Category Archives: Women of the West

Women’s History Through New Yes

History Through New Eyes

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

“The last I saw of him he was passing the back of his hand slowly up and down his side…I picked myself up from the opposite side of the foyer where he’d sent me, the place all buckling around me like seen through a sheet of water.” ~ Angel Face” by William Irish, circa 1937

As recently as four decades ago, romanticism ran rampant about girls in trouble. History, both fictional and real, tell us that women were often not respected as a whole, that the public felt any woman foolish enough to get herself in trouble deserved what she got. The plights of widows, the infirm, prostitutes or any other lady sans family were hardly taken seriously. And so, while the gentler sex was often regarded as such, the same were expected to make their way in the world without fuss or fight.

A great many single women in turn worked hard to maintain some sort of lifestyle for themselves, as well as their children. But the possibilities of employment were extremely narrow by today’s standards. Cooks, nurses, maids, milliners, laundresses, prostitutes, teachers, wives – all were low paying jobs which offered no advancement and some inherent dangers. The combination of low income with a lack of government services made for a hard and thankless life, especially in an abusive household.

Strength in the female spirit served to alleviate some women and push them to better themselves. The woman’s wall of will constantly found itself up against the barrier of suppression, but somehow it persevered. Nellie Bly, the first female journalist to really make a name for herself, grew up in a broken home. When her twice-widowed mother married a third time to an abusive drunk, Nellie’s young world turned upside down. Ultimately the young girl had to testify at her mother’s divorce trial. Nellie’s testimony was stirring. “I have heard him scold mother often and heard him use profane language towards her often and call her names: a whore and a bitch…The first time I seen [sic] Ford take hold of mother in an angry manner, he attempted to choke her.”

Despite the testimony of Nellie, her brother, and eleven other witnesses, divorce in the 1870’s was neither fashionable nor acceptable no matter what the circumstances. Only by immediately resuming her station as a widow and quickly erasing the memory her third husband did Nellie’s mother escape persecution. Nellie Bly learned to be a caretaker during her mother’s abusive marriage, and she used her experiences to pursue the most sought after profession of journalist.

Another feminist who managed to burst through the wall of suppression around her was English travel-writer Isabella Bird. In 1873, Bird arrived in Colorado to have a look around. What made her trip notable was the fact that Isabella traveled alone and was unarmed – most extraordinary for a woman of her time. Among her companions and hosts were the wealthy and the poor, landlords, desperados and ranchers. The majority of these were men.

After climbing Long’s Peak and traversing the front range, Bird ultimately favored Estes Park. There she succumbed only slightly to the wiles of “Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent, an emotionally and physically scarred ruffian who balanced his affections for her with drunken fits of rage. Considering the vulnerability of a “woman alone”, Isabella Bird managed to deal with her experiences in a forthright manner, and without falling victim to the perils of her time.

It is unfortunate that the prevailing accomplishments of Nellie Bly and Isabella Bird do not surface more often. Many women were easy prey for greedy landlords, pimps, and other unkind men who saw them as weak and helpless. The man who did not support his family was rarely chastised for it. And in the days before social security, telephones and state identification, non-supporting fathers went unreported.

Emily French was one of many women who suffered at the hands of an unresponsive husband. When she found herself divorced from Marsena French at the age of forty seven in 1890, Emily began relating her experiences in a diary. She described Marsena as “…an awful mean old fellow, I never knew so until now, I used to think even he was good.”

Indeed, two years before the divorce Emily and her sister made new wills, relieving Marsena as beneficiary. Emily later wrote that Marsena had cheated she and her sister out of $1,000 each. Left penniless by the divorce, Emily was forced to do housework in order to support her disabled sister and two children. Sometimes food was scarce. Other times, Emily ached so badly from the cold she could hardly perform her duties. Despite an educated background, Emily could find no other work.

Ultimately, Emily moved to Denver in an effort to better her situation. Using what little money she had left to buy property, Emily attempted to build a house but could not get a job. After seeking employment in the mountains and another brief stay in Denver, Emily returned to the prairie town of Elbert, and eventually remarried. Emily’s marriage voided her rights to her homestead, which fell back into the hands of Marsena French. Despite Marsena’s non-support of his children and many court battles with Emily both during and after their marriage, he was never held responsible for his actions.

In reality of the day, Emily French had it easy in that her husband never beat her. Such were grounds for the few divorces there were in Victorian times. The man who beat his wife was never publicized, although he occasionally might be told to stop by a relative, neighbor or police officer. Because the wealthy worked hard to cover such sensitive issues as spouse abuse, the poor were left to face the brunt of disapproving gossip.

Of course the lowest form of poverty often fell to prostitutes, and their complaints of abuse often fell on deaf ears. A 1901 issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette, for instance, reported on the trial of Joe Huser: “The complaining witness was Cora Wheeler, a colored woman of Myers Avenue [the red light district in Cripple Creek [Colorado], who alleged that Huser struck her in the face with a hatchet.” Beyond this tiny tidbit of information, nothing was ever mentioned of the case again. The fate of Joe Huser is unknown. Perhaps police officials failed to miss the large scar which certainly must have appeared on Cora’s face. More likely, the papers chose to have as little to say as possible about this horrible act. Prostitutes like Cora Wheeler were hardly worth worrying over, since they “chose” their profession and knew of the consequences that accompanied it.

