Tag Archives: women

Victoria Behan: The Forgotten Life of an Embittered Wife

C 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in True West magazine.

“I have been nearly driven to distraction!” So said Victoria Zaff Behan of her well known husband, John Harris Behan. This was in 1875 when, after six years of a more-than-rocky marriage, the lady decided to call it quits.

Victoria had already seen her share of struggles. She hardly knew her father, if at all. Her mother, Harriet Zaff, was a German immigrant. Harriet was living in Missouri when she gave birth to her first child, Benjamin, in about 1847. A daughter, Catherine, was born in 1849. In 1850 Harriet and her brood, sans a husband, were living with Leopold and Catharine Zaff in Jefferson, Indiana.

Harriet’s ramblings next took her to California. Victoria’s birth in 1852 was followed by that of her sister, Louisa, in 1854. By 1860 Harriet and her daughters were living at the gold mining camp of Little York in Nevada County, while Benjamin stayed behind with the Zaffs in Indiana.

How Harriet made her way among the miners of Little York remains a mystery. The census identifies her as a widow, but clues are scant as to the identity of her husband. He may have been Godfrey Zaff, a fellow German who was living in a Sacramento boarding house in 1850. The census that year indicates Zaff was married and labored as a “cutter of garments”. He died in April of 1860 at Nevada City, roughly seven miles from Little York.

Five months later, Harriet Zaff married John Bourke at Red Dog, located just a mile or so from Little York. Bourke was one of thousands of Irish immigrants who had joined the 49ers flocking to California’s goldfields. A son, John, was born to the Bourkes in 1862. The family next spent time in Mohave County, Arizona Territory before relocating to the budding city of Prescott in the winter of 1864.  

In Prescott, Bourke quickly found work managing the Quartz Rock Saloon. Between 1864 and 1867 he also joined the Arizona Pioneer and Historical Society, served as Yavapai County Sheriff and was ultimately elected County Recorder. For the first time, Victoria experienced a stable family life. She attended school, enjoyed her stepfather’s fine reputation in town, and became acquainted with Deputy Sheriff Johnny Behan.

John Harris Behan was born in 1844 to Irish immigrants in Missouri. He had been to California and joined the Union during the Civil War before serving as a clerk to the First Arizona Legislative Assembly at Prescott. In 1866 Bourke appointed him deputy sheriff and he quickly became popular. A September 1867 edition of the Arizona Miner, Prescott’s newspaper, kindly commented on Behan’s impending journey to visit family in Missouri. “We wish you a pleasant trip, Johnny,” the paper said, “and hope you will soon return in company with a better half.”

Behan’s “better half” would turn out to be Victoria Zaff. A couple of career mistakes aside, Johnny seemed a good prospect for marriage. He had a great job and was well liked. Besides, there was one more good reason to marry him: Victoria was pregnant. The couple wisely exchanged vows in far-away San Francisco in March of 1869. Their daughter, Henrietta, was born the following June. The couple no doubt hoped nobody would do the math. They didn’t, at least publicly.

The family Behan became a respected presence in Prescott. In January of 1870 the Arizona Miner noted the couple was building a stylish home on Capitol Hill, “one of the prettiest spots on the townsite.” Then in July of 1871 a second child, Albert Price, was born. Over the next two years, Johnny was elected Sheriff and appointed to the Seventh  Arizona Territorial Legislature.

Gradually, however, Behan began spending more and more time away from home. In time Victoria became aware that her husband favored Prescott’s Whiskey Row and its adjoining red light district. After awhile there was no sense in Behan keeping his habits a secret; Victoria later claimed she knew all along that her husband “openly and notoriously visited houses of ill fame and prostitution.”

The marriage crumbled further when Behan lost his re-election campaign for Sheriff in 1874. On those occasions when he actually managed to make it home from Whiskey Row, Victoria remembered their terrible fights. During those times, Victoria claimed, Johnny would approach her in “a threatening and menacing manner calling me names such as whore and other epithets of like character and by falsely charging me with having had criminal intercourse with other men, threatened to turn me out of the house, quarreling with, and abusing me, swearing and threatening to inflict upon me personal violence.”

Perhaps it was such an argument in December of 1874 that sent Johnny into the arms of prostitute Sada Mansfield. There, according to Victoria, Johnny “did consort, cohabit and have sexual intercourse with the said [woman]…openly and notoriously causing great scandal…all of which came to the knowledge of this plaintiff.”

