Category Archives: Denver Colorado

I Knew You Were Coming! A Psychic in old Prescott, Arizona

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Frontier Gazette.

The psychics and seers which swept the nation during the 1890’s were not lost on Prescott. Ouija boards and crystal balls were all the rage, making for colorful tea parties and other soirees. Thus Prescott saw more than its fair share of clairvoyants in town. One such person, Mrs. Weils-Bedell of Denver, set up shop for about a week right next to Brinkmeyer’s Hotel in 1896.

But Mrs. Weils-Bedell had nothing on the great hypnotist, psychic and mind reader Dr. Alexander J. McIvor-Tyndall. Born in England, Tyndall had immigrated to America by 1893. The earliest articles about his psychic “gifts” place him in St. Louis, Missouri where he not only hypnotized at least one fellow, but also played out his most magnificent talent: driving a carriage, blindfolded, while reading the thoughts of whomever sat next to him to figure out where he needed to go.

News writer Theodore Dreiser later recalled how Tyndall requested several men to accompany him on the ride. “And, amusingly enough, I was ordered to get up the committee,” said Dreiser, “and sit on the seat and do the thinking while he, blindfolded, raced in and out between cars and wagons, turning sharp corners, escaping huge trucks by a hair only, as my thoughts directed him. When written up as true, which it was, it made a very good story indeed.”

At an 1899 appearance in Ouray, Colorado, it was announced that Dr. T’s fees were “not less than $5 in any city in the world. For the next few days, however, he will give his full $5 reading at a special rate of $2.50, and a short reading at $1.00. Those who cannot afford these fees will please not call, as McIvor-Tyndall’s time is limited. He is a busy man.”

Prescottonians surely had their money in hand when Tyndall arrived in town on New Year’s Eve in 1901. The Arizona Weekly Journal Miner called him “the celebrated exponent of the occult”, who “enjoys the distinction of being the most famous scientist along psychic lines of the present day, and his demonstrations are unique, mystifying and highly entertaining.” The good doctor stuck around for over a month, ending his visit with the famed blindfolded carriage ride.

Notably, the Journal Miner recalled a time in the not-too-distant past when the same carriage ride was attempted by Tyndall in San Francisco. After riding around for several hours unsuccessfully, the psychic had become “unconscious and remained in a trance for seven days”. Another time, in Seattle, businessman Herman Miller bet $1,000 that Tyndall could not open his safe by gleaning the combination by reading Miller’s mind. The feat was carried out successfully, but a passing police officer saw the men in the dim light of Miller’s office, believed them to be thieves, and arrested them as “safecrackers.”

The incidents in San Francisco and Seattle didn’t seem to bother the good people of Prescott. They wanted to see the blindfolded carriage ride, and they got it. In this instance, “a committee of prominent citizens” were to hide an item somewhere in the city. Tyndall would then drive around town, blindfolded, and find it. Whether Tyndall’s ride was successful was never reported, but the celebrated carriage ride performance eventually faded in favor of his giving lectures and writing books—as well as a titillating love triangle.

Around the same time he was in Prescott, Tyndall found a new love in his life, just as was predicted by a London psychic many years before. She was an actress named Laura Hughes, who eventually moved in with Tyndall as well as his wife, Margaret. Most surprisingly, Margaret didn’t mind. “Is there any chance for me to fight against fate?” she explained. “It is the cosmic law, the cosmic urge.”

Even after Laura became pregnant and married Tyndall in 1917, Margaret continued living with the newlyweds in Illinois where they were “celebrating, eating ice cream in a world peopled by nomads and tadpoles and Philistines, blissful in their own company and scornful of carping jeerers. It is a strangely contented triangle.”

Predictably, Margaret eventually disappeared from the picture as Tyndall continued his tours and writing under various names. The new Mrs. Tyndall and her husband became pastors of various spiritual churches in New York. By 1940 the couple had returned to California. When he died there in 1940, Tyndall was remembered as “one of the most astounding workers ever to appear on the platform” across America.

Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Chapter 3

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

The following chapter is excerpted from Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930, which can be ordered at https://www.unmpress.com/search?keywords=MacKell. 

Chapter Three: In the Beginning There Was Denver

The miner came in ‘59

The prostitute in ‘61

And between the two,

They made the native son!

—old western proverb

The miners in the 1859 Pikes Peak or Bust gold rush arrived in the new West primarily alone, without female companionship. Many had left their families behind, hoping to bring them out later once gold was found and riches were secured. For many a man, Denver, and its surrounding country was a desolate, lonely place. Pioneer Albert Richardson remembered how he and his comrades sorely missed the presence of a lady in their midst. “We were all in the habit of running to our cabin doors in Denver on the arrival of the ladies,” he said, “to gaze upon her as earnestly as at any other natural curiosity.”

In 1860 the ratio of men to women in Colorado was sixteen to one. In California Gulch near Leadville alone, there were two-thousand males and only thirty-six females. South Park boasted an amazing 10,519 men to ninety-one women! Most members of the gentler sex were well admired, respected and obeyed. In their absence the men, desperate for companionship, held dances anyway and designated “female” dance partners by tying ribbons or handkerchiefs on their arms. If by some miracle a woman did attend a dance or other social gathering, she could rely on being treated with the utmost kindness despite wearing out her dance slippers with dozens of partners. Married men were fully expected to permit their wives to attend such social gatherings rather than keeping them at home. To keep other men from feasting their eyes upon the rare and coveted female was considered downright rude.

The prostitutes of the early West were making themselves known, however. Following the gold booms of the West could prove especially successful for the gal who knew how to move quickly and ply her trade. Denver’s very first “white” prostitute was said to be Ada LaMont, a nineteen-year-old beauty who married a young minister and came West with him in about 1858. Lo and behold, midway through the trip the minister disappeared, along with a young lady of questionable character. Ada arrived in Denver alone—but with a whole new outlook on her situation. “As of tomorrow,” she said, “I start the first brothel in this settlement. In the future my name will be Addie LaMont.”

More women of vice were quick to follow. A leader of the demi-monde in 1861 and 1862 was Lizzie Greer, a successful beauty who had many admirers, an expensive wardrobe and plenty of diamonds. In general, however, Denver newspapers and authorities do not appear to have paid much attention to the illegal vice of prostitution in the early days. Their complacent actions were balanced by those in Central City, located due west high in the mining country. Central City was the site of the first real gold boom in Colorado in 1859. Surprisingly, however, the prostitution industry found it hard to flourish there at first. In 1860 a brothel in nearby Nevadaville was cleaned out by irate citizens. Six years later, another den of sin in Central City suffered the same fate.

Indeed, ousted ladies from other parts of Colorado found little shelter in Central City. An 1864 news article in the Miners Register complained heavily of a Madam Wright, who had been operating for some time on respectable Eureka Street directly below the Methodist Church. The wicked woman had recently been arrested for larceny. Most interestingly, however, the Register did concede that it was possible to permit prostitutes to operate in any given city. “Perhaps such creatures should be permitted to live in a community,” admitted the writer, “but they certainly ought to be severely treated for their offenses against morality and law, and compelled to remove to some remote locality where their presence will not be so annoying.” With time, Central City at last fell victim to the same vices as every other mining town in the state, even as newspapers and city authorities threatened to close them down as early as 1868. The proper folks in town were always quick to voice their disapproval of the red-light district and even banned those who patronized brothels or dance halls from other social events. One of these was Pat Casey, a miner who eventually struck it rich. In his wealth, Casey retaliated against the puritans of Central City by loading up his favorite fancy girls each Sunday and driving them past the churches just as services were letting out.

When journalist James Thomson visited Central City in November of 1872, he described in his diary a Saturday night outing: “The prostitutes’ ball at —. Four fellows in four-bedded attic, three with girls at one time. The prize for the best dancer. Girl who had got it four times, refused it 5th. Went and undressed save stockings and garters. Danced wonderfully for five minutes, music playing, hall crowded. Then ‘Here’s the leg that can dance, and here’s the arse that can back it up!’ Redressed and danced with the others till daylight.” After unsuccessfully trying to establish themselves in town, Central City’s naughty girls migrated to Gunnell Hill above town instead.  For years, Central City’s red-light district enjoyed its lofty position while looking down on the city from the end of Pine Street, just a few blocks from the Catholic church. There the girls were free to service miners from both the Galena Mine and the Coeur d’Alene Mine above them. Downtown, places like the Shoo Fly Dance Hall still prospered.

The best remembered of Central City’s shady ladies is Madam Lou Bunch, a three-hundred-pound delight whose presence in town surely could not be missed. But there were others. May Martin was one girl who practiced in Central City. Others included Della or Lizzie Warwick, Mae Temple, the “elegant courtesan” Ruby Lee and Ada Branch, known alternately as the Big Swede. Ada’s house and wardrobe were among the fanciest in town, and Pine Street was alternately known as Big Swede Avenue in 1880. Cora Fish was one of Ada’s employees. Other girls of Central are all but forgotten, with hardly a name to remember them by. A warehouse near downtown, however, is said to still bear graffiti from higher times: “Myrtle crib #13—wow. Sweetheart.”

One of the earliest comments on prostitution first appeared in Denver papers in 1874. An article reported on a local tavern called The Cricket, which was “ablaze last night with festivities. There was a dance from 1 a.m. to sunrise with liquor pouring freely throughout the night.” Prostitutes present at the gathering included Belle Deering, Sadie Bent, Eva Hamilton, Elva Seymour, Kittie Wells, Laura Winnie, Gertie and Cora, Jennie Logan, Emma Marsh, Dutch Nellie, Mormon Ann, Frankie and Annie.

Just two years later, the first truly notorious madam of Denver arrived. Her name was Mattie Silks, and her appearance was so renowned that at least one folk song immediately surfaced about the illustrious prostitute and some of her more famous cohorts:

Mattie Silks and Fanny Ford

Drank theirs from a gourd,

Poker Alice she smoked a cherout;

Lily Langtree, they say,

Had been led astray

By the juice of forbidden fruit 

Mattie was just twenty-nine years old when she arrived in Denver. Born in New York or possibly Indiana, she began her first brothel in Springfield, Illinois in about 1865 at the age of nineteen. Next, Mattie attempted to run a brothel in Olathe, Kansas, but was run out of town. Wisely, she decided to spend her winters working in Kansas City while working the cattle town circuit during the summer months. It was also said Mattie worked as a freighter between Missouri and Colorado before opening up for business in Dodge City, Abilene and Hays City, Kansas. A sign on her parlor house there read, “Men taken in and done for.” After hiring four girls in Kansas, Mattie headed for Colorado and traveled by stagecoach and freighter wagon around the Pikes Peak region, visiting a number of mining camps. Her vehicles contained a “portable boarding house for young ladies”, which was actually no more than a canvas tent attached to a wagon. The bordello did, however, include a canvas bathtub.

