to be victims. A resident of Central City recalled walking up forbidden Pine Street as a little girl and spying a scantily-dressed prostitute dangling a silver crucifix over the front rail of her porch. Below was a prominent male citizen of the town, on his knees, begging her to give it back to him. And in 1867 the Central City Tribune commented on Moll Green and Elmer Hines, who were on trial for a murder committed at Green’s house. Apparently the woman had just recently got out of jail for assaulting a man. Arrests for loud parties, lewd language and even vandalism were also the norm during this time.
Laura Evens put up with very little. Her brass checks supposedly read “Eat, Drink, Go to bed or Get out.” Once she knocked her paramour, a man named Arthur, through a window for dancing too much with another woman. Of the incident, Laura recalled that “…his head got stuck in the plate glass and like to cut his throat.” She also willingly admitted, “When Arthur and I got mad at each other we’d fight with knives, and I’ve got scars where he cut me up. I loved that man.” Laura Evens may just have been the exception to the rule when it came to defending herself against rough customers. Laura’s employee LaVerne recalled there was never a male bouncer at Laura’s place, but if a customer got too rough as many as eight girls could offer assistance in subduing him. For this reason, Laura’s girls never locked the doors to their rooms when they had a client.
Others took measures to defend not only themselves but also their own. Two harlots from Lake City serve as an example. One day Jessie Landers from Clara Ogden’s Crystal Palace on notorious Bluff Street took a shot at a man who was forcing his attentions on her. The shot missed, hitting the girl’s fiancé instead. Other sources say the fiancé was talking to a pimp and that Jessie shot him on purpose. Either way, Jessie was tried and convicted of murder. During her four-year sentence, she contracted tuberculosis. Upon her release she returned to Lake City. Clara Ogden had long departed, but Jessie lived out her short life in Lake City. On her deathbed, the girl asked Reverend M.B. Milne of the Baptist Church to conduct services for her. He agreed. Shortly afterwards the girl died, and her body was prepared for the funeral. At the church, however, one of the trustees refused to open the doors and admit the funeral party. The services were held elsewhere, with Reverend Milne keeping his promise and even accompanying the party to the cemetery. Later, the church trustee who had refused admittance was followed and horsewhipped by two women from Bluff Street. There were several witnesses, but none would testify as to what happened.
If a girl could not rely on friends within her job position, she sometimes could rely on family. A surprising number of women entered into the profession via their mother, an aunt or perhaps a sister. Birdie and Mae Fields were sisters who practiced prostitution in Colorado City in 1896. Likewise, when twenty-two-year old Jewel Lavin arrived from Denver to work in Cripple Creek in September of 1911, she was accompanied by a twenty-year-old sister named Myrtle. Both girls left town on January 2, 1912 but returned within a few days of each other in February. In September the sisters departed again for Denver. Only Myrtle returned later that month and resumed working in Cripple Creek.
The family of a prostitute included children born to her while she was in the profession. Most women dreaded the idea of hindering their work with a pregnancy, and steps were taken to avoid such an inconvenience. According to Laura Evens’s employee LaVerne, men sometimes brought rubbers with them or they were provided by the girls, who insisted on using them. Douching was probably the most common form of birth control, concocted from solutions like bicarbonate of soda, borax, bichloride of mercury, potassium biartate, alum or vinegar. Another popular method was a contraceptive made from cocoa butter with glycerin, boric acid and tannic acid.
When these methods failed, pregnancy was dealt with on a case-to-case basis. Many women had their babies, but abortions could be induced with dangerous substances such as ergot, prussic acid, iodine, strychnine, saffron, cotton rust, or oil of tansy. Unpleasant ande even as perilous as it was, abortion was an attractive alternative to bearing a child for many. In March of 1895 in Cripple Creek, Mrs. Lucinda E. Guyer was on trial for causing the abortion-related death of Myrtle Coombs. A resident of Cripple Creek since at least 1893, sixty-year old Mrs. Guyer allegedly worked as a laundress and was located within a few blocks of the red-light district. Mrs. Guyer’s attorney, a Mr. Goudy, pleaded insanity, but Lucinda was sentenced to one year in the Colorado State Penitentiary. Upon her release, Lucinda returned to Cripple Creek.
