c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine, as well as Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930 (University of New Mexico Press, 2003).
While the general public tends to think of prostitutes in the west as being slovenly, uneducated and rude, such was not always the case. A good many of the would-be wild women who worked in the camps, towns and cities of Colorado during the 1800’s and early 1900’s were just the opposite. Most could read and write. Many came from good homes and had good educations, some from some of finest schools back east.
At least some women carried their education and manners into their professions as prostitutes. In the higher dollar “parlor houses”, madams were known to send their employees to finishing school, so that they may conduct themselves in a more respectable manner. Drug and alcohol use notwithstanding, most parlor house girls were quite refined. Most could also play an instrument or sing, and practiced good table manners and conversational talents. Such was the case of Lillian Powers, whose intelligence and kindness endeared her to many of her customers.
Lillian Powers was the city of Florence, Colorado’s most famous madam. She arrived after working for, and then partnering with, madam Laura Evens in Salida for several years. In Florence, Lil set up her own place south of the railroad tracks cutting through town. It was said that Lillian had been a school teacher in Wisconsin before coming West. She had formerly been a laundress, and her boss fondly dubbed her “The Laundry Queen”. But such work was dull to Lillian, who looked younger than she really was. Before long she had made her way to South Dakota where she heard about the money prostitutes were making in Denver.
Lillian actually had her start in Denver right around the turn of the century, when she ran a house called “The Cupolo”. But she didn’t like the way prostitutes were being treated or the low wages they received. In about 1907 Lillian moved to the Cripple Creek District, where she worked in Victor for four years before relocating to Cripple Creek. There, she could rule over her own crib, a small apartment she could rent and operate as she pleased. Lillian preferred running a crib to working in a confining parlor house. It was said she kept her place neat with clean linens and towels, frilly curtains and other comforts.
Lil’s landlady was a French woman named Leola Ahrens, better known around town as Leo the Lion. Leo drank a lot and threw violent temper tantrums. In her early days in Cripple Creek, the madam had run her own sporting house and invested her profits in the cribs. When Lillian worked for her, Leo had lost the house and was reduced to working out of one of her own cribs.
Because Lil’s place was so neat and clean, and because she was always willing to lend a sympathetic ear to her customers, Lil she made friends with many of her regulars. She also served beer as part of her services. Within a month she was making good money, and it was said that some of Lil’s customers came to visit her more for her friendship than sex.
Leo ultimately got jealous over losing her customers to Lil. One day, in a drunken rage, Leo began pounding on Lillian’s door, gun in hand. “You double-crossing bitch, you get out, and I mean get out!” she screamed. “You get out of this crib and out of town. Or I’ll kill you!” Lil fled out the back door to the telephone office and called Laura Evens, asking for a job. Then she hired a local boy to help her pack, a process which took all night.
For some reason, Lil took the earliest train to Colorado Springs first, before going on to Salida. At Laura Evens’s, another young woman answered the door and reported to Laura the new girl looked “dirty and old.” It was probably true, given that Lil had fled in the dead of night and endured a lengthy train ride to Salida without much sleep. Laura rented a crib to Lil anyway. The following day after a good bath, Lil dressed up and paid Laura a visit, giving her rent in advance. The two became good friends and Lillian eventually managed the cribs for Laura in return for a percentage of the profits. By then, Lil was alternately known as Fay Weston, and the cribs became known as Weston Terrace.
In about 1911 Lillian moved to Florence, just east of Canon City and opened her own place. Founded in 1873, Florence flourished in coal mining, cattle, oil and agriculture. At least one of the girls from Salida followed Lil and may have gone to work for her. Laura Evens came to visit her there, and Lil made occasional visits to Salida as well. In 1915 when Laura bought more property in Salida, Lillian paid the Deed of Trust.
“Lil’s Place” in Florence afforded many amenities, including two or three girls, a beer garden with a dance floor, and a high wall around the backyard for privacy. She spent $30,000 on her house, which featured a ballroom with a player piano. It was also said she had a huge collection of fine cut glass and diamonds, including a diamond cross that was once given to Denver madam Mattie Silks by prostitute Lizzie Preston. Lil slept downstairs and her boarders upstairs. Roy Pray, who was born in Victor in 1910 and grew up in Florence, recalled visiting Lil’s house while he was in college during the 1930’s. One of the girls kept sitting on the lap of Roy’s friend. Unable to stand it any longer, the shy and embarrassed boy finally admonished the girl with a “There now, tut tut!”
From time to time over the years, Lil was shut down, but always managed to reopen for business. Eventually she hired a couple to cook and maintain the house. By the 1940’s, Lil could afford to employ 10 girls and was no longer a working madam. Eventually, however, she was closed down for good and simply retired, passing away at a local nursing home in 1960.
After Lillian’s death, Colorado historian and author Caroline Bancroft attempted to contact Arthur Mink, a friend of Lil for some thirty years. In a letter to Ms. Bancroft, Mink confirmed a promise he had made to Lil not to reveal anything about her past. There is little doubt that Lil died with many secrets, even as she continues to intrigue fans of prostitution history.
You can read more about Lil Powers, Laura Evens and other Colorado madams in my upcoming book, Good Time Girls of Colorado: A Red-Light History of the Centennial State (Globe Pequot Press, September 2019).