The Arizona Weekly Miner yielded no clues to the Behan’s failing marriage in the coming months, reporting instead on Johnny’s prospecting efforts in Mohave County and daughter Henrietta making the honor roll at school. But Behan’s discrepancies were outed on May 22, 1875 when Victoria filed for divorce. She was granted one in June and received custody of her children, plus child support—but for Albert only. Naturally, the glaring crossing out of Henrietta’s name on the divorce record led rumors as to why. Now, the ugly little secrets that had been harbored within the Behans’ private circle were on public display for all to see.

Local newspapers declined to comment on the divorce, but Victoria could not have missed the articles about Behan’s continued successes in law enforcement and politics. The newspapers were good to Victoria too, commenting on her charitable efforts and complimenting her family. “We have known [Mrs. Bourke] and her fair daughters to be industrious and an ornament to our good society,” praised the Weekly Miner in December of 1876.

The Behan’s separate lives were forced to come together once more when Henrietta succumbed to scarlet fever in March of 1877. Albert was also afflicted but escaped with a hearing impairment. From then on, Behan remained much a part of Albert’s life. During an excursion in 1879, “Mr. Behan took his little son Albert with him, and will in a short time place him under the care of an eminent physician in San Francisco for the purpose of having him treated for a slight deafness, occasioned by a severe sickness two years ago,” confirmed the Weekly Arizona Miner.

Victoria continued rebuilding her reputation. Memories of her scandalous divorce were fading, and in June of 1879 Lily Fremont, daughter of Governor John C. Fremont, noted in her diary that “Mrs. Behan, Mrs. Luke and Mrs. Rodenburg called.” Clearly, Victoria was moving on with her life. Behan, meanwhile, was rescued from an angry mob of Chinese men in late 1879 by constable Virgil Earp. It was perhaps this embarrassing incident that inspired him to open a saloon at Tip Top, a budding mining community in the nearby Bradshaw Mountains.

Behan was still at Tip Top when the census was taken on June 1, 1880, as was the notorious Ms. Mansfield with whom he had cavorted in Prescott. As for Victoria, she and Albert were still living with Harriet Bourke in Prescott. Victoria may have been blissfully unaware that her ex was pursuing a new love interest, Josephine Sarah Marcus. She most certainly knew of the affair, however, when Behan moved to Tombstone in 1881. If Behan told his ex-wife about his additional plans for another visit to San Francisco, he probably left out that he was going there to give an engagement ring to Marcus and convince her to join him in Arizona.

It is hard to say whether Victoria would have let Albert go live with his father in Tombstone had she known of Behan’s plan. Behan and son arrived in town in September of 1881 and awaited Josephine’s arrival in December. Soon, she was spending time at Behan’s Grand Hotel, caring for Albert when his father was away. “I came to love him as my own,” Josephine later said of Albert. “He was the only child I ever had in any sense of the word.”

Next, Behan and his new flame made plans to procure a house where they could live with Albert. It is likely that Victoria was unaware of the plan, or that the new “Mrs. Behan” had taken her nine-year-old son to his hearing specialist appointment in San Francisco. Allegedly though, that is what Josephine did. Upon returning to Tombstone, however, she found Johnny (possibly in bed) with another woman.

Josephine Marcus’ ensuing break up with Behan landed her in the arms of his political adversary, lawman Wyatt Earp. In August 1881, newspapers noted that Victoria had taken a trip to Mohave County, “visiting her sisters, cousins and aunts.” It is entirely possible she also retrieved Albert, for there is no mention of him being in Tombstone during the famed shoot-out at the O.K. Corral a few months later.

Albert would have arrived in Prescott in time to attend his mother’s wedding to Charles Randall on September 15. Randall was a hardware merchant who was, from all appearances, much better suited for Victoria. Heartbreak came, however, when the Randalls tried for children of their own. A daughter was stillborn in April of 1884 and another baby also died in November. A son, Owen Miner, was born in 1885 but lived just over a year. Victoria overcame her grief by focusing on Albert, who was sent to a California college in 1888.

In 1889 the Randalls were living at the Congress Mine when Victoria died suddenly on May 16 from “an attack of acute rheumatism.” The lady would have appreciated her epitaph in the Prescott Courier which read in part, “She was a good, true woman and friends, of which she had a great many, will be greatly grieved over her loss.” Pallbearers at her funeral included Yavapai County Sheriff “Buckey” O’Neill and former Prescott mayor Morris Goldwater.