By 1873 Mattie was in Georgetown where she operated one of five brothels on Brownell Street. While there, she married Casey or George Silks, a faro dealer from Pueblo. The couple may have had a child together. The two eventually separated, perhaps because Mattie’s lover, a fireman named Cortez D. Thomson, was also living in Mattie’s brothel. When Mattie arrived in Denver in 1877 Cort was still with her, having left behind his wife and daughter in Georgetown. It must have been love, for Mattie was willing to put up with Cort’s drinking and gambling habits. She often gave him money, and it was said that despite two terrible beatings Cort gave Mattie, she loved him too much to leave him. Mattie Silks was certainly not the angel she aspired to be, however. The March 28, 1877 issue of the Rocky Mountain News reported Mattie was fined $12 for drunkenness, which she paid. In August, it was said that Mattie challenged madam Katie Fulton to a duel over Cort. Folklore claims that when the women took their shots, they both missed—save for a bullet that went astray and struck Cort in the neck. He lived, and even pledged to be faithful to Mattie.

The Rocky Mountain News reported a different story: Katie and Mattie had an argument after a footrace in which Cort was victorious and for which Mattie won $2,000. During the argument, Cort punched Katie in the face and knocked her down. Katie’s friend Sam Thatcher was knocked down as well. Then Katie was knocked down again and kicked in the face, which broke her nose. After the fight broke up, Cort took off towards town in his buggy. A carriage soon pulled up beside him and a shot from said carriage hit him in the neck. Katie left town for awhile, but in September returned to Denver, where she had another fight with Mattie. This time, Mattie punched Katie, knocking her down and injuring her nose again.

No doubt Mattie was a feisty little vixen, but it was certainly no trouble for her to set up shop. She was described as blonde with blue eyes, clear skin and a striking resemblance to actress Lily Langtree. Besides her good looks, Mattie quickly gained a good reputation for excellent service and pretty, honest, high-class girls. Under her regime, the girls paid Mattie room and board starting at $5 per week and split their earnings with her. Mattie’s first brothel, which she purchased for $13,000 from Nellie French, was at 501 Holladay Street, now known as Market Street. Mattie’s elite business cards were shaped like an oyster shell—a grand treat for Denver dinner tables in the Victorian era. In addition, Mattie rented or operated in the buildings on either side of her brothel and prospered there as well.

Over the next four years, Mattie’s competition grew steadily. Women like Lizzie Greer slowly fell to the wayside. In fact, the Denver Republican took due notice when Lizzie’s looks and talents began fading. By 1881 Lizzie had lost all of her money and admirers and had turned to alcohol to drown her sorrows. The newspaper noted she had been living for years in back alleys and along river fronts, purchasing liquor when she could and eating out of the garbage bins of local restaurants. She was last noted as being found sleeping in a lumber yard and taken to the County Hospital. The paper commented that her end was not far off. After her death, which probably occurred in January of 1881, the sight of Lizzie’s ghost lingering near the undertaker’s parlor was the subject of Rocky Mountain News stories as late as 1885.

In 1882, there were approximately 480 prostitutes working in Denver. In those times, two room cribs on the row were rented to prostitutes for $15 – $25 a week. White sections of the red-light district were called “dollar houses”, with the parlor houses of Denver costing $5 and up per trick. The black sections—located beyond 21st & Market Street—were called “two bit houses”, reflecting the price paid for time with a prostitute. Thus, a girl had to turn 15 or even as many as 50 tricks per week just to make her board.

There is little doubt that Mattie Silks ruled with an iron fist. Some said she carried an ivory handled pistol with her, concealed in a special pocket of a gown she had replicated from Rubens’ portrait of Marie de Medici. But stagecoach driver Martin Parsons remembered that Mattie “didn’t carry a gun in her clothes…for she didn’t have to. She could control people by her voice, but then, they were spending money, and after all, that’s what she wanted.” Mattie also provided food to those who were down and out. Sometimes she even sheltered them in the tent she had formerly used as a brothel. It seemed as though everyone trusted her. Admirers and even Mattie herself liked to boast—wrongfully—that she was never declared a prostitute in any arrest record or Denver newspaper.

Mattie’s biggest competitor was Leah J. Tehme or Leah Fries, better known as Jennie Rogers. Jennie actually spelled her name “Leeah”, and once she told local police her real surname was Calvington. Born to Mr. and Mrs. James Weaver, Jennie was said to hail from Pittsburgh and may have been married to a doctor at one time. The union proved too dull for Jennie, and she allegedly ran away with a steamboat captain named Rogers. After living in St. Louis for a few years, Jennie arrived just two years after Mattie in 1879. She purchased her first house on Holladay Street for $4,600 in 1880. There, it was said, the chief of police from St. Louis would come to visit, and Jennie even had a portrait of him hanging in her brothel.

In fact, Jennie’s St. Louis paramour did more than pay the occasional visit. A story was widely circulated in later years that the police chief decided to assist Jennie in opening her Denver house of ill fame by blackmailing one of Denver’s leading citizens. Apparently this man’s first wife had pulled a disappearing act, and the gentleman next married into a wealthy Denver family. Jennie’s St. Louis friend and other political adversaries began circulating the rumor that the first wife had been murdered, and even buried the skull of an Indian woman found on the plains in the man’s backyard. Next the St. Louis officer and two other men called at the man’s home posing as investigators, conducted a search, and dug up the skull. The surprised tycoon knew he was innocent, but he also knew that such a scandal could ruin his political career. Accordingly, the man “donated” $17,780 to Jennie for a new house. Jennie’s St. Louis friend disappeared, and the matter was forgotten until it was related years later by someone who remembered the story.

Jennie was a tidy, astute and almost studious looking woman who knew her business. But she also had a temper. In about 1889, Jennie married Jack Wood, a bartender at the Brown Palace Hotel who was fourteen years younger. It was said Jennie shot Wood in Salt Lake City a few months later when she found him in the arms of another woman. When police asked why she did it, she exclaimed, “I shot him because I love him, damn him!”

Jennie maintained a friendship with her competitor, Mattie Silks. When Denver adopted an ordinance requiring prostitutes to wear yellow arm bands, Mattie and Jennie agreed to have their girls dress in yellow from head to toe and parade all over town. The ordinance was repealed. For a short time, Mattie and Jennie enjoyed their spot at the top of Denver’s red-light district.

There were complications in Jennie’s life, however. Even the elite Jennie Rogers, known for her fine dress and excellent horsemanship, could not avoid the occasional brush with the law. In 1880 she was arrested along with madam Eva Lewis for racing their horses through town. The past time seems to have been popular among prostitutes, as two other girls were seen doing the same thing on Boulder’s Pearl Street in 1880. (Incidentally, some say that Pearl Street was actually named for a prostitute. Others say it was named for a respectable woman who was an early pioneer.) In 1881 Jennie made the papers after her horse slipped on some ice and she fell to the street in the middle of the red-light district. Three years later, the classy madam was sentenced to ten days in jail for vagrancy and for taking morphine. The arrest did little to limit Jennie’s ambitions, however. In 1884 she built her own three-story brothel on Market Street with three parlors, a ballroom, a dining room and fifteen suites.

Shortly after Jennie’s new house of pleasure was complete, Cort Thomson, whose ex-wife had just died, and Mattie Silks were united in matrimony in Indiana. When the couple returned to Denver, Mattie found herself with yet another competitor, Belle Barnard (a.k.a. Birnard). Belle had her beginnings as a prostitute in Cheyenne, Wyoming. At the age of twenty-nine she gave birth to a daughter, Grace, whom she later claimed was a niece. By 1885, Belle had a stately, two story brick brothel at 518 Holladay Street. (When the name of Holladay was changed to Market, the address changed to 1952 Market Street.)

Two years after marrying Mattie, Cort received a telegram saying that his daughter, presumably the one left behind in Georgetown, had died during childbirth. Her surviving baby daughter needed looking after. Mattie convinced Cort to adopt the child rather than put her in an orphanage, and it was said Mattie willingly purchased her ranch on the eastern plains at Wray as a suitable place to raise the girl. There are several mysteries surrounding the child that Mattie and Cort took in. Once, when Mattie took in an abused little girl, police arriving to take the girl back to her mother discovered another five-year-old named Theresa Thompson. It was speculated that Theresa may have been a daughter of Mattie and Cort, or even perhaps a child by Casey Silks who was adopted by Cort. Or she could have been Cort’s grand daughter for whom Mattie purchased the ranch at Wray. The ranch served other purposes as well, namely as a place to keep Mattie’s twenty-one race horses.

Throughout the mid-1880’s, Mattie continued to bask in Denver’s limelight. It was said that Mattie once agreed—under pressure from Denver’s Chamber of Commerce and also Cort—to serve as a courtesan to the president of the St. Louis Railroad. Her mission was to convince the tycoon to extend his railroad to Denver. For a month, Mattie and the railroad magnate posed as husband and wife while touring California. Ultimately the endeavor was unsuccessful, although the Chamber did pay off a $5,000 note for Mattie in return for her efforts. In 1887 Mattie purchased two connecting brothels at 1916 and 1922 Market Street for $14,000 as well as other real estate around Denver, including a brothel at 2019 Market Street. She also kept two or three call girls in uptown Denver hotels to run appointments she made for them. Mattie’s girls were well cared for, receiving two meals a day and half of their earnings in return for paying room and board. Mattie’s good business sense saw her through some tough times in Denver; during the winter of 1887-88, one-hundred-seventy-nine women were arrested for prostitution. Much to the dismay of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, many of these women were jailed right along with male prisoners, guarded by male jailers. The W.C.T.U. convinced the city council to secure a matron for its female prisoners. The permanent position went to Sadie Likens, the second matron in the nation.

In about 1889 Jennie Rogers purchased what was to become the infamous House of Mirrors at 1942 Market Street. She also married Jack Wood, the lover she had once shot. Over time, 1942 Market Street became one of the most prominent establishments in Denver’s red-light district. The Circus, a three story brothel that also housed Jim Ryan’s Saloon, was located across from Jennie’s place. Sadie Doyle, one of Jim’s employees, later recalled a night in 1901 when she was thrown in jail. Later that night, after her release, the jail caught fire. Fay Stanley’s Parlor House was just down the street. Other famous red-light establishments of Denver included Ruth Jacobs’ Silver Dollar Hotel, Miss Olga’s and Mamie Darling’s.