As late as 1952 and even today, the plight of prostitutes as victims is still taken lightly. Long after prostitution was outlawed in the United States, ladies of the night became personified by actresses dressed in frilly clothes with lots of lipstick. The old dance hall days were portrayed by gay songs and silly skits, with little remembrance of what these women really experienced. It was perhaps easier to make a mockery of the profession rather than to point out its ugliness.

The Westerners Brand Book of 1952 makes an interesting account of Cripple Creek Sheriff Henry Von Phul, who pursued prostitute Mexican Jennie for murder. How Von Phul accomplished this is noted as “one of the finest pieces of detective work in the annals of these gold camps.” That this sheriff broke the law and ignored the reality of Jenny’s plight is of little consequence to the author. But Mexican Jennie, prostitute and battered woman, deserves to have her side of the story told.

By 1909, Jennie had married twice and had taken up with Philip Roberts Jr., a blacksmith. When Roberts moved into Jennie’s cabin at Poverty Gulch he became her pimp, drinking constantly and beating her when she didn’t make enough money to suit him. On Christmas night of 1913, Roberts knocked Jennie to the floor for the last time. This time, Jennie answered his abuse with a fatal gunshot. Jennie left for Mexico that night, leaving Roberts’ body in the cabin.

Three days later, Sheriff Von Phul left Cripple Creek in pursuit of Mexican Jennie. Had it not been for a delay in train service to Juarez, Jennie might have escaped. As it was, she had to travel to El Paso and swim across the Rio Grande River into Mexico. The effort took up a lot of needed time. Jennie likely offered her services to men in a group of army camp followers to get to Chihuahua City, 250 miles from El Paso.

Von Phul heard of celebrations going on in Chihuahua City and successfully apprehended Jennie. When he encountered her at the Capital Hotel, Jennie greeted Von Phul cordially. She did not resist when he took her into custody. When legal problems arose concerning taking a prisoner across the border, Jennie volunteered to walk across herself. Von Phul bribed no less than two people, one of them a criminal from his hometown of Cripple Creek, to accomplish his mission.

At no time did Jennie attempt to escape. Rather, she seemed eager to return to Cripple Creek to plead innocent by self defense. Mug shots of Jennie portray a smiling, stout Mexican woman with shiny black hair and modest earrings. At the top of the photograph are the words “Charged with murder.” After spending six years of a life sentence, Jennie was released due to poor health. She returned to Mexico, where she probably resumed her profession. In 1924, she died of tuberculosis.

Mexican Jennie suffered the unkind fate of being born into an unfair world. The public misjudged her and the authorities denied her rights. Like so many of her kind Jennie’s circumstances decided her destiny, but society rule decided her fate.

Here’s to the Ladies of Prescott Who Rode Fast Horses

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Frontier Gazette.

When it was first recorded in 1884, the term “cowgirl” referred to a female rancher or even a rancher’s daughter. In time, this single word also came to mean a female cowpuncher, and soon also applied to the resolute and hardy women who rode the rodeo circuit. In the Victorian west, a woman riding rodeo must have seemed appalling to some. But those in the game knew that gals coming from ranching backgrounds, where they worked with horses and cattle daily, were tough gals indeed.

In time, rodeo women became celebrities in their own right. They were vindicated heroes to other women, and men found them both pretty and impressive. During the 1880’s, during a surge of determined western estrogen, more and more women entered the arena at fairs, round ups and shows. Seven gals in particular watched as Prescott, Arizona held its first-ever rodeo in 1888. The following year, when promoters decided to add a women’s “contest”, they were elated.

Those first seven female contestants in 1889 were all locals, who had been born and raised on area ranches. They were “Mesdames T. Atto, Celia Book, D.W. Thorne and Misses Mollie Baker, Minnie Bargeman, Mary Boblett and Lizzie Dillon.” The women would perform in a single competition. A beautiful saddle would go to the winner; her runner-up would receive a fine bridle.

The event took place at the “Driving Park” in the afternoon of the rodeo’s last day. It was Friday, and crowds made their way to see this novel attraction. A cowboy tournament was scheduled too, but the “ladies riding” proved far more appealing. “Greater interest was manifested in the latter than in any of the previous days’ sports of the track,” noted the Prescott Journal-Miner, “every available vehicle and animal in the town being pressed into service to carry passengers, business of all kinds being closed for the afternoon.”

No doubt some betting money was exchanged as the cowgirls took their places. Seven judges—George Augustine, Orick Jackson, Frank Kuehne, Juan Leibas, George L. Merritt, James Rourke and Jeff Young—assembled to watch the contest. How it all went was not recorded by local papers, but the crowd was surely amazed and amused all at the same time. Lizzie Dillon won the saddle and Mary Boblett, a cousin to then-budding historian Sharlot Hall, received the bridle.

They say that despite it’s success, no other “ladies riding” contests took place at Prescott until the 1920’s. Lizzie Dillon married Tom Turner in 1891 and settled down. Likewise for Mary Boblett, who married Amos Hall in 1890, and Minnie Bargeman, who married that same year. Notably, lots of women back then competed no more than once, settling into domestic life with a satisfied smirk on their faces. Others, however, pursued rodeo as a career and did quite well.

