One of the reasons I so enjoy researching and writing about prostitutes of the past is the ladies themselves. When I write articles and books about them, I am often lambasted by scholars and other historians for not including deep analyses of the statistics I find. Such fodder doesn’t interest me. Rather, I like getting to know these women personally. By finding out where they were from, learning about their families and gleaning information from the cryptic notes and photographs they left behind, I can keep their memories alive a bit longer. It is important to me to let their spirits know that not everyone thinks that what they did was particularly shameful or up for ridicule. So many of them deserve a better memory of their lives. In short, I love these women. They feel like sisters, aunts and grandmas I never had, even if they were “bad girls.”
To date, I have researched literally thousands of shady ladies throughout Arizona, California, Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Kansas, Nebraska, even as far away as Washington D.C. and New York. When my first book about prostitution history, Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930, came out in 2003 I was proud to say I knew of each and every woman in the book. I was a fountain of trivia. One could name any lady in that tome, and I would instantly recall everything I knew about her. In the time since, however, the overstuffed filing cabinet in my brain is overrun with names, dates, places and events. Even so, hundreds of ladies still haunt me, especially the ones with whom I feel an unexplained kinship. Lida is one of these.
I first ran across Lida when I was researching my second book about prostitution, Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains. That book transpired during a most wild time in my life; while trying to research and write the thing, I had broken out of a long term relationship, was taken a major new job responsibility, lost an old friend, sat by my mother and best friend as she died holding my hand, and experienced the utter joy of finding the true love of my life. In between were these crazy, rather blurry road trips all over the west. I had just one year in which to visit seven states, research all I could, and make some sense out of what I found. The end result was a giant volume that makes a great door stop, or even a small coffee table.
Throughout these gonzo research trips, certain women reached out through the piles of paperwork, pictures, documents and books to embed themselves in my memory. One of them was Lida, whom I discovered in Prescott, Arizona. She was memorable because someone had given her ample space in a research paper as one of the most prominent madams in town. When I moved to Arizona I found out a little more. Chief among the few facts about Lida was that one time, when forced by the state to establish an official red light district to keep the ladies in line, city authorities made an exception for Lida’s place. They had to, because it sat mostly in the middle of a busy intersection.
But Lida was clever, masquerading under several names, skillfully avoiding arrest and census takers, moving around a lot and never really revealing her true self in any existing documents. Because she seemed such a revered woman in red, and because she has been quietly tugging at my sleeve for over five years now, I have of course yearned to know more about her. I have been as true to Lida as I would to any living friend, diligently searching for clues about her life. Often I feel like her spirit is hovering over me while I work, gently prodding me to find out the rest of her story.
Yesterday I experienced a rare treat when I was invited to view the estate of another prominent prostitute. I looked forward to this visit for weeks, and my gracious hosts did not disappoint. Here were pictures, personal belongings, letters, newspaper articles and more, a pleasing variety of information that filled in a lot gaps about this woman. Tucked into one binder, we found a lone article about someone this woman had known. This lady had saved clippings about her friends and fellow working girls, and my heart jumped a bit when I saw that this particular piece was about Lida.
When I got home, I put all other research aside in favor of Lida’s article. Some of the mystery about her was cleared up, but as I read about her the tiny voice in the back of my head continued to puzzle over why she intrigues me so. The end of the article answered my question. Lida came to Arizona from Victor, Colorado, my former hometown which remains very close to my heart. In fact, my home there sits in the heart of the original red light district. For the twenty or so years I lived near or in that town, I researched the prostitutes there probably more than anywhere else. To find out Lida came from there makes me smile, a really big smile. Because it explains why this lady loves to haunt me, and why I in turn love to haunt her.
Third Street is part of the former red light district in Victor, Colorado, where my beloved Lida might have once lived.