There were twenty-seven rooms in all at the House of Mirrors, including a kitchen, ballroom, four parlors, a wine room and sixteen bedrooms. The front parlor was furbished in mirrors from ceiling to floor. A single bathroom, luxurious for the time, serviced the house. Under Jennie’s ownership, suites in the house were said to be well stocked with fancy furniture, commodes, slop jars, rockers, lace curtains and even writing desks. Known for her love of grand  and eccentric things, Jennie also had five stone faces adhered to the facade of the building, including a bust of herself at the top. There has been intense speculation about who the other faces represented, including a story that they depict those involved in the blackmailing of the rich man who gave Jennie the money for her house. But the truth about them will likely never be known. The exterior decor also came complete with fancy scroll work in a variety of mysterious designs.

Another notorious brothel could be found at the Navarre, formerly the Brinker Collegiate Institute for young ladies wanting to learn “customary Christian virtues.” Known as the Hotel Richelieu in 1890, the stately hotel, saloon and gambling hall had fallen into the hands of gamblers Ed Chase and Vaso Chucovich during a poker game. Chase and Chucovich renamed the place the Navarre after a sixteenth-century French king, Henry of Navarre, and added prostitution. Belle Malone and Mary Paxton were among the working girls at the Navarre, which also welcomed visiting girls from nearby brothels if no other girls were available.

Mattie Silks’s troubles with Cort Thomson escalated in 1891, when she caught him with prostitute Lillie Dab of Leadville. Mattie sued for divorce, but then forgave Cort and withdrew the suit. In the uproar, Mattie may have just plain missed out on Jennie Rogers’ plans to sell the House of Mirrors. Madam Ella Wellington got it instead, and with it she automatically became a part of Jennie and Mattie’s elite circle. When the madams and bar owners of Denver cooperated to produce the Denver Red Book in 1892, Ella was a prominent advertiser. The Denver Red Book was published just in time for the grand opening of the ritzy Brown Palace Hotel across the street, which allegedly had an underground rail system or tunnel running to the notorious Navarre.

As the most brazen of directories, the Denver Red Book listed ads for the Arcade Bar on Larimer, Silver State Cigars, Schlitz and the Walhalla Club Rooms. Prostitutes listed therein included Blanche Brown, Belle Birnard and Minnie A. Hall. Belle Birnard advertised fourteen rooms, five parlors, a music and dance hall, plus twelve boarders. Jennie Holmes outdid Belle with twenty-three rooms, three parlors, two ballrooms, a pool room and thirteen boarders. But madam Minnie Hall at 2045 Market Street took the prize with thirty rooms, a music and dance hall, five parlors, a Mikado parlor and twenty boarders. Minnie had purchased her house from Sybil Field. When the only known copy of the Red Book was found on the floor of a streetcar and eventually donated to the Colorado Historical Society, it was noted that two pages were missing. The missing pages might have contained advertising for Mattie Silks and the Navarre, as well as other well known hot spots.

Ella Wellington, Mattie Silks and Jennie Rogers continued to prosper during 1893, despite the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Originally, the Sherman Act was meant to assist the public by requiring the United States Government to purchase silver in order to boost the economy. The plan was simple enough, but did not pan out as well as expected. When Congress repealed the act and the government stopped buying silver, thousands of silver miners—including millionaire H.A.W. Tabor of Leadville and Denver—went broke overnight. As the silver boom towns quickly depleted, hundreds of families flocked to Denver. A good number of destitute women approached Jennie Rogers for work. Jennie put them up in respectable boarding houses, but refused to let them work for her or anyone else. As money allowed, she gradually sent them home to their families instead.

Jennie’s kind act was no doubt overshadowed by the shocking and tragic suicide of Ella Wellington in 1894 at the House Of Mirrors. The former wife of Fred Bouse (or Bowse) of Omaha, Ella had forsaken her confining life as a wife and mother of two adopted children and run off with one Sam Cross. After Cross apparently left her in Salt Lake City, Ella had made her way to Denver in 1889, taken on the name Wellington, and gone into business in the red-light district. After purchasing the House of Mirrors from Jennie Rogers, Ella spared no expense in her advertising and business cards and seemed to be doing quite well.

On the evening of July 27, 1894, Ella was in attendance at her brothel wearing a silk gown and a $2,000 necklace, as well as several ruby and diamond rings. Ella’s regret at leaving her husband became painfully apparent when some old friends of the former couple unexpectedly paid her a visit. Fred was remarried, they said, and was very happy. So were the children. The news was too much for Ella, who began babbling, “I too am happy, O so happy!” Then she abruptly started upstairs, exclaiming, “O I am so happy! So happy that I’ll just blow my goddam brains out!” Upon reaching her bedroom, Ella did just that. Arapahoe County Clerk William R. Prinn happened to be lying in Ella’s bed at the time and later gave his statement to the coroner.

Poor Ella’s story does not end there. After a funeral procession that took every available carriage in town, Ella was buried at Riverside Cemetery. Her most loyal admirer, Frederick N. Sturges, slept on top of her grave for several nights and purchased a plot next to Ella’s. Within three weeks the heartbroken Sturges overdosed on morphine. In his pocket was a picture of Ella with a note written on the back: “Bury this picture of my own dear Ella beside me.”

The death of Ella Wellington seemed to be the beginning of several unlucky incidents in Denver’s red-light district. The most prominent was a series of mysterious murders of prostitutes. Three murders in particular caught the eye of authorities, possibly because of their similarities: a towel had always been stuffed in the victim’s mouth, and there was never a sign of forced entry. Thus, the girls were assumed to have fallen victim to one of their customers.

The first woman to die was Lena Tapper, who was strangled in her home on Market Street in September. Next, twenty-three-year-old Marie Contassot was strangled to death on October 28. Despite the deceased’s swollen  purple face, eyes bugging from their sockets and the presence of a rope nearby, the Coroner listed Marie’s cause of death as unknown. Marie was from France, having come to America with her sister Eugenie some years before. In Denver, Marie worked for Charles Chaloup, a Frenchman who served as her pimp. The number one suspect in Marie’s death, however, was her beau Tony Saunders. Alternately known as Tony Sanders and Antonio Santpietro, Saunders led a double life as both a Denver policeman and a pimp on Market Street. Marie had just moved in with Saunders a week before. After repeated questioning, however, Saunders was released.

Next, police focused on Chaloup and Eugenie. Marie and Eugenie had been due to inherit a large sum of money from a relative in Paris, and Chaloup and Eugenie had just recently returned from a trip to France. Chaloup had also purchased property in Paris. Furthermore, friends and neighbors of Marie claimed her sister and Chaloup had planned to acquire the inheritance and leave Marie with nothing. Eugenie refused to deny or confirm any of the rumors. Chaloup claimed Marie had received $2,000 in property and jewelry from him and produced a signed receipt from her that released him from any further obligations to her. Neither Chaloup or Eugenie were charged with the murder.

Marie Contassot merited burial in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. After her original interment, Marie’s body was moved to a plot purchased by Eugenie. Her grave was decorated by a large tombstone and a life-sized angel. The heartening inscription read:

“We regret the loss of our sister

All of her family and friends

Pray for her.”

In the wake of Marie Contassot’s murder, Mattie Silks had iron bars installed on the windows of her brothel. By now, the girls of the row were frightened, and Denver newspapers spread panic with headlines declaring “Jack the Ripper” was in town. They also dubbed Market Street “Strangler’s Row.” Despite upgraded security in the red-light district, a third murder happened in November when Kiku Oyama was also found choked to death. After Oyama’s murder, the better-class parlor houses shut down or shortened their business hours for a time. Most of the lower-class, one-room crib girls could not afford to cease business and were forced to remain open. Police began taking a harder look at murders that happened in the red-light district, but there were no more murders immediately after the death of Oyama.

At least two other unsolved murders are documented in Denver’s red-light district. One was the killing of a black prostitute named Nettie Clark in the late 1890’s, but Nettie’s death was probably not associated with the killing sprees of 1894. In 1903 yet another woman, Mabel Brown, was strangled in her home on Market Street. Again the killer was never caught, but by then the murders of 1894 were only a faint memory on fast-moving Market Street.

In about May of 1895, the House of Mirrors came back to Jennie Rogers’s ownership. A couple of years later, Jennie and Mattie Silks were only slightly overshadowed by another Denver prostitute, Verona (a.k.a. Fannie) Baldwin. In 1883 in San Francisco, the British beauty had made big headlines after she shot her millionaire cousin, E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin, in the arm. Verona claimed Lucky had sexually assaulted her while she was teaching school at his expansive ranch. Baldwin survived, about which Verona commented, “I ought to have killed him. Yes, I ought to have killed him at the ranch.”  Verona was just twenty-three years old at the time. Three years after she was acquitted due to Lucky’s refusal to testify, Verona sued her cousin for child support. Afterwards, he successfully committed her to an insane asylum. She fought him, along with the general public, and was released.

In the late 1890’s, Verona arrived in Denver and purchased a house at 2020 Market Street. Her life in Denver appeared to be fairly uneventful, the exception being an 1898 newspaper article which reported that Verona had taken in a young girl calling herself Mary Anderson. Mary, fresh off the train from Wyoming, was seeking employment at various brothels. Escorting her was a strange woman who had approached her at the employment office and talked her into becoming a prostitute. Madam Baldwin, however, upon seeing the girl was truly innocent and a virgin at that, convinced Mary to return home and notified the police to put her on the next train home. This they did, paying for the ticket themselves. Verona was in business in Denver for over twelve years. She eventually retired and died in the 1940’s.

In 1898 Mattie Silks and Cort Thomson followed up a tour to Great Britain with an excursion to Alaska, where Mattie opened a temporary brothel in Dawson City. The endeavor lasted only three months due to Mattie’s aversion to the cold weather, but it was said she netted $38,000 for her efforts. Upon returning to Colorado, Cort continued with his wild ways while Mattie got back to business. In April of 1900, after several weeks of debauchery involving alcohol, opium, and the celebration of his birthday, Cort Thomson died sitting in a rocking chair at the Commercial Hotel in Wray. Mattie was by his side, and she paid for his funeral costs. What became of the child Mattie and Cort were raising is unknown, but most historians say Mattie adopted her. Some speculate the girl was then educated in some far-away school and raised to become a respectable woman.

Jennie Rogers also suffered hardships. Jack Wood had died in 1896, at the age of 38. Competition along Market Street was ever-growing, with prostitutes like Mildred Ackley and Pearl Adams joining the ranks. The year 1902 proved to be even more stressful: Jennie’s beloved dog died and she was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease. To escape her woes and pressure from authorities, she temporarily moved to Chicago where she opened another brothel. There she met a politician named Archibald T. Fitzgerald, a man 20 years her junior whom she married at Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1904. Shortly afterward Jennie returned to Denver for the funeral of prostitute Lizzie Preston, a much-admired colleague who had also been a friend of Mattie Silks. Back in Chicago, she found out Fitzgerald was still married to someone else, left him and came back to Denver for good in 1907.

