c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins
Laura Bell McDaniel’s last luxurious bordello as it appears today.
Portions of this article first appeared in Kiva Magazine.
When it was first established west of Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1859, Colorado City was every bit of 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. All the required elements were present: ramshackle houses, churches, a school, hotels and saloons. The place was a virtual melting pot for easterners who swarmed the state in search of gold. Accordingly, Colorado City’s population grew to include enterprising merchants, faithful families, hopeful miners—and prostitutes.
It could be said that prostitution was a cornerstone of any town. Like any other industry, “red light’ districts made healthy contributions to the local economy, especially the courts. The difference was that, unlike any other industry, prostitution was frowned upon even as it helped these cities thrive.
There is no doubt that the soiled doves who flocked to Colorado City saw golden opportunities everywhere. 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 permitted these women freedom to work and live where they chose.
By 1880 Colorado Springs was booming, but Colorado City was still not much more than a village with a few streets and no visible red light district. That is not to say that some women did not ply their trade in the city limits. There were no more than four saloons in 1884, but the numbers began to grow as Colorado City’s population surged to 400 souls within three years.
Much of Colorado City’s new commerce was generated by Colorado Springs, located just a few miles away. Founder General William Palmer forbade alcohol within his city limits. It stood to reason then, that Colorado City should excel in that area. A variety of activities, from prize fighting to prostitutes and drinking to dancing, swarmed at all hours around what is now the 2500 block of Colorado Avenue.
As of 1888, Colorado City’s population had allegedly escalated to 1500, some of which supported sixteen saloons. Business was booming as shootouts, drunken brawls and “good ol’ boy” fights became common sights. Horse racing up and down Colorado Avenue was a popular pastime. In the midst of the foray, a number of single women were living on Colorado Avenue. Their occupations are all unclear, but for one lady. Her name was Mrs. Bell McDaniel, better known as Laura Bell McDaniel.
Laura Bell first got her start in Salida, where she first appeared in 1882 as Belle Dale. With her was her daughter, Eva Pearl. Although she was married, Mr. Dale was apparently not on the scene. The two were likely divorced, for in 1887 court records note that Miss Laura B. Dale married one John Thomas McDaniel. The two had been close for some time, as evidenced by their trip to Leadville during the winter of 1886-87. In their absence, Laura Bell’s house burned but she was heavily insured. She received a large settlement, despite the fact that a man named Morgan Dunn was suspected of setting the fire for a percentage of the insurance money.
A month after her marriage to McDaniel, Laura Bell reported to her new husband that Dunn had tried to kiss her.”Why didn’t you kill the son of a bitch?” Thomas retorted. That night, after several heated words, McDaniel would later claim Dunn said, “We might as well settle it now as any time,” and placed his hand on a hip pocket. McDaniel fired five shots at the man, killing him.
Employees of the nearby Arlington Hotel heard the shots and ran over. The scene was unnerving. Thomas was standing in the front door, with Laura Bell and her mother clinging to him and screaming. Laura Bell’s mother was exclaiming, “Oh Tom! Oh Tom! Why did you do that?” McDaniel coldly replied, “He had no business in my house.”
Thomas McDaniel was acquitted of the murder, but the shady elements surrounding the case made the couple uneasy. The two lost no time in departing from Salida and in fact parted ways, for Laura Bell appeared to be alone when she surfaced in Colorado City. Within a year of her arrival, the enterprising woman had access to twenty four saloons and only a handful of competition. Laura Bell’s sisters of the underworld included Miss Belle Barlow, Miss Daisy Bell, Miss Fernie Brooks, Mamie Maddern and Emma Wilson. The list continued to grow, so much in fact that a new city hall was constructed in 1892. City authorities boldly built the new structure at 119 S. 26th Street, just around the corner from the red light district.
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 how her Colorado City friends buried her “in good style”, but that Billie Huffman, “the tin horn who was living with her”, had left the country. Similar sentiments were expressed for Minnie Smith, a sometime gambler and madam throughout Colorado, including Creede and Denver. When she committed suicide in Cripple Creek, her body was brought back to Colorado City for burial.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, better known as the WCTU, was waiting for chances such as these. In 1894, the WCTU submitted a petition to impose hours of operation on all saloons, bowling alleys, halls and “other resorts”. Only 152 people signed it, but city authorities had just begun. A widely publicized raid (the sting only netted two girls and their tricks) in 1896 was followed by a series of 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 visiting opium joints, houses of prostitution, or dance halls. Music was not permitted at houses of ill-fame or saloons. Still the girls came, and many stayed. Both Ida Anderson and Elizabeth Franklin moved to Colorado City in 1896, staying as late as 1900 and 1906, respectively.