But it was not forgotten that those seven brazen and talented women had busted right into the rodeo industry, and their courage inspired others. Soon, trick riders—including amazing women who dove horses into water from high in the air—were all the rage. It could be said that trick shooter Annie Oakley was truly one of America’s first sweethearts. And, their gussied up and colorful outfits inspired men to start adding shiny buttons and polished accouterments to their outfits, too.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performances, circuses and other events featuring equestrian performances were soon featuring women like Mabel Strickland (pictured) and Tad Lucas, dubbed “Rodeo’s First Lady”. During the early 1900’s, heads turned when Fannie Sperry rode “slick”, the same as the men did. Slick riding consisted of tying the stirrups together under the horse’s belly and sticking your feet in for better balance in the saddle. It could also be dangerous, since it was harder for the rider to kick free if the horse went down.

Prescott’s rodeo cowgirls of 1889 may be in the past, but plenty of other ladies have saddled up in the time since. These include such champions as three-time winner Shirley Davis during the 1960’s, rodeo veteran Alexa Allred during the 70’s, Rose Webb in the 80’s, Twila Haller during the 90’s and most recently, Sheri Sinor-Estrada. These and many others have been recipients of cash prizes and shiny buckles, and there will be more.

Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Chapter 4

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

The following is excerpted from Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930 (University of New Mexico Press, 2003). Click here to order: https://www.unmpress.com/books/brothels-bordellos-and-bad-girls/9780826333438

Chapter Four: How Colorado City Came to Be

All About Rahab

Of Jerico’s Rahab, we’ve read the report

That she made her living with amorous sport,

She concealed on her roof both of Joshua’s spies—

(Is it possible they became clientele guys?)

Down a rope of red drapes, they fled from her shack;

Then to their camp, they sneaked their way back.

To Joshua they said: “We got some good dope;

But we cut a deal that you’ll honor, we hop.

You see, there’s this bimbo who hid us at night;

Please keep her household safe from the fight.

She’ll hang a red curtain right on her wall;

Our boys must not mess with that whorelady’s hall!”

So her signal was honored—fortuitous drape!

And Joshua’s rowdies went elsewhere to rape.

Now that is the reason, to this very day

Crimson curtains are hung where hookers do play.

~ Charles F. Anderson

The Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859 created a stir not just in Denver, but in other parts of the state as well. Hundreds of prospectors and merchants were making their way to the gold fields on the western slope of Colorado, often encountering angry Native Americans in their quests. The trails south of Denver included Ute Pass, an ancient Indian trail that skirted the base of Pikes Peak near today’s Colorado Springs. Prospectors J.B. Kennedy, Dr. J.L. Shank and D. M. Slaughter, the first men to stake claims in South Park, were later killed by Indians near Kenosha Pass. Even as late as 1869, Major James B. Thompson noted 200 Utes who had a winter hunting camp near today’s Cripple Creek. Throughout the winter of 1874-75, Ute leader Ouray camped near Florissant with 600 other Utes.

Despite a few skirmishes with Indians, however, white settlers continued migrating into the Pikes Peak Region. The trail from Colorado City actually began at the opening to several canyons comprising Ute Pass, and it wasn’t long before a town formed to furnish supplies for travelers heading West via the pass. When it was first established in 1859, Colorado City was every bit a notoriously rough western town. Long before Colorado Springs came along with its anti-liquor laws and elite citizenship, Colorado City sprouted as a thriving supply town. The place was a virtual melting pot for easterners who swarmed the state in search of gold. All the required elements were present: ramshackle houses, churches, a school, hotels and saloons. The first tavern was opened in 1860 by John George. Accordingly, Colorado City’s population grew to include enterprising merchants, faithful families, hopeful miners—and prostitutes. There is no doubt that the soiled doves who flocked to Colorado City saw golden opportunities. Trains and freighters stopped daily on their way to the gold fields, initially bringing lots of single and lonely men. In those early days, the business was hardly regulated and these women had the freedom to work and live where they chose.

In 1861 Colorado City was made the capitol of Colorado Territory. A series of courthouses were built in an effort to turn Colorado City from a blue collar, transient town to a first class city. The most notable of these was a courthouse located inside of what was known as Doc Garvin’s cabin. The tiny, one-story log cabin was originally located at 2608 West Colorado Avenue, but has been moved several times in the last century. Colorado City aspired to become the state capitol, but its efforts were in vain. Visiting politicians were less than impressed with the rough and wild city. The capitol was moved to Denver, and in 1873 the new, elite, and ostentatious city of Colorado Springs managed to win the county seat. Founded by Quaker William Jackson Palmer, Colorado Springs sought to be the “Saratoga of the West” with fancy homes, nice hotels and a variety of tuberculosis sanitariums that were all the rage among suffering easterners. Furthermore, Palmer’s wife, Queen, talked her husband into outlawing liquor houses within in the city limits. It stood to reason, then, that Colorado City should excel where Colorado Springs did not. A variety of activities, from prize fighting to prostitution to drinking to dancing, went on at all hours around what is now the 2500 block of Colorado Avenue.

In fact, much of Colorado City’s new commerce was generated by Colorado Springs. Although residents and authorities in Colorado Springs frowned on Colorado City, many of the former’s residents were regular patrons of “Old Town”, whose saloons and sporting houses were quickly growing in number. Do-gooders in Colorado Springs tried to blame the Colorado Midland Railroad for bringing in undesirables and encouraging the saloons, parlor houses and Chinese opium dens in Colorado City. But the fact was, Colorado City already had these elements long before the railroad came through in the 1880’s. Plus, the town was sandwiched between Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, so passage through Colorado City was absolutely necessary in order to access Ute Pass.