In Denver Jennie forgave Fitzgerald. She lived at the House of Mirrors but periodically made short excursions with him to Arkansas. She died on October 29, 1909, having willed her estate to her sister and a niece and nephew. She was buried in Denver’s Fairmont Cemetery under the name Leah J. Wood, next to her husband Jack. Fitzgerald contested her will and claimed half of her estate. He eventually settled for $5,000 in cash, jewelry and some property in Illinois.

In 1910 or 1911 Mattie Silks purchased the House of Mirrors for $14,000. Mattie immediately moved in with her longtime housekeeper, Janie Green, and commissioned a local tile worker to inlay her name, “M. Silks”, on the front step. It was like putting a final, victorious stamp on the red-light district. At last, Mattie Silks was the reigning queen of Denver’s tenderloin district.

Good Time Girls of Colorado: A Red-Light History of the Centennial State

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

A quick note about this book: expanding on the research I have done for Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930 (University of New Mexico Press, 2004) and Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains (University of New Mexico Press, 2009 – out of print), presented here are some notable shady ladies like Mattie Silks, Jennie Rogers, Laura Evens and others. Also included however, are some ladies seldom written about: French Blanche LeCoq, Lou Bunch and Laura Bell McDaniel (whom I was pleased to first introduce to the world clear back in 1999).

Why do I write about historical prostitution? Because I believe that these women made numerous unseen, unappreciated contributions to the growth of the American West. They paid for fines, fees, business licenses and liquor licenses in their towns. They shopped local, buying their clothing, furniture, food, jewelry, medicine and other needed items from local merchants. These women were often angels of mercy, donating to the poor, helping the needy, and making or procuring sizeable donations for churches, schools and other organizations. Many took care of their customers when they were sick, or sometimes when they became elderly.

Hollywood and the general public like to laugh at and shame women of the night for selling sex for a living. In reality, these women often turned to prostitution as the only viable way to make enough money to survive. Theirs was one of the most dangerous professions of the time, the threat of devastating depression, domestic violence, disease, pregnancy and often subsequent abortion, and alcohol or drug related issues being very real issues the ladies faced daily.

I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it and furthering the truth about our good time girls from the past. You can order it here: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781493038060/Good-Time-Girls-of-Colorado-A-Red-Light-History-of-the-Centennial-State

Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Ute Pass Vacation Guide and The Colorado Gambler magazine.

Significant in history and world-reknowned, Pikes Peak is honored as one of the best-known landmarks in America. For centuries, the mountain looming above Colorado Springs has served as a vantage point from all directions across the state and beyond. The unmistakable landmark first guided the Indians, then the fur trappers, and later the white men who inhabit the areas around it now. In 1802, Pike’s Peak was part of the Louisiana Purchase.

When the famous explorer Zebulon Pike determined to scale the peak in 1806, his efforts were somewhat ridiculous by today’s standards. Naming the mountain Grand Peak, Pike denounced it as unclimbable and reaching a height of 18,581 feet. Had Pike chosen a better time of year (he was there in November), better clothing and a better grasp of the peak’s actual altitude of 14,110 feet, he probably would have made it to the summit. Instead, Pike had to be content with being the first white man to note the mountain on maps.

Between 1806 and 1820, the peak was alternately referred to as Grand Peak and Highest Peak. Many historians credit Major Stephen H. Long as the first white man to climb the mountain in the latter year. However, even Long gave the honor to Dr. Edwin James, himself an historian with the expedition. In reality, James was accompanied by Long and two others on the journey. Apparently, because James was first to actually set foot on the summit, Long named the mountain James Peak.

Over the next twenty years, the name of James Peak was gradually replaced with Pikes Peak. Lt. John C. Fremont sealed the official name in his travel logs. By the 1850’s, everyone seemed Pikes Peak-bound as gold booms began all over Colorado. Clothing and supply stores back east manufactured items bearing the Pike’s Peak label. Guidebooks and maps were in abundance, all describing the best ways to reach Pikes Peak country and what the traveler might find upon arrival.

As Colorado launched into its gold boom era, Julia Archibald Holmes became the first white woman to scale the peak. In 1858, Holmes, her husband John and four others from Kansas included the peak in their sight-seeing tour while prospecting for gold. So wide-spread was the quest for gold that even Denver was included in the “Pikes Peak or Bust” rush of 1859.

As thousands of miners flocked to the rocky mountains to seek their fortunes, their trek was aptly titled the Great Pikes Peak Gold Rush. The spirit of those first pioneers who sacrificed their homes and even their families to find Pikes Peak was an inspiration to others. Because of them, millions of people found the courage to come west and settle in new territory. The sight of Pikes Peak, even hundreds of miles in the distance, gave them hope. Many of those pioneers wound up at Colorado City, a supply town established at the base of the peak near Ute Pass.

When Colorado Springs sprang to life in 1871, a popular pastime was to scale the peak. A U.S. Signal Corps station, constructed from rocks, was used as a weather station. Later abandoned, the building eventually became a tourist hotel. The number of tourists to the summit escalated in 1873 with a mild gold strike on the eastern slopes. The strike turned out to be a hoax, however.

As it was, hoaxes and jokes upon the unsuspecting public seemed to be running rampant through Colorado about this time. Other such mischief included the 1876 “death” of a non-existent baby named Erin O’Keefe. One John O’Keefe claimed his infant daughter had been consumed by mountain rats atop the peak. A realistic photograph showed Erin’s grave surrounded by several mourners. Tourists flocked to the burial site to see the grave and leave trinkets before the hoax was revealed.

For the next several years, Pikes Peak gained even more notoriety. In 1884 a route was established for a railway to the summit, but was abandoned. A few years later, Dr. A.G. Lewis homesteaded 160 acres at the summit. Amazingly, Lewis was able to grow a few crops as required by the 1862 Homestead Act. Lewis’ intent was to build a tourist trap illustrating his crops. A carriage road was built in anticipation for the new business.

Unfortunately for Lewis, railroad pioneer David H. Moffat succeeded in acquiring a 99-year lease on just five acres of the summit. Lewis lost his claim in court, and a cog railway began daily excursions to the top of Pikes Peak beginning in 1891. Viewed as one of the most scenic rides in America, the train ran a distance of 8.9 miles, climbing 7,518 feet (the Pikes Peak Cog Railroad is currently closed for needed renovations, but will be open again next year). A daily guide was given to passengers, listing visitors of the day before and expounding on other interesting sites in the region.

The same year as the premier of the cog railway, the Cripple Creek District on the backside of Pikes Peak experienced the last, and one of the largest, gold booms in Colorado’s history. Numerous trails were established and there was talk of building a road to the top of Pikes Peak from the Cripple Creek side. The closest anyone came, however, was at Seven Lakes, which had opened as a resort quite some years before some seven miles below the summit.

The peak gained further popularity in 1895 when Katharine Lee Bates, a professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, published the anthem “America The Beautiful”. The song was based on her visit to the peak two years earlier. More and more travelers made the summit of Pikes Peak a destination spot. In fact, one might say that in the rush to see Pikes Peak, people began turning it into a race of sorts. Excursions of all kinds, from wildflower-picking expeditions to hiking trips to the first wedding in 1905, were the popular mode of the day.

There were tragedies here and there: In August of 1911, Mr. and Mrs. William A. Skinner learned a hard lesson about the perils of hiking unprepared on Pike’s Peak. Ignoring the advice of guides and the editor of the Pike’s Peak Daily News, Mrs. Skinner insisted on setting out for the summit late in the afternoon. Snow clouds looming on the horizon were soon hovering over the couple, who were poorly dressed for the trek and already tuckered out. After a two-foot snowfall during the night, the couple was found frozen to death about two miles below the summit the next day.

The unfortunate fate of the Skinners hardly stopped other hikers, or drivers. In 1916, the Pikes Peak Automobile Company opened the toll road to the summit. An annual hill climb was also established, which steadily gained world fame. The Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb is now called the Pikes Peak International Hlil Climb and takes place each year. The event draws thousands, not to mention some very famous participants.

Other innovative news about Pikes Peak came in 1918 with the opening of Barr Trail. Built by Fred Barr, the trail took four years to construct and included a camp halfway to the summit which is still in use today. The Barr Trail opening was followed by the establishment of the AdAmAn Club in 1923. Each year, a new member is chosen to join the group, which treks to the summit on New Years’ Eve to set off fire works at midnight. In 1935, this group gained notoriety as they broadcasted greetings from the peak to Admiral Richard C. Byrd in the Antarctic. Just six years earlier, Bill Williams gained fame by pushing a peanut to the top of Pikes Peak with his nose.

It has been nearly 200 years since the first explorers spotted “America’s Mountain”, Pikes Peak, off in the distance. Since that time, untold numbers of men and women around the world have traversed the United States in search of this great landmark. They were looking for opportunity and freedom they had only imagined in their dreams. They found it, too, here in the American west where the untamed land dared the bravest to fight for peace, happiness, and the American way of life.

Molly Brown Pulls a Fast One

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

When the famed “Unsinkable Molly Brown” of Denver became even more famous as a heroine on the sinking Titanic, news reports about her were most fitting. Previously shunned by Denver’s elite society, Margaret Tobin Brown, wife of a mining milionaire, at last had her day. To the “Sacred 86” and Denver’s other elite circles, she was uncouth, uneducated, and worth no more than a smear campaign launched by Polly Pry of the Denver Post. But her Titanic fame endeared her to the world.

From her posh Denver hotel room after her horrific experience on the sinking ship, Molly told the press that she had boarded the Titanic in a rush to get back to Colorado to see her grandson. The child had been born in the mining town of Victor just five months before. In an effort to see the sickly youngster, Maggie later said, she boarded the ill-fated ship and sailed into history. Sailed into folklore is more like it. For as much as she relished being vindicated and recognized at last, Maggie’s motives behind her statement are questionable. Not only did she initially tell the press she had planned to visit her native home of Hannibal Missouri, but Maggie had already written a letter to her sister there in anticipation of her visit.

In Hannibal, Maggie’s beginnings were as humble as it gets. Both of her parents were uneducated Irish immigrants who had come to America to make a better life for themselves. Each was widowed. The two met and married in Hannibal. Maggie’s father, John Tobin, earned about $1.75 per day digging ditches for Hannibal Gasworks. In 1860, he managed to purchase a tiny house in the “Irish Shanty” section of town. Here, Maggie was born in 1867 and raised with three brothers and sisters, plus two half-siblings.