Charles Randall remained at Congress, where he was elected postmaster in 1891. He eventually remarried and returned to Prescott. As for Albert, Victoria’s only surviving child maintained relationships with his family up to their deaths. He also pursued a career in law enforcement, an endeavor his parents surely would have been proud of. Between 1894 and 1922, Albert worked for the United States Customs Houses in Nogales, Yuma and Ajo. Beginning in 1897, his job included working as an undersheriff in those towns. He was still employed as such in 1912, when his father died in Tucson.

From 1918 to 1922, Albert achieved notoriety as a United States Marshal at Ajo. In 1927, according to Josephine and others, Albert visited she and Wyatt Earp at their Los Angeles home. During the visit Albert warned Wyatt that Billy Breakenridge, a former deputy sheriff under Johnny Behan, was writing a book with the intention of making Wyatt look bad (the tome, Helldorado, was published in 1928). “It seems a bit strange as I think of it,” Josephine later commented, “that the son of Sheriff Behan should show this interest in the reputation of his father’s political enemy. But the character of the two men—Wyatt Earp and the sheriff’s son—answers that, and the friendly gesture on the part of the younger man is a compliment to both.”

Ten years later, Josephine visited Albert at Tucson on the way to Tombstone for a “research trip”. With her were Harold and Vinneola Earp Ackerman who, with Mabel Earp Cason, planned to write a manuscript about Wyatt. Neither Breakenridge, the Ackermans, nor Cason interviewed Albert. If they had, he might have mentioned Victoria—although Josephine would have probably prevented such information from appearing in any public works.

With the deaths of Victoria’s sister Louisa in 1934 and Charles Randall 1942, fewer people remained who personally knew Victoria Zaff Behan. Alone with no immediate family, Albert Behan retired to the Arizona Pioneers’ Home in Prescott. When he died in 1949, his death certificate listed his parents as “unknown”. Even Albert Behan took the secret of his parents’ scandalous divorce to the grave.

Cora Wallace, Ranch Wife of the West

c 2017 by Jan MacKell Collins

“She was really the one who raised us as Papa was away so much of the time.” So said Ruth Wallace Moritz of her mother, Cora Wallace. Ruth’s father Frank, a well-known Arizona cattle rancher, was absent from home on a regular basis. Like so many others, Cora found being a ranch wife truly demanding. These hearty women spent much of their time alone, performing such daily chores as tending the garden, curing meat, pickling and preserving food, washing laundry, sewing, cleaning house, raising children, feeding livestock and more.

Cora’s decision to be a rancher’s wife may have been inspired by a love for adventure. Born on an Arkansas plantation in 1870, Cora was primarily raised by her grandmother in Arkansas and Texas. It is notable that Cora attended a “finishing school” while with her grandmother. By 1888 she was reunited with her widowed father, a farmer near Dona Ana, New Mexico. There she met Frank Wallace, a sometime cowboy who was working for Joe Nations of New Mexico. Wallace spent the night while herding horses to Albuquerque but soon returned and married Cora. Two days later the newlyweds departed so Frank could take work as a cowpuncher near Tenuca. Cora’s life as a ranch wife had begun.

Shortly after the first of eight children was born in 1890, the Wallaces relocated to Winslow where Frank worked for the Waters Cattle Company. Three more children were born at Winslow, and Cora also took in two young girls whose mother had died. “Mama took care of them as her own,” Ruth noted. Frank was gone much of the time and even more so when Waters sold out to the Aztec Land & Cattle Company whose Hashknife brand was already famous in Arizona.

In 1898 the family moved to the Hashknife headquarters three miles south of Joseph City. Ruth recalled the challenges her mother faced. “Her life as a rancher’s wife was not an easy one,” Ruth remembered. “During those years the ranchers had open land for their cattle making it more difficult to gather them. They would be gone weeks at a time leaving their wives to take care of the children and keep things going at the ranch.”

In addition to her own family, Cora also boarded and fed numerous cowboys. Former cowpuncher J. Lon Jordan, later sheriff of Maricopa County, remembered that Cora “cooked more good groceries for hungry cowboys than any woman in Arizona.” Two more daughters were born at the Hashknife headquarters, yet Ruth remembered her mother as cheerful, generous and kind. Cora was also very proud to be a descendant of U.S. Presidents Zachary Taylor and James Monroe.

When the Aztec sold the Hashknife brand to Babbitt Brothers in 1899, the Wallaces stayed at the headquarters as caretakers while running their own cattle. In 1905 the family next relocated to Adamana, a desert whistlestop east of Holbrook. The first family home was a tent along the Rio Puerco River. When the family was flooded out they relocated to higher ground where Frank and his ranch hands built a two story home. “It was a desolate place,” said Ruth of Adamana, “and we depended on the windmills for water.”