By 1900, it was said one could buy twenty drinks down “Saloon Row” on Colorado Avenue and never have to drink in the same bar twice. Despite this promising statistic, city authorities charged ahead and managed to prohibit gambling in 1901. By then, the shady ladies of Colorado City were running amok. 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, came to try their luck. Among the new girls were veterans like Laura Bell and Mamie Majors, who had come to Colorado City in the 1890’s.
Indeed, Laura Bell and Mamie Majors were the epitome of the “whore with a heart of gold.” Both ladies ruled over their respective kingdoms with grace and finesse. One of Laura Bell’s employees and best friends was Dusty McCarty, a blind man who made his way by bartending. Even after employee Carrie Briscoe married in 1902, Mamie Majors paid for her funeral when she died of tuberculosis in 1906. Both madams paid their monthly fines to the city on time, subscribed to newspapers and donated to schools, churches and other charities.
In the mode of the day, the good deeds of the red-light ladies were unreciprocated. City authorities sought to make an example out of Mamie by arresting her for maintaining a house of ill-fame in 1905. The arrest was neither her first nor last, and despite her three attorneys, Mamie was sentenced to six months in jail. The decision was followed by a barrage of letters on the desk of Governor Henry A. Buchtel, who in turn reduced Mamie’s sentence to thirty days. Buchtel’s action brought a two year run of accusing hate letters by newspapers and churches. The fight escalated to ridiculous proportions as it was insinuated that Buchtel in effect pardoned the madam. Buchtel’s heated retort was eagerly published, reading in part, “I did not pardon Mamie Majors. Please fix that in your mind. I would like to say it over and over about 10,000 times, I DID NOT PARDON MAMIE MAJORS.”
Beginning in 1906, a new ordinance required bars to close at midnight and Sundays; another ordinance prohibited use of side doors. In February, there were a series of busts resulting in jail time, fines and warnings. The police were egged on by local newspapers. The Colorado City Iris reported on seven brothels where liquor was sold without a city license. A monthly fine of $600 was suggested. Other newsworthy items included questioning city council for failing to close bawdy houses on Sundays. By March of that year, some girls had enough. Two brothels closed, leaving seven houses. “One of the gangs went to Cripple Creek,” tattled the Iris with satisfaction. The city pounced once again, this time on Jacob Schmidt for permitting women in his bar. Schmidt argued he had a sign up barring “prostitutes or fast women” from entering. He was dismissed with a reprimand.
As of November, the number of prostitutes on the Row had slimmed down to twenty four girls and eight madams. Things began quieting down and there was talk about annexing Colorado City to Colorado Springs. The red light district was falling out of the limelight until a respectable boy named Tucker Holland died at Dolly Worling’s brothel. It seemed 24-year old Tucker was terribly sweet on Dolly, whom he had been spending his wages on for at least six months. When Dolly’s ex-husband, a foul mouth by the name of Frank Shank showed up, Tucker was ousted from the house one last time. Upon returning the next day, Tucker had it out with Dolly. According to Dolly’s later testimony, Tucker was sitting on the bed playing with a revolver while she looked out the window. Below, a small boy pointed a toy pistol at Dolly’s dog. “See, Tucker,” she teased, “he’s going to shoot my poodle.” In answer, Holland shot himself neatly through the head.
This time, Mayor Ira Foote had enough and notified the girls of the Row they had ten days to leave town. The point was emphasized by a series of mysterious fires beginning in January of 1909. The first fire burned five or six houses on the south side of the red light district in a one block area. A second fire on January 8 destroyed the rest of the south side. Within hours, even a police watchman could not stop a third fire, which mysteriously originated in the same area. This time, the flames threatened the business district before being put out. The last fire, although blamed on a vagrant, took out Ridenhour & Rettigers livery stable in the 400 block of West Colorado. Forty three horses died, including Mayor Foote=s steed. Fourteen carriages and two other structures also went up.