The Tobins lived a typical, poor Irish lifestyle. Their five room house contained such essentials as a small wood stove in the kitchen, oil lamps and hand-made furniture. There were a few chickens and a cow. Maggie’s mother Johanna favored smoking a clay pipe. These were facts the wealthy ladies of Denver later liked to point out after Maggie married and struck it rich. What they left out was the fact that Maggie attended the O’Leary Private School across the street from her home. Her aunts, Mary and Margaret, were teachers. Maggie attended classes through age 13, receiving an ample amount of schooling for the 1870’s.

Upon leaving school, Maggie procured a job at the Garth tobacco factory. Next, she moved in with her half sister, Katie Becker. The Beckers lived in a two story home in a working class neighborhood. Later, Maggie turned to waitressing, working first at the Continental Hotel and later at the Park Hotel. Historians doubt Maggie’s later story that she met Mark Twain, another famous Hannibalite who came home for a visit in 1882. However, there is a possibility she waited on him at the hotel. True or not, the tale was added to Maggie’s repertoire of wonderful stories. Other stories regarding Twain included hunting and fishing with him, being on a boat with him, and even being rescued by him during a cyclone! This lady loved a good story.

In 1883, Molly’s sister Mary and her husband, Jack Laundrigan, moved to Leadville. Three years later, nineteen-year-old Maggie and her brother Daniel joined them. Upon arriving in Leadville, Maggie and Daniel stayed with their sister. Soon after, Maggie married J.J. Brown and the two made history as Brown’s interests in mining turned him into a millionaire.

Maggie returned to Hannibal in 1887 to give birth to a son, Lawrence Palmer Brown. Perhaps she was having the first of many spats with J.J., as theirs was a stormy relationship. In 1889, according to the Molly Brown House Museum in Hannibal, the rest of Maggie’s family followed her to Leadville. By most accounts, only Kate Becker remained in Hannibal. Maggie’s parents lived the remainder of their lives in Denver, and upon their respective deaths were shipped back to Hannibal for burial.

The Browns moved to Denver to, and lived among the rich. But their wealth, the public decided, was undeserved. The picture of poor little Irish Maggie Tobin lucking out and striking it rich infuriated the upper class society ladies. At every opportunity, these same ladies worked with the media to put Maggie in her place. It is no wonder she began telling stories and doing outlandish things to attract attention. Among her sins was alternating the time of her two children between expensive boarding schools and trips abroad. Both Denver society and J.J. frowned on the practice with a vengeance.

Maggie’s one downfall was that she defied the very status she was seeking. Her lavish parties to which nobody came echoed with her brazen mid-western voice. She was not elegant, handsome or genteel. Many of the wild tales she spun were obvious fibs. The very fact that Maggie Brown did not act the part of her elite female counterparts set her aside from the rest. When she occasionally defended herself, in poorly-spelled letters to the editor of the Denver Post, her adversaries saw an opportunity to poke further fun at her.

Maggie spent the majority of the winter of 1911-12 abroad with her daughter Helen, who was in a German boarding school. The two visited Egypt and Europe. Just previous to that winter, Maggie’s son Lawrence had moved to Victor and worked as a miner. His marriage to a common gal, Eileen Horton, put a strain on the relationship with his father. Jumping on the media bandwagon, the Victor Record published a taunting headline which read, “Peeves Rich Dad; Now He Must Dig for Living.” In reality, the doting Maggie sent Lawrence money on the sly.

On November 21, 1911, Eileen gave birth to a son, Lawrence Palmer Jr. The child wasn’t faring well at Victor’s high altitude, and Eileen took the baby home to Kansas City shortly after Christmas in 1911. By late March “rumor had abounded that the baby died,” said Maggie’s great-granddaughter, Muffet Brown. Who started the rumor is unclear, but it was through a letter from a friend of Helen’s, not any family member, that Maggie discovered her new grandson was in ill-health. She would later tell the press that the letter was what spurred her to action and seek passage back to America.

Here is where Magie’s tale falls apart. A letter sent from Colorado would have to be taken by train to the eastern seaboard to await disbursement by ship to Europe. That meant months before any correspondence arrived. Telegrams by this time were the speediest method for wiring emergency messages. Had the baby become worse, Maggie would have been notified immediately. By the time Maggie heard the news, she had plenty of time to wire back to the states and get verification of the baby’s condition.

According to historian Caroline Bancroft, Maggie booked last minute passage on the Titanic upon hearing of the maiden voyage from John Jacob Astor and his wife Madeline. “Because of her frequent trips in former years she was able to get on the sailing list at the last moment.” said Bancroft. Helen did not accompany her mother, and the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver maintains that Maggie had written from Paris to her sister Kate that she would be coming to Hannibal for a visit upon her return from Europe – not Victor, as she later claimed.

Within two days of the ship’s sinking, the Hannibal Courier-Post ran a story about Maggie’s Titanic adventure, noting “Hannibal Woman Has Sister Among Survivors”. The story related how “Mrs. Brown had expected to spend several weeks in Hannibal during this spring and summer. Three weeks ago she wrote her sister from Paris, stating that the party would sail for America in a few days and that she expected to stop over in Hannibal for a long visit on her way home in Denver.” There was no mention of Maggie’s sick grandbaby.

Upon reaching New York on April 18, Bancroft maintained Maggie checked into the Ritz-Carlton and wired home for money. J.J. was in Arizona at the time, “using the name Bacon in an effort to dodge Maggie’s demands,” according to the historian. J.J.’s secretary in Denver ultimately wired traveling funds. When she got to Denver, Maggie next found comfort in a luxurious suite at the Brown Palace Hotel. Newspaper reporters and admirers mingled with message boys bringing handfuls of telegrams and letters, according to Bancroft.

It was probably at this time that Maggie changed her story and reported she cut her travels short to return to America because her grandson was sick. She also felt free to embellish on her Titanic adventures, the details of which grew longer and more unbelievable the more she spoke of them. Because of her harrowing experience, Maggie gained her long-awaited acceptance into proper Denver society. She at last had the public’s ear, and was talking into it as fast as she could.

By the time things had settlted down, both Lawrence and Eileen had left Victor. Lawrence was working in Oregon, and Eileen was en route with the baby. If she made a stop in Denver to see her mother-in-law, there is no record of the visit. The child, nicknamed “Pat”, survived and lived a long healthy life. He died in California in 1976.

As for the idea that Maggie could have been bringing clothes for Lawrence as was portrayed in 1998’s Titanic film, Margaret Brown did not claim any men’s clothing on her insurance voucher. She was, however, reimbursed by the Titanic’s White Star Line for the other possessions she lost. And did Maggie ever make it to Victor? Certainly not. Furthermore, there is little evidence that she ever saw her grandbaby at all. Eileen and Larry’s marriage was stormy at best; the couple divorced in 1915, remarried in 1917 and divorced again in 1927. Larry ultimately married Hollywood actress Mildred Gregory. The couple lived in California before returning to Leadville.

Within a year of the Titanic disaster, Maggie was renting a cottage in Newport, Rhode Island, where she was later evicted for back rent. During her post-titanic years, Maggie continued traveling. Her last visit to Hannibal was probably in 1926, when she attended the unveiling of a statue depicting Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. When she died in 1932, only about $1,500 was left of the Brown fortune.

 Today, the Molly Brown House in Denver has been restored and maintained as a museum. Likewise, the Molly Brown Dinner Theatre in Hannibal is expanding and entertains guests with stories of her life. And the Molly Brown Birthplace and Museum on Mark Twain Avenue in Hannibal has undergone at least two restorations. The latter, with its clapboard siding and fresh paint, hardly resembles the place Maggie grew up in. It’s o.k. though. Maggie would no doubt like it the way it is, perhaps even borrowing a bit of Twain-lore about how she finagled the neighborhood kids into helping paint it. She’d like that story.

Ed Harless and His Renegade Wife

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine and Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930.

Pictured: Notorious Blair Street at 12th Street, Silverton, Colorado.

It was no easy trick, being married in the Victorian era. Given the harshness of the times—no electricity, back-breaking chores, a plethora of vices and procreational 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 one another.

In 1899 alone, the newspapers in the booming Cripple Creek District of Colorado were rife with news of unhappy unions. That June, three women applied for divorce. In July, Joe Anderson was arrested for shooting Hense Johnson in Cripple Creek’s Poverty Gulch after the former found the latter with his wife. And in October, Victor’s postmaster reported on a letter from C.M. Jones of Butte Montana, asking for assistance. Jones had just returned from the Klondike and couldn’t find his wife.

Indeed, residents of the district were no strangers to such goings on. 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. What became of her was anyone’s guess.

Ed went looking for his wife, much as any husband might do. He found her in the western slope mining town of Silverton, and the November 29 issue of the 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. Like 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.

Leonard and Harless 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.

A few weeks later, the Standard followed up on the story with the comment that Harless had returned to Denver to further consult the psychic. This time, Harless claimed, he would find “the Telluride assassin”. Whether his boast that he could find a western slope criminal by such means was hooey, nobody will ever know. Harless did eventually return to his home in Victor, residing there as late as 1905. As for Mrs. Harless, her name in the city directory is conspicuously absent.

Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930, Chapter Two: Life as a Harlot

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:

Aunt Clara

Chorus:

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.

 Chorus

 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

Chorus

 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

 Chorus

 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!

 Chorus

 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

 Chorus

 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

 Chorus

 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

 Chorus

 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.

The Ghost of Lizzie Greer

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

It was a rather eerie night on the streets of Denver, Colorado. The type of night when the few lit windows along dark alleys cast eerie shadows along narrow paths and against the walls of dingy buildings. Underneath crooked stairways were unseen creatures, mewling and groaning quietly as they sought shelter from the cold. Trash cans were scattered about, their refuse overflowing and blowing about along the cold and gloomy pathway.

Into this grim scene sauntered a man, on his way home from the closest tavern. His creeping form stumbled and swayed as the night’s libations took their toll. There wasn’t a soul to be seen in the alley, at first. But as the inebriated gentleman neared the undertaker’s parlor, something caught his bleary eye. At the back door lingered a single figure, seemingly waiting for him. The ethereal being was wrapped in a white sheet.  There was no hat, no scarf, no shoes to protect against the cold, only the sheet, whose worn edges floated about in the chilly breeze.

Upon closer inspection the man realized the person in the sheet as Lizzie Greer, a fancy sporting woman he had once known well. In her time, Lizzie was quite wealthy and well-known in Denver, until drink had got the best of her. Relief flooded through the gentleman as he recognized his long lost friend. “Lizzie?” he uttered, “Is that you?” The woman did not answer, and as the man came closer, she turned uncertainly. Deep inside his drunken mind, the man was beginning to remember something else he knew about Lizzie, something quite disturbing. As Lizzie’s form hurriedly stepped into the dark shadows and disappeared, the memory hit the man full-tilt: Lizzie Greer had been dead, for some years.