Ruth also remembered the struggle to make ends meet since ranchers were regularly hampered by droughts, freezing winters and low prices for the beef they raised. At the mercantile in Holbrook, the family was forced to “sell their souls to the company store”, living on credit at a high interest rate. “Having no money was a fact of life and mothers made do,” she said. “We had very little money in those days but Mama gave of herself to all around her. We never felt deprived.” Although she occasionally secured a little extra money for store coats for her children, Cora made almost all of her children’s clothing. Towels were sewn from flour sacks, and scraps of material were saved to make quilts.

Seven children and two ranch hands continued to keep Cora busy at her cookstove. Ruth remembered that “Mama had a large kettle of beans on the stove and lots of home cooked bread. She cured the meat, made soap from scraps of pork so we had plenty. Our diet with lots of stewed peaches and apples was sufficient.” Cora also gave birth to her eighth—and last—child in 1912. She enlisted the help of her children when she could but the younger children were sent to school. Ruth remembered trekking two miles down the railroad tracks to the schoolhouse.

Ruth and another daughter, Margery, also were often out on the range taking fresh horses to cowboys as they worked throughout the day. “It was a lonely time as we missed home,” Ruth recalled, but added that Margery would sing songs to her for company. The girls headed home across the prairies after these round ups, where “Mama would have a hard time getting us clean.”

The Wallace’s hard work at Adamana eventually paid off. By the mid-teens, the family was faring well enough to build a nice home in Holbrook, complete with a beautiful hardwood interior, glass doorknobs, electricity and indoor plumbing (Frank stubbornly kept an outhouse in the back yard as well). Cora’s name appeared on the property deed. She also assured that her son-in-law, George Hennessey, purchased property directly across the street and built a home for himself and Cora’s daughter Frances. Shortly after the homes were completed, Hennessey was elected the first mayor of Holbrook.

Success continued to follow the Wallace family. Within a few years, Frank also purchased the majestic O W Ranch outside of Young for a whopping $150,000. The original log ranch house served as an ample home. There was plenty of water and the family dined on fish, wild game, chickens, turkey and, of course, beef. Outbuildings included a smokehouse, a cow barn and a dairy house for keeping butter, milk and cheese. Cora’s larder also included potatoes grown by a neighboring rancher and wild grapes. Writer Norma Leonard told how, after she had made some wine, Cora threw the fermented grapes in the yard. Some turkeys came along and ate the grapes, and were soon stumbling around trying to regain their balance.

A second, much fancier home was built on the property at the O W as well. It was intended for the Wallace’s oldest son, Emmet, to live in with his wife Amy whom he married at Adamana. Tragically, Emmet died during the 1920 flu epidemic (a daughter, Margery, had also died in 1915). The family later moved into the house, where an ample root cellar stored Cora’s homemade preserves. In spite of a lack of electricity, Cora was able to make a comfortable home for her family, as well as the numerous cowhands who worked for or passed by the ranch. She also bought, sold and traded coffee, flour and other goods with Native Americans, cowboys and other local ranch wives.

Forced by hard times to sell out in 1928, Frank went into business with various of his children and their spouses. In 1937, Frank and Cora moved to Tucson and lived with daughter Ruth and her husband, Harold Moritz. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary there a year later. During a visit to Holbrook in September of 1939, Cora died unexpectedly. Her son-in-law Charles Lisitzky and Fred Schuster of A & B Schuster Co. handled the funeral costs. Guests and pallbearers  included many of the cowboys she had cared for and fed from the Hashknife, including Dick Grigsby, Johnny Paulsell, Bill Wyrick and Ed Bargeman.

Little remains today as a testament to Cora Wallace and women like her. Most of the Wallace homes are gone now, one exception being the house in Holbrook. Thanks to preservation efforts by subsequent owners, the home remains amongst the nicest in town. Another landmark is the old root cellar from the family home at the O W Ranch where Cora stored her cured meat and homemade preserves. When her granddaughter, Suzanne Peterson, visited the ranch as a young girl she remembered seeing some mason jars filled with preserves that were still in the cellar. Perhaps it is most fitting that this one remnant from a ranching family still pays tribute to a unique group of women from the old west.

Jan MacKell Collins is the great-great granddaughter of Frank and Cora Wallace. More about ranching life can be found in her book, The Hash Knife Around Holbrook.