Children in brothels were more common in the lower-class houses. When Boulder madam Sue Fee died from her drug habits in 1877, she left behind a son guessed to be about four or five years old. The Denver census for 1880 lists three women, Ella Cree, Hellen McElhany and Miss Doebler as having a collective six children between them. Likewise, four-year-old Elizabeth Franklin was living with her mother, Mary Franklin, in 1900 at Colorado City. Little Elizabeth, whose sibling had died, lived in her mother’s workplace, Anna Boyd’s bordello, at 625 Washington. In Trinidad, Margarita Carillo had a three-year-old Italian boy living at her brothel. The census notes the boys’ parents were deceased.
Being raised in a brothel was not the easiest childhood to bear. The children often had little contact with the outside world, relying on the confines of the brothel for entertainment, education, care and feeding. Because so many prostitutes were illiterate, their children tended to be illiterate as well, since sending them to public schools was often out of the question. Brothel children were more likely to be the subject of teasing or bullying, and some schools refused outright to admit them at all. Their unstable home lives, as well as their tendency to relocate along with their mothers, made for poor attendance. Also, many prostitute mothers lacked the knowledge or inclination to send their children to school, or were afraid of retribution from school authorities—such as having their children taken from them—if they did.
Without an education or chances for advancement outside of the bordellos they were raised in, most children faced dim futures with limited career opportunities—unless they learned the brothel or bar room trade. Daughters of prostitutes were sometimes, but not always, trained to follow in their mother’s footsteps. Mrs. Annie Ryan is one of many who began a family operation in Cripple Creek with her three daughters before moving to Denver. Such actions were generally highly frowned upon by authorities and society, especially in situations involving pre-teenage girls. In 1876, the Daily Rocky Mountain News reported on Mary “Adobe Moll” Gallagan. A raid at Mary’s Denver house revealed an eleven-year-old and a thirteen-year-old who were “employed” as prostitutes. The latter was a little black girl who had lost both arms and a leg in an accident. Just a year later, the newspaper reported that a Mrs. Whatley had a fifteen-year-old daughter who had been a prostitute for three years. She also employed a twelve-year-old who told authorities she had been with men at Whatley’s.
Rescuing these poor children was often the goal of crusades led by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and even police officers themselves. In 1880 the Pueblo Chieftain told the account of a sixteen-year-old Alamosa girl rescued from the brothel of Nellie Moon. The girl was talked out of continuing her budding profession by South Pueblo Deputy Sheriff Patrick J. Desmond.
At times, the horror of placing their children in such dangers scared some prostitutes straight. On October 6, 1898, the Cripple Creek Morning Times reported on Robert Penton, who was found guilty in Colorado Springs of the murder of Dan Mills at Mills’ saloon in the Cripple Creek District town of Goldfield. Penton had apparently confessed to Nell Taylor, whose husband, Bob, had held up the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad back in 1895. It was Nell, a sometime prostitute, who had turned her husband in and guaranteed his conviction. A second man indicted along with Penton, Moore, was convicted of raping Nell’s daughter earlier in the year. Presumably, Nell was trying to make a clean start for herself.
Besides sexual assault, children and teenagers were also subjected to the drug and alcohol use that was present in every bordello and parlor house. Depression ran high among the girls, many of whom became addicted to such vices to escape their problems. Many standard medicines contained potentially lethal doses of such drugs as laudanum, morphine, cocaine, opium or alcohol. Wyeth’s New Enterius Pills, Feeley’s Rheumatic Mixture and Godfrey’s Cordial all contained morphine. Laudanum, a liquid form of opium, was applied to sprains and bruises or consumed straight from the bottle. Combinations of morphine and cocaine relieved colds. Visiting opium dens in the back of Chinese laundries or brothels was also a popular pastime.