Indeed, Lizzie Greer was once one of a healthy handful of wanton women who worked in Denver. Her adventures were many: after arriving in the fledgling Queen City in 1861, she quickly made lots of money as one of the only harlots in town. Her paramour, for a time, was gambler Charley Harrison—a known outlaw who formerly romanced Lizzie’s fellow brothel companion, Addie LaMont. Charley was a killer, too, but he did look so very sleek in his all black suit and his well-groomed beard. His pearl-handled revolvers made a nice accent to the outfit, swinging from his hips in a menacing way.

When Charley finally got into enough trouble to merit leaving Denver, Lizzie and Addie watched him go with a sigh. Charley Harrison was just another in a long line of men the ladies knew, intimately. The women saw no reason to let him come between them, even though he first scorned Addie and then left Lizzie high and dry. But each woman had a demon haunting her that was far worse than the likes of Charley. Its name was whiskey, or absinthe, or beer, depending on the day. Both women found themselves fraught with drinking problems, whose roots reached much deeper than most people could understand.

In the years after Charley Harrison left, Lizzie tried to bring her life back into balance by starting a new, two-story brothel up on North Clear Creek near the Bobtail Mine. But it was no good; within a few years she was back in Denver, scrambling to regain her wealth. One night she hatched a devious plan to invite one of her customers, John Lowry, to come over to her place. Lowry was loaded, and Lizzie conspired with her friend, Elmer Hines, to get her share of his pocketbook.

A neighbor, Mrs. S., remembered seeing Lowry knock at Lizzie’s shanty. The harlot opened the door immediately and yanked the man into her house. A pistol shot rang out as Mrs. S. saw the man fall inside. Next, she watched in horror as the man suffered two hearty blows with an axe. Who held the axe was unknown, but Elmer Hines left just a short time later. After awhile, Mrs. S. saw a Mexican man she knew pulling Lowry’s lifeless body from Lizzie’s house.

Lizzie served time in jail following Mrs. S.’s testimony, but she was soon out and bent on another murder. This time, Addie LaMont witnessed Lizzie shoot one George Maguire in her room. Maguire was not expected to live. Lizzie may have escaped the law this time, but she could not escape herself. Within a few more years, she was a familiar site in the back alleys of Denver, buying liquor whenever she could get her hands on some money, and eating from the garbage bins of local restaurants.

On a cold night in January of 1881, a policeman found Lizzie, sickly and frail, sleeping in Lewis and Wheeler’s lumberyard. The officer took her to the County Hospital, but it was too late. Lizzie could not recover from her illnesses, and died. Her body was turned over to the undertaker, who charged his standard fee of $2.50 to the city for burying paupers. Lizzie’s spirit, however, apparently did not want to be buried. Hence, the gentleman in the alley that dark and dreary night was not the only witness to her ghost. In time, several more stories came forth. Each was the same: Lizzie appeared wrapped in a sheet, and fled when approached.

Eventually, a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News got wind of the story and came creeping down the alley in hopes of seeing Lizzie. The man was making his way quietly through the shadows when he heard the sounds of footsteps. Was it Lizzie, coming his way? It couldn’t be, for she was reported to be barefooted. The reporter stopped in his tracks, listening carefully. Every sound, every clink, every whispering scuffle and shuffle became louder and louder as the man was overtaken with the feeling of being watched. Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, the writer saw a dark form quickly moving towards him. With a yelp, he turned to face the phantom—and encountered instead the undertaker’s assistant.

When the reporter’s heart stopped pounding, the assistant explained what he was doing in the alley. The undertaker, it was revealed, had indeed received his fee from the city for taking Lizzie’s body. But the cunning man found he could make an additional $30.00—over $750 in today’s economy—by selling bodies to the dissecting room. In these morbid laboratories, bodies were cut open for research, their parts and pieces eventually thrown out with the refuse. Accordingly, the assistant had been sent in search of Lizzie to make sure she was dead, and if she wasn’t, to make sure she “stayed dead” so the undertaker could reap his thirty bucks.

That was about the last time anybody heard of Lizzie’s ghost lingering in the alleyways of Denver. Perhaps she too wanted the thirty dollars, so she could continue drinking and dancing her way through the demimonde just a little bit longer. This time, however, the money quite literally slipped through her translucent fingers. Maybe she lost interest and finally found rest, or maybe not. The undertaker’s rooms of old Denver are long gone, perhaps replaced by a laundry or even a bagel shop. Behind these buildings, Lizzie’s ghost could easily be mistaken for nothing more than steam drifting into the still night air.

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.

Chapter One: Red Light Districts

C 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

Excerpted from Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930 (University of New Mexico Press, 2004)

Special thanks to St. Margaret of Cortona, the patroness saint of fallen women.

            The term “red-light” has long been used to describe districts of prostitution. In America, its origins date from the days when railroad men left their red signal lanterns outside the brothels while paying a visit to a lady of the evening so they could be found in an emergency. The sign of a red lantern on the porch became known as a way to identify brothels, which often appeared as legitimate homes or businesses on the outside. And, true to its romantic shade, the color of red was used by many a prostitute in her decorating schemes. Many red-light districts got their start alongside railroad tracks, where numerous saloons already abounded. There, railroad employees and visitors alike could stop for a pleasure visit.

            In the West, red-light districts became especially popular among lonely miners and other men who came to seek their fortunes sans their families. As early as 1870, ordinances were passed in the city of Denver prohibiting prostitution. Apparently the new laws were of little avail. The Rocky Mountain News of July 23, 1889 commented that saloons were “the most fruitful source for breeding and feeding prostitution.”  In 1891 the Colorado General Assembly passed a law prohibiting women from entering saloons or being served liquor in Denver. Nevertheless, most brothels did serve alcohol—also known as nose paint, tonsil varnish and tongue oil—freely and at very high prices. Bottles of wine could sell at five hundred times their cost, thereby covering other losses. In Denver, brothels served beer in four-ounce glasses at $1 each. In comparison, one could purchase a schooner of beer in other parts of town for just a nickel. Expensive or not, it was well known that almost anything could be obtained where the red lantern hung.

            Many red-light districts served as their own private communities. Within their boundaries, prostitutes worked, ate, slept, confided in each other, fought with and stole from one another, and established rank among themselves. In these small and often forlorn looking neighborhoods, women hoped, dreamed, and tried to see through the dimness of their futures. Their place of  employment was also their home, where they were treated for illness, looked after the sick, and dressed the dead. Drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning, both intentional and accidental, were common. Most experienced girls and madams knew how to handle funeral arrangements. Even if the family of the dead could be found, relatives often refused to claim the body.

            Within the prostitute’s home, her immediate “family” consisted of her co-workers and her boss. Jealousy and competition, however, were just as likely to rear their ugly heads among women within the same house or district. More than a few soiled doves sought friendship and comfort in some of their customers. Often male companionship was the only hope a prostitute had for a lasting friendship of any kind. Sometimes women were fortunate enough to marry their consorts, but woe to the woman who became pregnant with no prospective husband. Her inconvenience put her out of work and cost the madam money.

          Abortion was always an alternative, but not a very pleasant one. Toxic poisons could be used to induce abortion, but could easily prove fatal for the mother as well. Back-room abortions, performed by unskilled midwives, could also have disastrous results. Women who chose to give birth raised their babies in the brothels, pawned them off on relatives or friends, or sent them away to school—if they lived. One of Leadville’s back alleys was so well known for the number of dead infants found there it was named “Stillborn Alley.” Daughters of prostitutes were sometimes trained by experienced professionals to follow their mothers into the business. One of the most notorious brothels in Denver during the year 1882 was kept by a madam, her daughter and two nieces.

            No matter its legalities, prostitution was in demand and flourished wherever men were willing to pay for it. The average “trick” cost anywhere from 50 c to $10, depending on the girl or the house. In the more elite parlor houses of the city, a customer could expect to pay $100 or more for an all-night stay. The price also largely depended on the availability of women in any given camp or city. Women who managed to ply their trade with only a few competitors could often make enough to retire within just a few months.

            Brothel tokens were introduced as an easy form of payment in many bordellos and parlor houses. Also called love tokens or brass checks and thought to be of Greek origin, such coins usually came in the shape of today’s fifty-cent piece or dollar gambling token. Variations included oval coins, buttons, business cards, or even slips of paper. Not all brothels used checks, but many did. The checks kept the girls and the customers honest.

          The practice of using such tokens worked something like this: the customer purchased his token or tokens directly from the madam. Upon finding the woman he wanted, the customer in turn gave the token to her. At the end of the night, the girl returned the tokens she had received to the madam. This prevented the girls from making their own cash deals in the privacy of their rooms. It also prevented customers from taking advantage of the house. Tipping was usually allowed, however, permitting the girls to have a little pocket money. A popular claim among sources in Cripple Creek is that some girls could turn in as many as fifty tokens per night. Some of the smaller denominations, such as dollar tokens, could be used in slot machines as well. Such forms of payment remained in use as late as World War II.

            Brothels did not usually lack either notoriety or popularity once they were established. For those new to town, however, and especially in larger cities, forms of advertising were limited. Soliciting in the newspapers would often have been out of the question even if prostitution were legal. Most papers pounced on the girls’ misfortunes, exploited their actions, jeered at their attempts to improve their situations, and displayed only mild sympathy when they died. Therefore, brothels had to resort to unusual methods for attracting customers. Business cards with a brothel address, some with what was considered vulgar language for the day, could be passed discreetly to prospects or even slipped into their pockets without them knowing. Some of the less expensive forms of advertising included discount nights, hiring bands to parade the streets and solicit, or driving new girls in a buggy around town. “Virgin auctions” were also widely advertised to attract more business.

            In larger cities like Denver, a directory of dance halls, gambling dens and brothels was easily obtainable if you knew whom to ask. Called Blue Books or Red Books, these handy directories were a skewed version of the social registries passed out among elite societies. In the early days, “Blue Book” was construed to mean “Blue Blood”. Many a madam plagiarized the “Blue Book” title in hopes that wealthy men would consult the books looking for acceptable houses of business and find their brothels instead. In time, the Red Books were published as a tongue-in-cheek alternative. Ultimately, the illegitimate Blue Books and Red Books of any city’s seamy underside directed travelers and newcomers to established pleasure resorts. They also helped those unfamiliar with the city to avoid trouble with seedier establishments.

            The 1895 Travelers’ Night Guide of Colorado was unique in that the booklet advertised brothels statewide, with scenic photographs of the state interspersed throughout. The sixty-six-page guide was conveniently made to fit in a vest pocket. Among the advertisers in this book were Pearl DeVere of Cripple Creek, Bell Bristol and Lucille Deming of Colorado City, Nellie Clark of Grand Junction, Clara Ogden of Lake City, Gussie Grant of Telluride, and Jennie Rogers and Georgie Burnham of Denver.