Woman’s Work: A Look at Victorian Professions

c 2014 By Jan MacKell Collins

“One night I saw something that put a little sense in me…I was sitting at a little table eating when a woman came in…I looked up at her and thought she was the prettiest woman I ever saw in the Creek…As she got up to leave, I looked up at her and almost fell out of my chair with shock. The side of her face towards me, from her forehead on down to the neck, had been slashed three or four times with a knife. Her neck was slashed all on one side. It was terrible.”

~ Lizzie Beaudrie
Cripple Creek dance hall girl
circa 1898

Historically, romanticism has run rampant about women’s roles in the American West. Documentation such as Lizzie Beaudrie’s, however, tells us that women were not respected as a whole and were often victims of violence. And so, while the gentler sex was often regarded as such, the same were expected to make their way in a harsh world without fuss or fight.

A great many single women in turn worked hard to maintain some sort of lifestyle for themselves. The possibilities of employment were extremely narrow by today’s standards. Cooks, clerks, stenographers, nurses, dressmakers, maids, milliners, laundresses, prostitutes, teachers, wives—all were low paying jobs which offered no advancement and some inherent dangers. The combination of low income and a lack of services made for a hard and thankless life.

But although the woman’s wall of will constantly found itself up against the barrier of suppression, it somehow persevered. One feminist who proved this point was English travel-writer Isabella Bird. In 1873, Bird arrived in Colorado to have a look around. Amazingly she traveled alone much of the time and was unarmed, most extraordinary for a woman of her time. Her companions and hosts included the wealthy and the poor, desperados and ranchers. Most of these were men.

Isabella Bird’s determination to make it in a barren and primitive region would later serve as an inspiration to women like Emily French. Emily, initially a ranch wife on the Colorado prairie, was one of many women who suffered from an unresponsive husband. When she found herself divorced from Marsena French at the age of forty seven in 1890, 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. Emily did have the luxury of a set of false teeth made of wood, and managed to even secure a date now and then. For the most part, however, Emily spent many lonely days as a woman in a man’s world.

In fact, Emily French had it good compared to the lowest form of poverty. This included thousands of prostitutes, whose complaints often fell on deaf ears. A 1901 issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette reported on the trial of Joe Huser in Cripple Creek: “The complaining witness was Cora Wheeler, a colored woman of Myers Avenue, who alleged that Huser struck her in the face with a hatchet.”

Violence and hardship aside, a number of women did strive to make a career for themselves. Many were successful; witness the number of female boarding house proprietors in the Cripple Creek District in Colorado at the turn of the century. There is no doubt that Mrs. Mollie Kathleen Gortner set precedence when she staked one of the first mining claims in the District in September of 1891. By 1893, the Women’s Gold Mining Company had also incorporated in Cripple Creek under the laws of Colorado. An ambitious undertaking, the Women’s Gold Mining Company included officers Miss A. Grimes, President, Mrs. A. Reynolds, Vice President, Miss Mary E. Gover, Treasurer, plus officers Mrs. Lucy G. Pierce of Peabody Massachusetts and Mrs. Joan Hanford of San Bernadino, California. The capitol stock of 800,000 was divided into single shares at ten cents each. It is no surprise that the principal mine of the company was known as the “She”.

More obscure professions fell to women like Mrs. N.H. Chapman, a writer who lived in Victor, Colorado in 1900. Anna Blair and Belle Miles were both artists who resided in Cripple Creek in 1902. Miss Fay Barnes was a “china decorator”. Mae Connor worked as a florist. Mrs. Julia O’Neill worked as a matron at the County Jail. Miss Mayme McAfee was among the musicians in Cripple Creek. Mrs. Kathryn Bates was a voice culture teacher.

As women toiled their way through the Victorian era, a light at the end of the tunnel appeared with the celebrated fame of Annie Oakley. Born in 1860, Annie overcame an abusive childhood to become one of the greatest sharpshooters in the west. During her career she literally made millions performing in exhibitions and traveling with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Annie’s modesty was overshadowed by her contemporary appearance: short skirts and a refusal to tie up her dark curls. Despite her outward appearance, Oakley made no secret of her conservative lifestyle and her devotion to husband Frank Butler.

By the time Annie passed away in 1926, the celebrated markswoman had amassed a lengthy resume and fortune. Surely as women around the world read the obituary of Annie Oakley, they somehow found hope and encouragement to continue taking charge of their lives.

Julia Skolas cropped

Julia Skolas was one of a number of women who found a way to make a living in a man’s world. During the 1890’s and early 1900, Skolas was a most prominent photographer in Cripple Creek, Colorado.