Another deviant behavior was constant exposure to, or participation in, crime. During her career, a prostitute was likely to be arrested not only for violating ordinances against prostitution, but also for fighting, stealing, public drunkenness, or even murder. Fighting was very common among prostitutes. The Pueblo Chieftain in August of 1872 reported: “Yesterday a couple of abandoned women at the Hotel de Omaha had a misunderstanding that culminated into a regular street fight. They rolled and tumbled in the mud, pulled hair, fought, bit, gouged and pommeled [sic] each other and filled the air with blood curdling oaths. None of the police officers were on hand to interfere. It was a disgraceful spectacle and a strong illustration of the morals on the banks of the Arkansas.” In 1880 the Boulder News and Courier commented on a scuffle at Mrs. Brown’s in lower Boulder that “resulted in the complete demolition of one of the ladies, whose head came in contact with an empty beer bottle.” And in 1899 the Cripple Creek Citizen told of Julia Belmont who “carved up” Maggie Walsh at the Bon Ton Dance Hall. “The surgeons took several hours to sew up the gashes in the face.” Julia, a fellow dance hall girl, was spurred to violence when she saw Maggie dancing with a favorite customer. The same thing happened in Denver that year, when Minnie Gardner stabbed Nellie Thomas. Minnie had spied Nellie with her husband, Ed, and followed the couple to an opium den.
Newspapers enjoyed capitalizing on such scenes. In 1886 the Silverton Standard made the most out of a fight involving Dutch Lena and Irish Nell, who duked it out and were subsequently arrested. In June, both Lena and Nell teamed up with Minnie “the Baby Jumbo” to beat up another girl known as Oregon Short Line. Lizzie Beaudrie also experienced violence in the dance halls. One night she had a fight with an employee named Grace, who came after her with a knife. Grace ended up with two black eyes, cuts on her mouth and several bruises. Prostitutes were certainly were not beyond killing. Denver newspapers were rife with similar incidents.
Most clients had to worry about stealing more than violence at the hands of prostitutes. Some girls learned to bite diamond lapel pins, buttons and other small gems from their customer’s jackets and shirts. Some brothels became known as “panel houses”, wherein a woman would lead her victim into a room. Suddenly a man would pop out of a hidden panel, pass himself off as an enraged husband, and extort money from the surprised stranger before escorting him unceremoniously from the premises. Or, that same panel might be used to sneak into the room and steal the victim’s money while he slept or was otherwise engaged. Sometimes there was merely a sliding panel in the back of a closet. “Panel workers” would then remove the man’s wallet and take just enough money from it not to be noticed before putting it back. “Creepers” accomplished the same thing by sliding stealthily across the floor to the man’s clothes while the girl kept him busy. “Hook Artists” used a rod and hook to lift the clothes into reach.
Prostitutes could also often be coerced to steal by their gentlemen friends or pimps. In 1885 Maggie Moss, a seventeen-year-old Denver prostitute, assisted her partner of three years to rob a bank. If they knew they might receive a beating for not making enough money, some girls were not beyond stealing to satisfy their pimps. At other times the girls raided each other’s trunks or even collaborated on a crime together. In 1891, Denver prostitutes Blanche Morgan, Ardell Smith, Mattie Fisher and Mollie White were arrested for successfully conspiring to kill William Joos with an overdose of morphine so they could rob him of $55.
Some crimes committed by prostitutes were no more than acts of vengeance. Men who were identified as spreading venereal disease were singled out, if they could be found. Catching such debilitating maladies was one of the worst fates a working girl could suffer. Over-the-counter remedies such as Naples Soap, The Boss, Armenian Pills, Big, Bumstead’s Gleet Cure, Hot Springs Prescription, LaFayette Mixture, Red Drops and Unfortunate’s Friend seldom offered successful results. Mercury was used to cure syphilis, but could just as easily prove fatal.
Laura Evens showed her employees how to check their clients for venereal disease before having sex. The procedure basically consisted of pinching the base of the penis with thumb and forefinger and squeezing while sliding one’s hand to the top. If a telltale gray mucus came out, it could be assumed the client was infected. One customer recalled how a girl approached him and “…seized my genital organ in one hand, wringing it in such a way as to determine whether or not I had gonorrhea. She did this particular operation with more knowledge and skill than she did anything else before or after.”