In an effort to mask the activities of Colorado Springs and Colorado City’s more prominent citizens, tunnels were built from the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad tracks south of Washington (now Cucharras Street) which led to the gambling houses and brothels of Colorado City. Later, tunnels were also built from the north side of Colorado Avenue to the south side, so visitors to the casinos and bordellos could avoid being seen. From south side gambling houses like Jacob Schmidt’s at 2611 W. Colorado, the Argyle Block and Geising & Perbula’s Saloon, patrons like “Eat ‘Em Up Jake” could slip out the back way and through a tunnel or a discreet hallway to the bordellos across the alley.

Oddly, the first 25 years of Colorado City’s growth are rather obscure. The 1879 city directory shows a mere 99 entries, perhaps due to the transient population. By 1880 Colorado Springs was fairly booming, but Colorado City was still not much more than a village with a few streets and no visible red-light district. That’s not to say that some women did not ply their trade in the city limits, especially in 1884 when the population surged to 400 souls. That year, there were four known saloons operated by Henry Coby, Al Green, John Keller and Charlie Roberts.

By 1886, saloon owners included N. Byron Hames with his Hoffman House, Alfred Green, Dave Rees of the Windsor Café, John Keller whose Ash Saloon also served as a general store, Charles Roberts, John Rohman, Jack Wade and Larry Watts. In all, there were twelve to sixteen saloons. There were also two justice’s of the peace who were apparently trying to gain some sort of order in rowdy little Old Town. One of the earliest attempts to close down gambling was noted in the November 26, 1887 issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, which unaccountably reported, “The gambling houses of Colorado City have re-opened and are now running full blast.”

Apparently, city authorities had already attempted unsuccessfully to shut gambling down. With all those saloons, more than a few prostitutes were surely present as well. One of the first prostitutes on record at Colorado City was probably Mrs. Isabelle Semple, who resided on Washington Avenue in 1886. Isabelle died in 1901. A more famous early madam was Minnie Smith, a.k.a. Lou Eaton, a sometime gambler and madam who was well known throughout Colorado including Buena Vista, Creede and Denver’s Market Street, where she was known as both Lou Eaton and Dirty Alice. In Colorado City Minnie purchased a large old two story house on the south side of Colorado Avenue. She was in her mid-thirties at the time and described as “a slender little woman, not good looking and a vixen when aroused.” Vixen was right; Minnie was well-known for her terrible temper and was in trouble a lot during her short stay in Colorado City. Once she was brought in on charges of nearly beating a lawyer to death with the butt of a gun, and early magazines sported engravings of her horsewhipping a man she caught cheating at cards.

By 1888, the number of saloons in Colorado City had grown to twenty-three, and included those run by such notable operators as T.R. Lorimer, Henry Coby, Byron Hames and Alfred Green. A glassworks factory at Wheeler and 25th Street manufactured local liquor bottles. The population had swelled to fifteen hundred, mostly due to industry growth as the Colorado Midland Railroad took root and a number of factories appeared. Nearly thirty years after Colorado City’s inception, the city fathers finally decided it was time to create such necessities as a police department and appointed city positions. Police Magistrate Renssolear Smith oversaw the first of two city halls, which was built at 2902 West Colorado Avenue. By then shootouts, drunken brawls and “good ol’ boy” fights had become common sights, and horse racing up and down Colorado Avenue was a popular pastime.

In the midst of this uproar, a number of single women were living on Colorado Avenue. Many of their occupations are unclear but for that of Mrs. Bell McDaniel, better known as Laura Bell McDaniel. Within a year of her arrival, the enterprising woman had access to twenty-four saloons and only a handful of competitors. Laura Bell’s sisters of the underworld included Miss Belle Barlow, Miss Daisy Bell, Miss Fernie Brooks, Mamie Maddern, Emma Wilson and Hazy Maizie, a laudanum addict. In those early days of rampant prostitution at Colorado City, most of the women seem to have plied their trade along Colorado Avenue. When the Argyle block at 2603-2607 West Colorado was built in 1889, the downstairs was used as a saloon with gaming rooms and retail establishments. Mr. Connell, the original owner, later sold the building and the upstairs was divided into apartments and used by prostitutes.

As late as 1890, women such as Minnie Smith were still conducting business on Colorado Avenue. A number of single women such as Miss Lizzie Thompson, Miss Kate Herzog, Miss Edna Ingraham, Mary Dean, Fannie E. Eubanks, M.J. Duffield, J. Erlinger, Miss M.H. Richards and Daisy Johnson however, began appearing on Washington Avenue one block south of Colorado as well. The 1890 Sanborn Maps do not show any “female boarding” on either Washington or the main drag, Colorado Avenue. A number of saloons on Colorado, however, are depicted as having rooms above them or behind them which might have served as brothels. Most conveniently, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had by then laid its tracks down Washington Avenue, providing much opportunity for prostitutes to do business with male travelers passing through town.

In addition, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for 1892 show “female boarding”—the early term for female-occupied brothels—in two buildings each on the north and south sides of Washington Avenue between 1st and 2nd Streets. Two other notable women on Washington, a physician named Mrs. N. Albrecht and a “colored” woman named Mrs. Conrad Alesatha, are worth mentioning because they too may have had something to do with the red-light district. Other girls, such as Miss Fernie Brooks, were living yet another block south on Grand Avenue.