Whether this last conflagration was related to sweeping the red light district clean will probably never be known. But retaliations of such proportions continued throughout much of 1909. Just a few days before Christmas, former madam Blanche Burton succumbed to burns received when a flaming curtain set her clothing on fire. The accident was typical for the time. Still, no one could explain the man seen running down the street near her home, nor a fire eighteen months before which burned her barn and killed a horse and two dogs.
In the wake of the 1909 fires, most of the madams’ insurance policies paid off and the district slowly grew up again. As the ladies of the district struggled to regain their composure, the Colorado City Iris continued to complain. Various exposés revealed new construction and accused the police of “dividing their ill-got gains with the city each month…” City authorities hustled to comply to the wishes of the WCTU and the Iris. In 1911, yet another ultimatum was issued to the prostitutes.
Nothing the authorities did seemed to sweep Colorado City clean of its soiled doves. When the WCTU succeeded in voting Colorado City dry in 1913, the red light ladies were hardly phased. They and their liquor-selling counterparts simply moved the brothels and bars to an area outside city limits. They christened their new town Ramona, and accounts of the ensuing battle with city and county authorities resemble an episode of Keystone cops.
Not everyone moved to Ramona. Mamie Majors gave up the ghost and went quietly away. Laura Bell McDaniel stayed right where she was, discreetly advertising herself as the “keeper of furnished rooms”. But inside, the business was the same, as court records show. Throughout 1917, Laura Bell paid her fines and minded her own business. Then fate dealt a final blow to Laura Bell and the red light district of Colorado City. Just a year before, the State of Colorado had outlawed liquor in anticipation of nationwide prohibition. Liquor became illegal everywhere except in private homes. Only city clerks were allowed to dispense alcohol, and strictly for medicinal purposes. In conjunction with the new laws, Colorado City annexed to Colorado Springs in June. The scene was devastating. Saloon kings like N. Byron Hames lost their fortunes and left town. Long time bar keeper Jake Schmidt committed suicide. Colorado City was almost clean, and it was no surprise when stolen liquor was found within the unmoving confines of Laura Bell’s.
In court, it was none other than Laura Bell=s blind and long time friend, Dusty McCarty, whose testimony revealed the true fiends. Two men, he said, stole that liquor from a Broadmoor home and planted it at Laura Bell’s. The good woman was framed! Much to the court’s chagrin, Dusty’s testimony held up and the case was dismissed on January 24, 1918. The very next day, Laura Bell set out for Denver. With her were Dusty and Laura Bell’s niece, Laura Pearson. It is said the latter two were very close, and that Laura Bell was teaching “Little Laura” to follow in her footsteps.
The threesome took off in Laura Bell’s spiffy Mitchell Touring Car, with Little Laura at the wheel. Near Castle Rock, the car inexplicably left the road and overturned. Little Laura died instantly, and Dusty was knocked unconscious. Later that night, 56 year old Laura Bell succumbed to massive internal injuries. She was buried in the lot she had already purchased at Fairview Cemetery, and the incident was forgotten. It was the perfect crime, but for certain Colorado Springs authorities who happened to witness the accident. Regardless of their suspicious presence, the accident was ruled just that.
That was the end of Colorado City’s den of prostitution. A scattering of girls continued living in the area, losing their identities as Colorado Springs continued to grow. Pearl Livingston, who arrived in 1903, was still here in 1927. Mamie Dedrick, in the profession since 1896, was living in the brothel she worked in when she died in the 1940’s. By then, the place was an apartment house for the elderly. Likewise, Laura Bell’s last brothel is now part of the Mountain View Care Center. Other brothels have found new life as private homes and even churches. The rest of the neighborhood is home to a park and a small Mennonite community. The occasional old-timer of Colorado Springs’ charming Westside might remember stories about the past. In the present, Laura Bell’s old haunt has melded into a quiet, comfortable historic place. At last, one of the west’s wildest places has a fitting end.
For additional reading, see Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930 and Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains. Both books are available at http://www.unmpress. Ms. Collins’ 3rd book on prostitution, Wild Women of Prescott, Arizona, is available http://www.HistoryPress.net.