The girls took further precautions by washing their customers with soap and water. If a man had venereal disease the girls had to refuse him. After each transaction the girls washed first the men and then themselves, a practice that seems to have been common in most houses. In those days venereal disease was taken fairly lightly by the general public, probably because it was so rampant. Some men were even known to joke or brag about having “the clap” and spread rumors about where they got it and from whom. To the prostitute, however, venereal disease was serious business.
The public health care system was terribly primitive by today’s standards, but a few cities in Colorado took steps to improve the situations of sick prostitutes. In 1881 the Ladies’s Benevolent Union opened Pueblo’s first hospital for the homeless. Part of the care included helping prostitutes to reform. Nellie Brown was one success story in 1890, although shortly after her reformation she died at the tender age of fourteen of unknown causes. In Cripple Creek, Frankie Williams and Edna Lewis are both noted in the city police register as spending some time at Mrs. Mattie Bidwell’s Rooms at 243 East Myers in January of 1912. In April, Edna was noted as “back on row.” As for Frankie, the girl worked briefly at the Old Homestead and at 435 Myers Avenue but died on June 1. Mrs. Bidwell’s may have actually been a recovery house. Many ill prostitutes also ended up at St. Nicholas Hospital, cared for by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy.
Sadly, a large number of prostitutes succumbed to their reckless lifestyles and poor care. In January of 1896, nineteen-year old Ruth Davenport constituted the saddest of cases in Cripple Creek. Newspapers reported how the girl lay dying above Mernie’s Dance Hall, deathly ill with pneumonia. Below it was business as usual with music and dancing to the “Monterey”. When Ruth died later that evening, the dance hall closed for the evening and the revelers went elsewhere. The newspaper reported that Ruth had come from Central City the previous October. It was also said she came from a good home in Denver, but was driven away on account of her wild ways. Beyond that, no other information was given.
In 1899, one of Silverton madam Molly Foley’s girls, May Rikard, died after a night of combining alcohol and morphine. Girls of the row solicited donations for her burial. Less is known about the deaths of girls like Goldie Bauschell, who was twenty-nine-years old when she came to Cripple Creek from California. Several aspects about Goldie pointed to the hard life she had led: she weighed in at 205 pounds, had small pox scars on her face and a bullet scar near the front of her head. Goldie died on August 14, 1911. The cause of her death and place of her burial are unknown.
Suicide also ended many a life. Many girls favored drinking carbolic acid, which produced a quick but agonizingly painful death. When Cora Davis attempted suicide in Boulder in 1881, she used strychnine. The tragic picture of a soiled dove committing suicide was less than glamorous. Police reporter Forbes Parkhill recalled accompanying a policeman to Mattie Silks’ place on New Year’s night in 1913. Mattie silently led the men upstairs to the room of a girl named Stella, who was writhing and sobbing in agony on her bed after taking a dose of poison. The girl wore only a pair of silk stockings, despite the fact it was twenty-one degrees below zero outside. As the men carried Stella downstairs, she threw up on Parkhill and ruined his suit. There was no ambulance available; the men loaded her into the police car and delivered her to the county hospital, where she died the next day.
And there were other methods. Goldie was a resident of the Crystal Palace in Colorado City. In May of 1891 she attempted suicide by jumping from a second-story window. She was seriously injured but survived the fall, and whether she attempted to take her life again is unknown. In March of 1892 two of Mattie Silks’ girls, Effie Pryor and Allie Ellis, were found lying nude together after a double suicide attempt via morphine. Effie was saved but Allie died. Another alternative was taking pills, such as in the 1913 case of Nora McCord at Salida. On her deathbed, Nora declined to give her real name or that of her relatives.
For as much as they aspired to do themselves in, prostitutes were often quick to help others in need. The tragic and well-known story of Silver Heels, the Colorado dance hall girl whose aid to miners during a smallpox epidemic resulted in the scarring of her own beautiful face, is a case in point. So many yarns have been spun about the story of Silver Heels that the truth seems lost to history. Similar stories have been found in other parts of the United States. Most recently, author Tara Meixsell romanticized Silver Heels’ story in a fictionalized novel of the same name. In Colorado only Mt. Silver Heels, located north of Fairplay, as well as a namesake creek and even a mine with its short-lived camp, attest to her ever existing at all.