          The ads contained within such directories were free to be bold by the standards of the day. Messages such as “Twenty young ladies engaged nightly to entertain guests” and “Strangers Cordially Welcomed” told wayward visitors of the best houses to go to for fun. Advertisements were rarely brazen or crude; prospective customers were told what they needed to know in polite verbiage. Occasionally working girls competed by taking ads out against each other, accusing certain other houses or girls of bad business practices or highlighting other uncomplimentary aspects.

            Elite parlor houses often requested letters of recommendation from satisfied customers, which they displayed for new prospects. Occasionally, engraved invitations were sent to prospective clients for grand openings or special parties. Sometimes the girls would wear their fanciest dresses on the streets as a form of advertising. Other times, madams took their employees on excursions to nearby mining camps. Under the guise of a “vacation,” the girls could drum up new or temporary business.

          Sometimes the girls undertook this task themselves. In 1911 and 1912 and Cripple Creek prostitute register records a number of women such as Maxine Murry, Mazie Paterson, Katie Price, Laura Scott, Dora Willison and others, who appear to have only been visiting from Denver for a week or two before returning home. Quite possibly, these women were “on loan” from their Denver bordellos or looking for new business, or even scoping out business opportunities in Cripple Creek.

            Lower-class brothels advertised more freely. A common pitch was for the girls to sit, invitingly dressed, in second-story windows and call to prospects down below. In the cribs, usually located in the poorer section of the district, women were not beyond leaning out of their doorways inviting passerby to “C’mon in, baby.” During the 1880’s and 1890’s in Denver, open soliciting was legal for many years. Horse races down main streets, water fights to show off their wares, and public pillow fights were even more brazen methods of advertising.

          When the come-ons grew crude, soliciting was outlawed and curtains were required on all red-light windows in many towns. Accordingly, “accidental” holes were ripped in the curtains, allowing passerby their own private peep show. A more drastic measure of advertising was “hat snatching.” A girl would grab a man’s hat from his head and escape into the brothel with it. The hapless male would then attempt to go inside and retrieve his hat without falling victim to the pleasures within. In Central City, the refined Wakely sisters were known to grab passing miners and dance with or sing to them in order to lure them inside the bordello.

            The prostitute went by several other names. She was known as the soiled dove, lady of the evening, jewelled bird, fallen angel, shady lady, that other woman, lady of the lamplight, frail sister, fille de joie, nymph du pave, the fair Cyprian, the abandoned woman, scarlet woman, painted hussey, fancy girl, bawd, good time Daisy, trollop, strumpet, harridan, woman of the town, wanton woman, moll, norrel woman, erring sister and—least attractive—hooker, slut and whore. And there were other terms: carogue was another word for harlot, specifically, “a woman who, in revenge for having been corrupted by men, corrupts them in return.” During the early 1800’s, blowens were prostitutes or women who cohabited with men without the sanctity of marriage.

            The average prostitute was about twenty-one years old, although some were as young as thirteen or as old as fifty. No matter her age, the prostitute’s ultimate goal was to make money fast, marry well, and become socially acceptable. At the very least, she desired to become a courtesan or mistress to a very rich fellow who might marry her someday. Being a courtesan required being beautiful, intelligent, educated and sophisticated. Achieving such wit and charm took training and practice. According to Lawrence Powell:

“Most also were required, in the upscale sporting houses, to learn to play a musical instrument, take singing and elocution lessons, comportment lessons, and imitate the high fashion mandates of society. They had to be able to pass for a governess or companion to a rich man’s child or elderly parent. If they succeeded, they were sometimes housed in an unmarried man’s home. In any case, they had to be presentable in order to travel with wealthy patrons and obtain the coveted role of mistress versus chatelaine. Madams ran “charm schools” which mimicked the schools for young wealthy daughters of society.”

            A girl would be lucky indeed to land in such a prestigious position. Meanwhile, she worked hard and late, generally preferred drugs to fattening alcohol, and did what she could to make a life for herself. In her spare time she cleaned her wardrobe and linens, read, did needlework or gardened. A good number of shady ladies also became quite adept at card games, since it helped pass the time between customers and made for better entertainment when playing against clients. Cats and dogs made suitable companions for prostitutes. A favorite pet was the French poodle, because the little dogs were easy to keep in small quarters. Often, her pets were the only loyal friends a girl had.

            Prostitutes in general hoped to find freedom and wealth quickly and perhaps even enjoyed their job at the start, with the impression that not much work was required. Younger girls earned less than their older, more experienced counterparts, but they learned quickly that if they stayed too long in one place they risked being labeled old-timers. Jennie Bernard, for example, was noted as paying fines for prostitution in 1896. In 1912 Jennie surfaced in Cripple Creek looking for work. By then she was a good sixteen years into her profession, and was likely moving more and more often as her looks and talents faded. To avoid moving constantly or falling into disuse, a working girl had to make her money and get out of her career as quickly as she could. Many did not, and only a small percentage got out the profession and went straight before their career ruined them altogether.

            Denver prostitute Belle Grant was one who got out of the profession. In her day, Belle was a notorious madam known to become violent when drunk. Her talents at knife fights and shootouts were no secret in town. During the winter of 1887, Belle telegraphed another prostitute named Lil, who was living in Aspen. The girls decided to move to Salt Lake City together. At Pueblo, however, Belle had the inexplicable urge to disembark and stay the night. When she went to bed later that evening, Belle later claimed, she received a visit from the ghost of her mother, who sat on the bed, placed her hand on Belle’s head, and told her that if she continued on her wayward path the two would never meet in Heaven. The next morning, Belle lost no time in sending Lil on to Salt Lake City while she herself returned to Denver, where she began hanging around the churches and taking in sewing. She eventually went to work for the Salvation Army.

            Belle Grants’ story is unusual in that she successfully saved herself from prostitution. If she had chosen to remain in her career, she probably would have aspired to become a madam. Many madams were prostitutes who were no longer attractive but had vast experience in the business. A few were employed as “parlor ladies” for dance hall owners. Madams oversaw, owned, or controlled most aspects of their business, from fancy parlor houses to dance halls and down the line to lower-class cribs. Their goal was to make money, and lots of it. Acting as sophisticated and discreetly as possible to avoid trouble with the law was essential. Some madams were so discreet that even their girls did not know the customers’ names.

            Despite their bad reputations, most madams stayed on the good side of the law by donating to local charities, schools, hospitals and churches. Many took in the sick, the poor and the orphaned. Most helped find employment for their jobless friends. They also contributed involuntarily—they paid monthly fines or fees required by the court, and their building rent was higher than that of any legitimate business in town. In Salida for instance, madams were fined as much as $100 monthly, and their girls paid $25 and up.  Almost all city councils passed laws prohibiting prostitution, but timely payment of fines for breaking those laws usually assured a madam her business was safe.

            Because of their many financial obligations, madams worked to maintain excellent credit. Good standing at the bank was important should any problems occur. Some madams kept a “ceremonial” husband for legal and financial reasons. Such men were usually longtime friends or lovers who could be trusted. Their job was to vouch for their “wife’s” reputation, sign legal papers, serve as bouncers, and generally help the madam out of any unpleasant messes. Men were rarely prosecuted for their participation in the prostitution industry, but there were exceptions. In 1874 a Mr. Baron of Pueblo answered charges of being drunk, visiting a Mexican house of ill fame, and assaulting the occupant—for which he paid a total of $10 in fines.

          In 1886 local newspapers in Silverton reported on a local ball where, after escorting their respectable companions home, many of the men returned for a second dance hosted by ladies of the demi-monde. “The indignation of the respectable ladies of our city,” commented the paper, “is just.” The Boulder County News voiced similar sentiments in 1888 after reporting on several local boys from good families who were arrested for visiting a brothel. “If young men have no more self-respect or respect for their parents or friends than to seek such low resorts, the whole community shall be made acquainted with the fact so they may be treated accordingly.”

            If a prostitute collided with the law by disturbing the peace, fighting, being on the street at the wrong time, swearing or being intoxicated in public, her madam had to answer for her. If the madam was unavailable or unwilling to bail her out, the prostitute usually could not pay her own fine and had to work out her debt in jail: doing time, cleaning, or even trading sexual favors for her freedom.

            The prostitute’s wardrobe consisted of evening wear, afternoon “costumes” and lingerie. Additionally, the girls required plenty of powder, other cosmetics and perfume. Since many prostitutes could get no credit, they were forced to purchase their personal items through the madam and were therefore always in debt to her. Most girls paid their own room and board, purchased their personal beverages, and disbursed about half their fee to the madam.

            Prostitutes were also expected to obey house rules, which their madams oversaw with a firm hand. A few madams could be cruel or violent, making sure their girls were too indebted to them or too scared to leave or failing to care for them when they fell sick. When a Tin Cup prostitute calling herself “Oh Be Joyful” expressed her desire to marry a local rancher her madam, Deadwood Sal, refused to give up the girl’s contract. In desperation, the rancher and his friends rescued Oh Be Joyful in the dead of night, and the two were married in a cabin on the hill above town before galloping off to live at the rancher’s spread.

            At the opposite end of the spectrum, it was not uncommon for madams to have to evict, sue or even swear out complaints against their girls and others. Boulder madam Frenchy Nealis sued saloon keeper James Nevin to reclaim her furniture from an apartment above his bar in 1877. In 1882 Mollie May of Leadville charged Annie Layton with stealing a dress. In turn, Annie accused Mollie of running a house of ill fame, and Mollie retaliated by revealing that Annie was employed as a prostitute. Ultimately, all charges were dropped. In 1885 Silverton madam Mable Pierce filed a complaint against employee Bessie Smith for welshing on a loan and stealing back her own clothes, which she had used for collateral. Within a week, Mable sued Jessie Carter for the same offense. A few months later, Mable also sued Jessie Carroll for disturbing the peace.

          There was more: In 1897 a Creede madam known as Mrs. Joseph Barnett, alias Ardeen Hamilton, shot and killed employee Kate Cassidy. Hamilton admitted to the shooting, but claimed self-defense. And as late as June of 1905, Helen Ward suffered during raids by Colorado City authorities, when a former employee named Annie Rock (probably Annie Rook), testified against her after quarreling with the would-be madam. Ward spent six months in the El Paso County Jail for conducting a disorderly house, despite her compliant guilty plea. Rock was charged with mayhem, but the outcome of her case is unknown.