The new Police Magistrate, J.J. Guth, was by now hearing a series of complaints from citizens about the growing red-light population. In late January 1890, the Colorado City Iris commented on saloon owner Byron Hames, who made a speech on behalf of prostitutes at a mass meeting. In the wake of Hames’ speech, police responded by conducting raids in May. One arrestee was Mamie Maddern, who was operating out of a shack. Police arrested Mamie and several men. One of the men, Fred Thornton, later returned and, according to the newspaper, began to “frolic with Mamie.” Customer Henry Pettis objected to this and shot at Thornton three times, hitting him twice.

In 1891 there were finally enough established brothels in Colorado City to merit a listing in the city directory. The six bordellos were discreetly listed as boarding houses, and the directory also listed 21 saloons. One of the taverns was the Palace at 25th Street and Colorado Avenue which listed Frank James, brother of Jessie James, as a card dealer. Frank was no stranger to the red-light districts of Colorado, having been written up in the Boulder County Herald in 1882 for brandishing a revolver in a Boulder bordello and making threats. After frightening several working girls, James was arrested and hauled to the cooler to rethink his actions. Other notable places in Colorado City included Byron Hames’ Hoffman House at 2508 Colorado Avenue, the Nickel Plate at 2528 Colorado Avenue, the Bucket of Blood located along Fountain Creek at 25th Street, and the Silver State at 2602 Colorado Avenue. Nearly every saloon in Colorado City stayed open twenty-four hours a day and usually had gambling upstairs.

The city authorities were no doubt up in arms over so many saloons and the disgraceful lack of decorum they displayed. Both the saloons and the brothels were quickly escalating out of control. In January of 1891 a girl named Clara who worked for Laura Bell McDaniel attempted suicide by taking eight grams of morphine. The newspaper predicted she would die, although she was being attended to by a physician. Little else was revealed about Clara, except that she had recently migrated from Denver and wore eye glasses.

Later that month, Minnie Smith made a trip to Denver under her pseudonym, Dirty Alice. She was arrested on the 24th for intoxication and released on the condition she would come right back and pay her fine. Instead Minnie disappeared and was thought to have gone to Creede, where she used her money from Colorado City to open a well-known sporting house. Then in May banjo player William Clark of the Crystal Palace went on a drinking spree. When he couldn’t sleep, Clark took some morphine and overdosed. The physician called to his side misdiagnosed his malady as a “brain infection” and administered even more morphine. Clark died at the tender age of thirty.

The Crystal Palace was no doubt a rough place. The dance hall and brothel probably opened in about 1889 when Bob Ford, the killer of Jessie James, was dealing faro there. If the stories of both Bob Ford and Jesse James’s brother Frank James working there at different times are true, they are mighty ironic stories indeed. By May of 1890 it was also known as the Crystal Palace Theater. Later, it was also referred to as simply The Palace. On April 20, 1892, the Colorado City Iris reported on one Ed Andress, proprietor of the Crystal Palace. Andress was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and fined $10 and costs. Unable to pay the entire fine in cash, Andress threw in his watch. He was arrested again the next day for running a disorderly house. This time the fine was $58.05 and Andress lost his license.

Later that year city authorities decided to exercise more control over the red-light district by building a new city hall at 119 South 26th Street, literally around the corner from the district. By then the sporting houses on Washington were so active that the original courthouse, four blocks away, was too far for the frequent police trips. Colorado City authorities realized that the city could make more money from fining brothels each month than it could by closing them. Accordingly, the city assessed fines for a variety of violations regarding prostitution, and began reeling the money in with a vengeance.

Still, arresting sinners proved a difficult job for Colorado City authorities. Many of the early town trustees and officers were saloon owners themselves. To make matters worse, most prostitutes had no problem paying a little ol’ fine if it meant they could stay in business. The surge in prostitution at Colorado City during the 1890’s alarmed city officials, as well as the media. The Colorado Springs Gazette pounced on every chance to report on the goings-on in the district. When Bell Barker died of a morphine overdose in 1893, the paper reported that her Colorado City friends buried her “in good style”, but that Billie Huffman, “the tin horn who was living with her” left the country.

Similar sentiments were expressed about Minnie Smith. After Colorado City, Minnie had gone to Creede and then Cripple Creek. There, she allegedly ran a rooming house that was actually a parlor house over a saloon on Bennett Avenue. Unfortunately, forty-five-year-old Minnie was not distinguished enough for Cripple Creek, and the competition proved too tough for her. When Minnie committed suicide with morphine in Cripple Creek in 1893 or 1894, her body was brought back to Colorado City for burial. Minnie was actually buried in Evergreen Cemetery beside her first husband, Royster Smith. Allegedly Minnie’s grave mate on her other side was Bruce Younger of the Younger Gang. When Bruce sickened and died “an ugly death” in1890, the under world of Colorado City paid for his funeral and gave him the plot next to the Smiths. No records of these burials appear to exist. Minnie also left a considerable estate, but what became of it is unknown.

Drug overdoses, both intentional and accidental, were not at all unusual. In November another Crystal Palace employee, Oscar Bills, died from smoking opium. A Chinaman known as Kim Yonk was arrested in connection with the death because Bills had recently visited his opium den. Around the same time Miss Remee, a “variety artist” at the Crystal Palace, took morphine in a suicide attempt. She was saved, but threatened to do it again. Finally, in January of 1894, a dance hall girl from the Crystal Palace was arrested for robbery and thrown in jail. Authorities had had enough and ordered the place closed, and proprietor C.N. Hamlin was fined $55 for keeping a disorderly house. Hamlin married one of his girls, Mrs. Hazel Levitt, just a few months later.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, better known as the WCTU, was waiting for chances such as the closing of the Crystal Palace. In 1894, the WCTU submitted a petition to impose hours of operation on all saloons, bowling alleys, halls and “other resorts”. Only one-hundred-fifty-two people signed the petition, but city authorities had just begun. A widely publicized raid in 1896 was followed by a series of new ordinances: “Keepers of disorderly houses shall not refuse to admit officers. Officers may break doors and arrest with or without warrant.” Getting caught in the act of prostitution was a $300 fine, with additional punishments for frequenting opium joints, houses of prostitution, or dance halls. Furthermore, music was not even permitted at houses of ill fame or saloons.