According to most stories about Silver Heels, she was a beautiful dance hall or parlor house girl who hauled her petticoats into the Fairplay Mining District sometime between 1861 and 1870. Various writers have placed her at the district towns of Alma, Fairplay, Dudley or, more often, Buckskin Joe. There, she appeared at Bill Buck’s saloon or “stepped daintily from the stagecoach which brought her to the mountains.” According to Kay Reynolds Blair, a manuscript by Albert B. Sanford in the Colorado Historical Society identifies Tom Lee as the man who tried to set the record straight about Silver Heels. According to Lee the stage may have come from Denver, and upon disembarking the lone young woman seemed “lost and confused.”
So, who was she? A 1963 Denver Post article theorized that her real name was Gerda Bechtel, and that she hailed from Letitz, Pennsylvania but changed her name to Gerda Silber. The writer, Robert W. “Red” Fenwick, also asserted that the name Silber was really the girls’ pseudo-surname, bastardized to make her colorful nickname. In Blair’s version by Sanford, Silver Heels next was taken under the wing of a local saloon and gambling hall owner, Jack Herndon. Upon being escorted to the best house in town, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Mack, Silver Heels fainted. While being cared for by Mrs. Mack, Silver Heels revealed her life story which Mrs. Mack never told to another soul. Mrs. Mack’s discretion endeared her to Silver Heels and they became good friends. Before long, according to Blair, Herndon found out her true name was Josie Dillon.
Whoever she was, Silver Heels was said to be beautiful beyond comparison. Many a miner fell madly in love with the beauty, and it was said that some would walk for miles just to look at her. One or more of her paramours allegedly bestowed the gift of silver-heeled dancing shoes upon her, thus her colorful pseudonym. Indeed, Silver Heels in her beautiful shoes “could dance faster and more gracefully than anyone.” She also soon became a favorite of the town children, and in the version that has her living with the Macks she would often order candy from Denver and entertain the children in the afternoons. Furthermore, Silver Heels was an “angel of mercy”, according to a miner named Henry Maher who was interviewed in 1938 at the age of eighty-five. Not only did she nurse the sick, but she was also willing to grubstake miners. To top it off she had a good nature and was always nice to folks.
In the story by Blair, it wasn’t long before Silver Heels was engaged to one of the local miners, possibly Jack Herndon. Jack and Silver Heels and the Macks all pitched in heroically to raise money, food and clothing for victims of the Chicago Fire of 1871. In the end Silver Heels was the star at a benefit to raise money, her music and dance studies serving her well. On her feet were her signature slippers, which in this version were not a gift of the mining men. The benefit raised $1,750, more than the other nearby camps had raised altogether.
Of course, most versions of Silver Heels’ tale have her most famous heroics taking place during a smallpox epidemic. Silver Heels stepped forward to help those with the virus when others wouldn’t. Many people fled in terror, and even a telegram to Denver yielded only two or three additional nurses. Silver Heels made a makeshift hospital out of the dance hall formerly owned by her lover, and by some miracle apparently arranged to pay everyone’s doctor bills herself.
During this time, according to Blair’s first version, Silver Heels’ fiancé was one of the first to die. Interestingly, Sanford’s version claims Josie did not contract smallpox. She and Jack left for Denver, married and returned to Buckskin Joe. There they were given a huge reception, built a new home, and a baby named Marion Lee Herndon. When Jack’s father died in Kentucky about a year later, the couple gave their land to Tom Lee and departed forever. A survey group that visited the area sometime afterward were told to name the mountain nearby Silver Heels after their heroine.
