Category Archives: Nevadaville Colorado

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.

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.

 

Bad Girls of Northern Colorado, Part I

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

This article is excerpted from MacKell’s book, “Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado, 1860-1930″ and originally appeared on History.net.

With the founding of Denver in 1858, it is no surprise that most of Colorado’s earliest prostitution first flourished in a wide radius around the Queen City. With the exception of Colorado City (now the west side of Colorado Springs) and such southern, predominantly Mexican communities as Pueblo, the northern portion of Colorado was almost exclusively home to the world’s oldest profession for a good decade before its ladies of the evening migrated to other parts of the state.

Denver’s very first “white” prostitute was said to be Ada LaMont, a 19-year-old beauty who married a young minister and came West with him in about 1858. 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.”

Just behind Denver was another early camp, Boulder. After its inception in 1858, the population fluctuated in accordance with gold discoveries nearby. At first, Boulder’s houses of ill repute were scattered throughout town. Soon, however, most of the houses were congregating at the end of Railroad Street or Waters Street (now Canyon Boulevard) between the 1900 and 2100 blocks (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).

At this early date, miners in the 1859 Pikes Peak or Bust gold rush were arriving in the new West primarily alone, without female companionship. Many had left their families behind, hoping to bring them out later as profits allowed. For many men, Colorado 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.”

The companionship prostitutes offered was initially welcome, at least in most places. A brothel at Nevadaville, located above Central City, was cleaned out by irate citizens in 1860. But the average ratio of men to women in Colorado was sixteen to one, and hundreds of soiled doves had little trouble establishing themselves in the towns to which they flocked.

There is little doubt that even in those early years, it was easier to flourish in smaller camps in towns than under the watchful eye of authorities in larger cities. At places like Hahn’s Peak, just north of Steamboat Springs, Poverty Flats supported saloons and brothels. Further south, at the camp of Jamestown between Longmont and Boulder, prostitutes lived in an area alternately known as Lower Jimtown or Bummerville.

By 1864, Central City—the site of Colorado’s first mining boom—had succumbed to the wiles of prostitutes. A news article in the Miners Register that year complained heavily of a Madam Wright, who had been operating for some time on respectable Eureka Street directly below the Methodist Church. 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.”

Citizens of Central obviously expressed mixed feelings, as illustrated by an 1866 intentional fire that wiped out another den of sin. Throughout the 1860’s, newspapers were rife with such stories as that of Moll Green and Elmer Hines, who were on trial for a murder committed at Green’s house. Arrests for loud parties, lewd language and even vandalism were also the norm during this time. With time, however, Central City at last fell victim to the same vices as every other mining town in the state, even as city authorities threatened to close them down as early as 1868.

By 1870, ordinances were being passed in Denver prohibiting prostitution. Even so, a good number of famous ladies of ill repute maintained life-long careers there. Mattie Silks, one of the best known madams in Colorado history, was highly successful in Denver for several decades. Mattie also maintained a ranch on the eastern plains at Wray, namely as a place to keep her 21 race horses. Other famous Denver madams included Jennie Rogers, Ella Wellington, Belle Birnard, Lil Lovell, Verona Baldwin and countless others. Plenty of other notorious women, including Laura Evens, Lil Powers, Pearl DeVere and Cockeyed Liz got their starts in Denver before moving on to other cities.

Together, these lovely ladies of the lamplight unknowingly congregated to make Colorado’s rich history even more colorful. 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 eventually 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. 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.

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 eventually became alternately known as Big Swede Avenue.

In answer to the rampant prostitution that was now present in so many towns, cities began passing ordinances against prostitution, gambling and drinking. Occasionally the success was limited, especially when residents simply imbibed from their liquor cabinets at home and wandered the streets anyway, denying the city a chance to benefit from fines or money from liquor licenses. This disturbing revelation even enticed Fort Collins to repeal its ordinances against saloons in 1875. The saloon owners and bawdy girls lost no time in taking advantage of the act. Soon, however, ordinary businesses were flanked by gambling dens and taverns.

In fact, the dens of sin continued multiplying throughout the 1870’s. The eastern town of Petersburg, though founded as just another suburban farming community in 1876, took on its wild reputation when Pap Wyman remodeled the Petersburg Inn into a saloon and restaurant. Soon there were no fewer than six road houses at Petersburg, complete with gambling houses, prize fights, and prostitution.

The goings-on at Petersburg were fast echoing throughout the region. Reigning madams at Boulder in 1877 included Julie “Frenchy” Nealis. A Canadian lass named Susan Brown ran two separate brothels in the 1900 block. In the wee hours of the morning of January 30, 1878, one of the houses burned, causing a loss estimated between $2,400 and $3,500. The Colorado Banner noted that this was the seventh time Susan Brown had suffered a fire, and it was a well-known fact that she delighted in fighting one madam Mary Day in public. The Colorado Banner reported in July of 1878, just six months after Susan Brown’s fire, that Mary Day’s bordello had also burned. Madam Day lost no time in confronting Madam Brown, and each accused the other of setting the respective fires. The ensuing scuffle left both women with black eyes and cuts, and Mary Day paid $19 in court costs for causing the fray.

 In 1879 a local newspaper complained that Georgetown had twelve saloons and parlor houses, but not one school. Indeed, Brownell Street had no fewer than five expensive parlor houses at one time, as well as the usual assortment of smaller brothels, taverns and gambling halls. Two of Georgetown’s more notorious madams were Mollie Dean and Mattie Estes. Like so many before her, Mollie met her death at the hands of a jealous lover after being seen with another man. By then Georgetown was as used to violence as any other western town. Shortly after a miner was shot to death in her brothel, madam Jennie Aiken was killed when her brothel burned to the ground. The newspaper hardly batted an eye.

Things were equally bad in Denver, where open soliciting was legal for many years. Horse races down main streets, water fights to show off their wares, and public pillow fights were among the brazen methods of advertising. When the come-ons grew crude, soliciting was finally 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.