The new ordinances went into effect almost immediately, but a raid in February netted only two girls and their visitors. In April of 1896, another police raid netted thirty-three arrests, plus two vagrants who stole a pair of clippers from a local barbershop. But still the girls came, and many stayed. Both Ida Anderson and Mary Franklin moved to Colorado City in 1896, staying as late as 1900 and 1906, respectively. Colorado City reacted to the influx of newcomers by passing even more new ordinances as misdemeanor offenses. They included laws against impersonating an officer, concealing weapons, nudity, indecent dress, cross-dressing, selling lewd or indecent books or pictures, public or private drunkenness, keno tables, faro banks, shuffle boards, playing bagatelle or cards, gambling, possessing gambling devices, and disorderly houses.

Also within the new ordinances houses of ill fame were banned within three miles of the city limits. Houses of prostitution who violated the ordinance were fined $300. Prostitutes were fined $10-50. Dance halls were assessed a $25-$100 fine. A new curfew was also imposed: 9 p.m. from March 1 to August 31 and 8 p.m. from September 1 to February 28 for anyone under the age of fifteen. Saloons, which were also still forbidden to play music, were not allowed to admit minors. Finally, saloons, tippling houses and dram shops were to be closed from midnight to 6 a.m., and all day on Sundays. For a few years the new ordinances seemed to work, although Sanborn Maps indicate the presence of more brothels on Washington Avenue and twenty-two saloons along Colorado Avenue.

Chief of Police George G. Birdsall, who was appointed in 1900, vowed that things would change. One of Birdsall’s first moves was to prohibit gambling in 1901. But by then, the shady ladies of Colorado City were running amuck, aided by such prominent establishments in the district as the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association at the southwest corner of 6th Street and Washington . Throughout the year, more and more girls showed up to ply their trade. Some left, some didn’t. Business flourished as even more saloons and gambling halls opened. Even girls like Georgia Hayden, who had been in Cripple Creek since 1893 and was a favorite of mining millionaire Jimmy Burns, came to try their luck. Among the new girls were veterans like Laura Bell and Mamie Majors. By 1902 there were still twenty-seven saloons and more than thirty combined saloons and gambling halls. In addition, a large number of “dressmakers” and other single women were occupying either side of the red-light district on Washington Avenue. The brothels along Washington included the Union Hotel at 708 Washington, the Central Hotel at the northwest corner of Washington & 6th Street, and eight houses in the 600 block. Prostitution was going strong in Colorado City.

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.

Wild Women of Prescott, Arizona – Introduction

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

The following chapter is excerpted from Wild Women of Prescott, Arizona(Arcadia Publishing, 2015.)

As one of the last states to enter the Union, Arizona remained a raw, rather uncivilized territory between 1863 and 1912. The untamed land lent itself to explorers, miners, ranchers, farmers and others who saw an opportunity to prosper. The growing population also included its share of shady ladies, a staple of the economy in nearly every western town. These wanton women prided themselves in being independent, hardy individuals who weren’t afraid to pack their petticoats across rough, barren terrain and set up shop. Their stories range from mild to wild, with plenty of colorful anecdotes in between.

Who were these daring damsels who defied social norms to ply their trade in frontier Arizona? The 1860 United States census, taken just three years before Arizona Territory was formed, listed a number of females who were then part of New Mexico Territory. At the time, New Mexico Territory was quite large. The population, which spanned over today’s Arizona, New Mexico, a portion of Colorado and part of Nevada, included mostly Mexican women who were locally born.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Organic Act which divided Arizona and New Mexico Territories by a north-to-south border that is still in place today. The first Arizona Territorial census was conducted the following year between February and April 1, revealing a population numbering over 4,500 people. Almost 1,100 of them were female adults and children.

Arizona’s military forts, mining camps, whistle stops, and cities grew at an amazing rate. Soldiers of the early frontier forts served as ample clientele for prostitutes during Arizona Territory’s formative years. Later, as mining camps grew into towns and towns bloomed into cities, a bevy of soiled doves flocked into these places and set up more permanent bordellos. In time nearly every town included working girls who conducted business in anything from tents, to tiny one or two-room adobe or stick-built cribs, to rooms above saloons, to posh parlor houses. Prescott, one the earliest, wildest and fastest growing towns in the Territory, was no exception.

The census records of the 1800’s are amongst the best resources used to identify prostitutes, but even these failed to identify every known working girl in Prescott. By 1870 the females of the town numbered a mere 108 versus 560 men. The census reveals little else about the ladies, including their marital status unless they married within that year. In most cases, the occupations of women who worked in the prostitution industry were discreetly left blank. Because the occupations of women who were unemployed or working as housewives were also unidentified in several instances, the true number of females working as prostitutes will never be known.