Blair’s version by Sanford is probably the least known of the Silver Heels legends, even though it seems most sensible. But sensible can be boring, and every other tale about her has her catching the dreaded smallpox. The good citizens of Buckskin Joe nursed her back to health and though she survived, she was pockmarked for life. What happened next is anybody’s guess, based on the various sources of this story. In one version, Silver Heels was forced to continue working alongside women like Jeannette Arcon in the dance halls of Buckskin Joe, Alma, Fairplay, Park City and the nearby town of Montgomery, wearing a heavy veil to disguise her scars. Fenwick wrote that after a time she announced she was moving to Denver to marry “an old friend.” In Denver she resided for a time at a hotel before disappearing forever.
In another version, Silver Heels was so ashamed of her newfound ugliness she either left town or became a recluse. In some versions, her disappearance was discovered after a group of miners solicited $5,000 as her reward for aiding the sick and found her cabin empty when they went to give it to her. According to Max Evans, a heartbroken admirer painted her face on a barroom floor somewhere in town. Other writers have ended this tale with the most romantic part: years after Silver Heels left town, a woman wearing a heavy veil over her face was seen walking through the cemetery in Alma. In some versions she is dressed in fine clothes. In other versions she is weeping and escapes before anyone can get close enough to identify her.
A few authors have even speculated that Silver Heels was none other than Silver Heels Jessie of Salida. When smallpox hit the town, Madam Laura Evens ordered a local physician to issue nurses uniforms to her girls so they could aid the sick. Jessie, who was in Laura’s employ, was given the duty of nursing a minister’s wife. The minister was so grateful he offered Jessie a job as housekeeper and companion to his wife. The girl modestly declined, saying “Now that my job is done, I’ll be on my way back to Miss Laura’s on Front Street.” The minister, who had no idea the young nurse was a prostitute, was shocked. Eventually Silver Heels Jessie married one Earl Keller and moved to Gunnison. Though she died in Gunnison in 1954, Jessie’s wish to be buried in Salida was granted. The city showed its lack of prejudice against prostitutes by allowing Jessie to be buried in the city cemetery.
Despite all the mixed-up versions of Silver Heels’ story, the girl ultimately epitomized the harlot with the heart of gold. Only a handful of prostitutes, however, ever really received thanks for their good deeds. Maggie Hartman of Lake City was one such woman. When a miner came down with pneumonia at the nearby mining town of Sherman, it was Maggie who offered to go nurse the snowbound man. After a week in the cold and desolate cabin, Maggie also became ill. Rescuers got her as far as George Boyd’s cabin before another storm came up. Ultimately one of the good women of the town, Mrs. Mary Franklin, had Maggie brought to her home but she died anyway. Reverend George Darley of the Presbyterian Church not only spoke over Maggie’s services; he also visited her former house of employment and shook hands with each of the girls.
And there were others. In 1891 the Silverton Standard chastised the general public for its lack of compassion. It seemed a young woman named Mrs. Gallagher was suffering hardships after the birth of her third child, with no help or support from her husband. In the end only the ladies of the row came to her aid, providing food and assistance. Another time, a former resident of Montezuma reappeared in town after going through some hard times. The town threw a benefit for her, only to witness her entering a saloon with a disreputable character before making her way to the red-light district. A local stage driver was instructed to immediately escort the girl out of town to the train depot at nearby Dillon.
During the 1918 flu epidemic many prostitutes worked as nurses, and during the depression in the 1930’s they were known to leave food at the back doors of respectable homes without thanks or credit. Dixie, the Montezuma madam, joined her girls to care for the town’s single men during the 1918 flu epidemic. In later years, Dixie also took food to prospectors who were growing old as Montezuma’s mines played out. And in Breckenridge, a retiring madam agreed to sell her house to a large family with several children. The husband succumbed to flu before the transaction was completed, leaving the widow destitute. After the funeral, the madam quietly surrendered the deed without expecting a penny, with no one ever the wiser to her benevolent act. In another version of this tale, the heroine harlot was Minnie Colwell, a popular madam along the road to the Wellington Mine. It was said Minnie used her savings to buy a house for a family with five or six children that was destitute after a fire. That Minnie was publicly thanked for her good deed is doubtful. No matter the good deeds its practitioners performed, prostitution was a thankless profession.