            In spite of the occasional skirmish, a good madam served as a surrogate mother to her girls. Because of their lifestyles, most call girls were ill tempered, frequently depressed, given to drinking, or addicted to drugs. It was the madam’s job to pacify her girls as much as she was able and protect them from the law, clergy, and rough customers. In Trinidad, a Madams’ Association was formed to provide protection and care for the girls. This respected organization followed guidelines resembling a union and included a convalescent home for those who became ill. Trinidad, like Cripple Creek, required a health card issued by an approved physician in order for girls to work. This rule was also practiced in Colorado City, Silverton, and many other towns in Colorado. In Salida, Laura Evens was well known for caring for her girls, including getting them regular health exams and finding them other employment when they no longer made suitable prostitutes.

            Naturally, those madams who best cared for their workers also had the fanciest brothels in town. Called parlor houses, these aristocratic businesses were more likely to appear in prime locations within larger cities. City directories usually listed them as boarding houses, but anyone familiar with the city knew what they really were. The average house employed anywhere from five to twenty working girls, plus servants, a musician and a bouncer. The naughty ladies employed there were required to be talented, attractive and classy. According to a prostitute named LaVerne who worked for madam Laura Evens (sometimes spelled Evans) in Salida, “Miss Laura never wanted us girls to talk loud, and we were always taught to watch our language. We parlor house girls never used four-letter words.”

            The decor of most parlor houses was lavish and fine to suit its wealthy customers. The average parlor house contained several bedroom sets, furniture and other accoutrements necessary to the business. In Silverton in 1899, Dottie Watson’s house consisted of seventeen floor carpets, one stair carpet, nine bedroom sets with springs and mattresses, two sets of parlor furniture, four heating stoves, twenty-one window shades and an eighteen-by-forty-inch mirror. Arriving guests were generally shown to the parlor, or perhaps a music room or a poker parlor and invited to partake of a variety of entertainment with wine, gambling, music, dancing and dining before the couples retired upstairs.

            If a client did not have a special woman in mind, the madam could select one for him. An alternative to this practice is today illustrated at the Old Homestead, now a museum in Cripple Creek. There, girls disrobed and paraded one at a time through a closet with a glass door. The gentleman could then see each lady for himself and pick the one he liked. Regular customers could establish credit, but patrons who did not have credit were required to pay up front. Established clients were catered to, since they were usually wealthy and powerful men in the community. Not all customers, however, were gentlemen. As LaVerne of Salida explained, “We’d take our evening gowns right off as soon as we could. We didn’t want them to get messed up or torn or anything, for sometimes a man…would try to start taking off our gowns himself, and we’d have to beat him to it.”

            Working women in the parlor houses were fed nourishing meals, dining on red meat and lots of milk to keep them healthy. After all, their jobs required strength and stamina. Each new customer meant bathing, fresh clothing, and a change of sheets (some girls would place a strip of canvas at the foot of their bed, so the customers’ boots or shoes would not soil the linens). Occasionally girls were “rented out” to stag parties or other events requiring strenuous travel. A first-class parlor house never opened on Sunday, thus giving the ladies a chance to rest and catch up on their personal chores. The parlor house lady was generally well to do, as long as she retained good employment. In Cripple Creek, purchasing mining claims or stocks was as fashionable as buying a new dress.

            So close were parlor ladies to the upper echelon that often they made fewer attempts to mask their identities than their lower counterparts. Some brothels in Denver, such as Anna “Gouldie” Gould’s house, actually kept photos of their girls on file. Most prostitutes preferred not to be photographed and identified as working girls, but in Gouldie’s case the practice served several purposes. Upon receiving a discreet phone call or message from uptown hotels, Gouldie could dispatch runners with the pictures and allow the prospective customer to select the girl of his choice. Photographs were also handy for advertising purposes, and they served as proper identification in case of trouble with the law or death.

            Pornography was a whole other matter. Photographs of a sexual nature were a valid means of advertising for both the girl and the photographer. Exhibitionists certainly flourished in the 1800’s and beyond, and much pornography of the day reveals a variety of poses from artistic to vulgar. Back then a photograph of a woman in the nude, no matter how artistic, could be considered pornographic in nature. A good many parlor house girls jumped at the chance to have themselves photographed wearing no more than a scarf or lacy lingerie. In cruder photographs the subjects appear to have been poorer girls who could be persuaded to pose for a few dollars or drinks. In more than a few instances, some prostitute pornography includes women who appear to be drugged, humiliated or downright frightened, and the sexual acts they portray are vulgar even by today’s standards. So it was for women who could not control the camera, simply because they did not rate parlor house status.

            Unfortunately, many women lacked the talent and good looks required for employment in a parlor house. Others were habitual troublemakers or too old to work in a parlor house. Any girl who failed to live up to her madam’s expectations was unceremoniously shown the door. A few were unfortunate girls who had been recruited in Europe or China with promises of wealth and success in America. Upon arriving in the United States, they became indentured servants to a brothel owner. In the case of Chinese women, many were sold as slaves before they even left China. Even more girls were solicited in eastern cities to come out West, with the guarantee of high wages and a good life. Pimps, saloon owners and dance hall managers could often be found waiting at the train or stage station for girls who had answered their advertisements in eastern newspapers. More often than not, the newcomers found themselves in a strange town with no money, at the mercy of those who had promised them such a good life.

            Girls who were recruited elsewhere or could not make the grade in a parlor house worked in common brothels. These houses of prostitution were not as nice, not as reputable, and often not as clean as parlor houses. A brothel, or whorehouse, was housed in anything from a canvas tent to a rented apartment above a gambling hall. Brothels housed in their own buildings usually had saloons. Their employees ranged in age from sixteen to thirty-five and came from a variety of backgrounds. Brothel women earned less (approximately $10 per customer) but served more customers than their higher-up counterparts. They were also more vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and disease. Common brothels experienced high turnovers among the girls, who moved on, were fired, or were forced to find new employment when the brothel closed down.

            Dance hall girls, also known as “hurdy-gurdy girls,” worked in saloons and entertained customers with song, dance, and skits. Some also doubled as prostitutes in rooms above the saloons. In Cripple Creek, most dance halls had a small bar in front, beyond which was a railing with a gate. The girls would await their partners beyond the railing, while a “caller” enticed men to pick a girl and dance. The caller acted almost as a pimp, commanding the girls to attract more customers if business was slow. The customer paid the bartender a quarter or so, which included the price of the dance and a beer. 

          Dance hall girls received about a dime of the customer’s quarter for their share, but they earned most of their money in tips. After the dance, the men and their partners would proceed to another bar, located in back of the hall. In the dance halls, hard-sell customers could be invited to the “wine room” to imbibe further before being seduced. The girls’ actions were rigidly controlled. They were not permitted to linger at the front bar, but could usually talk a customer or two into going to a rented room upstairs. Many saloons had one room cribs behind or on the side of them. 

            Most dance halls of this sort were within the legal limits of the law. As the Ouray Times commented in 1881, “If a dance hall is well managed, and kept in a proper place, and the prostitutes are not allowed to parade the streets and back alleys, we see no reasonable grounds for complaint, but when they get to scattering here and there…and use vulgar and obscene language…it is high time that there should be some action taken to stop such nuisances. Fire them out.” If a dance hall remained on the right side of the law, however, it could be a fairly profitable business.

            It is important to note that not all dance hall girls were prostitutes. Some were employed strictly as hostesses, entertainers and dancers. Many dance hall girls were merely aspiring actresses or performers with no desire for the lives they led. Socializing with actresses, however, was frowned upon in decent society, making it difficult for such women to procure any real gainful employment.

            A few famous performers of the 1920’s and 1930’s began their careers this way. Among them was Ida Mulle, one of a number of actresses portrayed in provocative poses in photographs issued by Newsboy Tobacco Co. in the late nineteenth century. The casual observer of Ida’s photo may believe she was less than a talented actress. But apparently Ida was fairly successful, starring in the Boston Theater’s production of Cinderella and meriting mention in several publications about American theater and screen actresses.

            Others were not so lucky; they were mostly young, unmarried immigrants or the wives or widows of poor miners. No matter their background, however, many dance hall women were eventually swallowed up by the seamy world they lived in, ever fearful that their work as prostitutes might lower their status to that of the crib girl.

            Crib girls lived in smaller houses or shacks, sometimes designed as tiny row houses. Like dance halls, cribs were more prominent in small towns and military or mining camps when the West was still quite young. Eventually every city had its share of undesirable cribs. Their occupants were an unfortunate lot. Usually they were prostitutes who had outgrown their usefulness in the larger brothels due to health or age. Often their initial goal was to be self-employed and assured of privacy, but these dreams rarely came true.

          Instead, the average crib girl paid high rent to a madam or landlord. Her profits usually went to a pimp, lover, or some other undesirable overlord in her life. Domestic violence broke out often among couples who worked as a pimp and prostitute. The law often turned their backs on those who beat prostitutes, while the public felt that the “whores” got what they deserved. Too often, the death of a working girl served as a grim reminder to others of what brutal and unsafe lives they led.

            Streetwalkers were an even poorer class of prostitute. Their accommodations usually consisted of run-down hotel rooms or apartments. Streetwalkers were more likely to be unhealthy and unclean, and they earned much less than their fellow prostitutes. Their one advantage was more freedom, since their lack of any permanent address made them harder for the law to track down. But their plight was twice as bad as those in the upper classes. The streetwalker’s chances of survival were slim. Usually she was destined to sink lower still, to the status of a “signboard gal”. These were girls who were washed up, untalented, ugly or sick. Often they lacked a place to call home, sleeping in back streets, alleys and gutters.

          Business with signboard gals was conducted wherever a quick few minutes of privacy could be found, sometimes behind a large street sign or billboard—hence the name. In Trinidad, one signboard gal conducted business behind a billboard at Santa Fe and Main Street. Another worked on top of a former butcher’s block behind a building. Signboard gals charged much less, often no more than a trade for drinks, drugs or food. Their lives were miserable, with no hope for enhancing their future.

            While any prostitute could fall into one or more of the categories listed here, the careers of most tended to be consistent with their backgrounds. Some came from poor or abusive homes, and some came from middle- and even upper-class families. Those who grew up in poverty were slovenly and unskilled, while women who were raised properly and with educations usually succeeded at making much money in their profession. In Colorado City for example, Laura Bell McDaniel was from a working class family who lived and worked in the same town as she. Educated and allegedly beautiful, Laura Bell succeeded in running several prosperous brothels in Salida, Colorado City and Cripple Creek.

            Blanche Burton also operated in Colorado City and was the first madam in Cripple Creek. Uneducated, Blanche was duped in at least one mining scheme in Cripple Creek but ran a successful business. In 1894 Blanche moved back to Colorado City, where over time she became a recluse. While Laura Bell McDaniel and Blanche Burton were diverse in background and lifestyle, they shared at least two common bonds: both women were in a profession disapproved of by society, and both probably wished they were doing something else.