Not until the 1880 census were more—but not all—women of the underworld in Prescott blatantly identified as prostitutes, “sporting” and “fancy” women, mistresses and madams. The smart prostitute revealed very little about herself and took great pains to disguise her real identity, where she came from and how she made her living. Such details, however, might be revealed in her absence by a room mate, her madam, a nearby business or even the census taker who knew the occupants of the red light district, but was too embarrassed to knock on the doors there. So while girls such as Elizabeth Arbuckle were listed as prostitutes in Prescott during the 1880 census other women, such as madam Ann Hamilton, were only known as “keeping house” and other indiscernible occupations.

Census records also revealed changes in the way the West viewed the prostitution industry over the next 20 years. The 1890 census having burned up in a fire, it was obvious by 1900 that civilization had started its inevitable creep into Arizona Territory. Wives and families, churches and temperance unions were part of the growing groups in the West. Wayward ladies were forced to tone their job descriptions down to some extent. While blatant racism encouraged identifying Japanese and Chinese prostitutes as such, the Anglo women living next to them, or in identified red light districts, claimed to be working as seamstresses, laundresses, milliners and other demure careers that kept them out of the spotlight as working girls.

From 1900 on the bad girls of Prescott became largely unidentifiable, save for the tell-tale neighborhoods they lived in, their skirmishes as reported in newspapers, and the legal documents which singled them out. As the city continued growing, the female population had started catching up to the males by 1910 (2,032 women to 2,711 men). The girls of the row now struggled to prosper while their hometown remained tolerable for the most part. Interestingly, the residents of Prescott seem to have accepted their working girls as they would any other citizen, more so than many other towns in the west. Everybody knew that sex was for sale along Granite Street, just one block west of Montezuma Street’s “Saloon Row”. And very few seemed inclined to do much about it.

Historically speaking, however, loose women have always generated an enigmatic history. In an historically untamed place like Arizona, they are hard to track. Prescott was in fact so accepting of their shady ladies that, unless they got into trouble and landed in the public eye, hard records of them are very scarce. Finding them is further complicated by the time-honored tradition of generating folklore and embellishments over time, with a good sprinkling of misguided attempts to brand many a colorful old hotel, saloon or home as a former whorehouse. And although many of Prescott’s brazen hussies have a solid place in the state’s history, far more have escaped the eyes of historians and quietly faded along a rather dusty trail.

Despite Prescott’s ambivalence towards their wayward girls, being a prostitute was still the naughtiest of naughty deeds. The law, the moral majority and a good number of angry wives rarely lost the opportunity to emphasize the evils of being a bad girl. Their efforts were not unwarranted. Prescott newspapers do have stories of wicked women of the past who were not beyond lying, thieving and even murdering as they danced their way through the demimonde. Some crimes are excusable; certain girls were in the business due to the loss, by death or desertion, of a husband. Those who fought and/or killed were often defending their own honor or fighting for their lives during some domestic dispute. But it is no secret that certain prostitutes were truly a bad lot and drank, drugged, danced, fought, killed, stole and sold their bodies solely to appease their own inner demons.

In time Prescott, along with a number of other communities, officially outlawed prostitution to appease state laws and the moral element. On the side, however, officials continued to quietly tolerate the red-light districts. The prostitution industry evolved into an underground cash cow of sorts. As immoral as they were, women of the lamplight provided company and entertainment for Arizona’s restless soldiers and miners. They were also an excellent source of income for the city coffer, where their fines, high taxes and monthly business fees were deposited on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, required weekly or monthly medical exams were conducted by a city physician whose salary was supplemented by fees from their patients.

Stories also are numerous of illicit ladies in the West who sheltered the homeless, fed the poor, employed the unemployed, contributed to the building of hospitals, schools and churches, and assisted their hometowns with numerous unseen, unappreciated efforts. Arizona was no exception to the kindness of these true “whores with a heart of gold”, as the old saying goes. Thus, even though the Territorial government outlawed prostitution once and for all in 1907, the law was loosely enforced on behalf of the good time girls who made Prescott’s history even more colorful than it already was.

Some feel that history accounts about prostitution somehow reveres the industry’s participants as heroes. Others think that revealing the lives of the industry’s chief participants further shames them. Along those same lines, there is little doubt that many fallen angels preferred to remain unknown, hoping that their misdeeds would fade with their names into history. They did not want to embarrass their families or even friends who may have known them back when they were “good girls.”

Good or bad, the ladies are now long gone, unaware that their humility and courage is often held in esteem by others who enjoy reading about them, and many who sympathize with their plight. The shame is mostly gone too, even if it is often replaced by the romantic notion that all prostitutes’ lives were interesting, even fun. In many cases, they were not. True fans of prostitution history recognize that the vast majority of these women gambled everything, at very high risks, for a chance at surviving in a less than perfect world. Their efforts are memorable, at the very least because they served as an integral staple of the economy of the West. No matter their misdeeds, they deserve a second look as an important part of American history. 

Thanksgiving in Frontier Arizona

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Frontier Gazette

What was Thanksgiving in pioneer Arizona like? In many ways, the tradition and overall ambience has changed very little—except, imagine having to butcher your own turkey. Stewing your own cranberries. Baking pies and dinner rolls from scratch. Cooking on a wood-burning stove. Hand-washing the dishes. This was very much a part of Arizona’s Thanksgivings of old.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Organic Act to form Arizona Territory in February of 1863. Eight months later, he officially designated Thanksgiving an official holiday. Newcomers to Arizona were only too glad to give thanks in their new, albeit primitive, homes. Although the hard work involved to make any large meal was a part of every day life, the workload doubled at Thanksgiving.

The menu from a 1905 issue of Harper’s Bazaar gives much insight into details of a proper Thanksgiving dinner. The courses consisted of “Oysters on the half-shell with cocktail in pepper shells; Radishes, celery, salted nuts; Clear consommé with tapioca; Filet of flounder with pimentos and olives; dressed cucumbers; Roast turkey; cranberry jelly in small molds; creamed chestnuts; glazed sweet-potato; Cider frappé in turkey sherbet-cups; Quail in bread croustades; dressed lettuce; Blazing mince pie; Cheese with almonds; wafers; Angel parfait in glasses; small cakes; coffee.”

As the popularity of Thanksgiving grew during the 1860’s, a number of church cookbooks, ladies’ clubs and professional cooks offered endless numbers of enticing recipes. Amongst the earliest cookbooks was Isabella Mary Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management, which favored cooking a “modest” turkey for better flavor. Ms. Beeton recommended butchering the bird and letting it hang for four to eight days, depending on the weather, before dressing it. The required ingredients were one “middling-sized” turkey, white paper, forcemeat (an early term for dressing with meat), flour and butter. The recipe read in part, “Carefully pluck the bird, singe it with white paper, and wipe it thoroughly with a cloth; draw it, preserve the liver and gizzard, and be particular not to break the gall-bag, as no washing will remove the bitter taste it imparts where it once touches.”

More instructions followed, including “flattening the breastbone to make it look plump.” When stuffed and sewn, a “sheet of buttered paper” was fastened to the breast before the bird was put “down to a bright fire, at some little distance at first (afterwards draw it nearer).” The recipe cautioned to “keep it well basted the whole of the time it is cooking.” Gravy was made by dredging the turkey with flour, adding butter and basting with it during the last fifteen minutes.

In time, traditional bread stuffing became a favored alternative to forcemeat. An 1894 edition of the Coconino Weekly Sun offered a fairly simple recipe: “Prepare a dressing of bread crumbs, mixed with butter, pepper, salt, thyme and wet with hot water or milk. Add the beaten yolks of two eggs. Mince a dozen oysters and stir into the dressing, and, if you are partial to the taste, wet the bread crumbs with the oyster liquor.”

As the Victorian era arrived, Thanksgiving Pudding became a favorite dish. The instructions from an 1880 recipe were to the point: “Pound 20 crackers fine, add 5 cups milk and let swell. Beat well 14 eggs. Pint sugar. Cup molasses. 2 small nutmegs. 2 TSP ground clove. 3 ground cinnamon. 2 TSP salt. 1/2 TSP soda. Add to crackers. Finally add pint of raisins. Makes two puddings.”

Other dishes came and went, depending on what was most popular at the time. A staple dating to the first Thanksgiving dinner that has never gone away, however, is the pumpkin pie. A 1927 recipe offered simple, from-scratch ingredients and instructions that can still be followed today:

1 cup cooked pumpkin, 2 egg yolks or 1 egg, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, 1 cup milk. Mix ingredients and pour into unbaked crust. Bake in a hot oven (450 degrees) for 10 minutes. Then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until custard is done. Serve with whipped cream.

No matter the recipe, the primitive pioneers of Arizona were thankful for their Thanksgiving dinners, and especially to the many women who toiled in kitchen to make the tastiest meals possible. And a bit of humor never hurt either, as illustrated in this 1895 poem entitled “Mother Gets the Neck”:

“The sage may read the heaven’s tale

But can he this explain;

Why does she choose that bony part

And let the rest remain!

Aye, roasted, fried it is the same,

She loves to sit and peck

At the curved, tidgy meatless thing:

A turkey’s crinkly neck.”

Good Time Girls of Arizona & New Mexico: A Red Light History of the Southwest

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

As part of the new Good Time Girls series in historical prostitution, I am please once again to announce that my new book, Good Time Girls of Arizona and New Mexico has arrived!

It is no secret that I absolutely love writing about shady ladies of the past. Their bravery, dilligence and determination to survive make many of them heroes in my book. Here we have women bearing raw and untamed lands, oppressive heat, little water and a host of unknowns to settle in the southwest during a time when most “respectful” women dared not cross the overland trails. Oppressive too was the society in which these ladies lives, overcoming public shaming and shunning to make their way in a man’s world. Their stories naturally range from tragic to triumphant; all of them should be remembered as human beings, sisters, wives, daughters and mothers.

Expanding on the research I did for Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains (University of New Mexico Press, 2009 – out of print) and Wild Women of Prescott, Arizona (The History Press, 2015), this tome is a closer look at some of the ladies I wanted to know more about. Included here are chapters on Jennie Bauters, Big Bertha (of Williams, AZ), Sarah Bowman, Lizzie McGrath, Sadie Orchard, May Prescott, Jennie Scott, Silver City Millie and Dona Tules—all madams who were astute businesswomen and wielded much power and profit during their time. Also included are lesser known women such as the Sammie Dean of Jerome, AZ and the fierce Bronco Sue Yonkers. I visited ladies of the camp, wanton women on the Santa Fe Trail, and plenty of other women who dared to work in the prostitution industry and defied the laws, societies and men who tried to suppress them.

For those of you wishing to order the book, you can do so at this link: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781493038114/Good-Time-Girls-of-Arizona-and-New-Mexico-A-Red-Light-History-of-the-American-Southwest