Women of the Cabins
THE FEMALE SEX WORKERS OF LAKE COUNTY
With the discovery of gold in 1858, the population in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains surged. The Old West was built on the backs of determined individuals experimenting in frontier community, a history of bodies, but usually it’s the gunslingers, miners, trappers, and cowboys who are recognized. The old saying goes: “First the miners came to work in the mine. Then came the ladies who worked on the line.” The women’s stories are every bit as dramatic. Historical accounts of these women can be found in fragments of newspapers, obituaries, court cases, and in a handful of library books. But these women were hard to track. They moved from town to town, changing their names, inventing back stories, their identities constantly evolving. What were their lives like? What do we know about them? How can we celebrate them? We know the sex industry has always been very diverse. While we looked for stories of bipoc, people with disabilities, men, minors, folx with varied identity markers, there are few stories to begin with for people who worked these jobs. Our intention in telling the stories of the women we found is to elevate the statues of the sex workers of today.
Things to know about prostitution in the Old West:
- There was a social and financial difference between the elegant parlor houses and local brothels, there are class distinctions of prostitute.
- “Hurdy-gurdy girls” frequented dance halls and doubled as performers and prostitutes.
- At the time silver was discovered in Oro Gulch, Leadville had three separate red light districts.
- By 1895, madam Laura Evans recalled, there were about five hundred sporting girls in Leadville.
- Prostitution was officially closed down in 1915 with the Nuisance Act, but it continued in operation well into the 1930s.
- There was a code of etiquette in prostituting. “No self-respecting prostitute would do business with a customer unless he removed his hat in her presence.” -Anne Seagraves, Soiled Doves, Prostitution in the Early West
- “Company, ladies!” This was the expression with a ring of a bell that let the working women of the parlor houses know their clients had arrived.
- Gender imbalance in mining camps played a role in Leadville’s rampant prostitution. “Given the vast disparity between the number of men and women in the California Gulch area near Leadville, 36 women living in the midst of 2000 men in 1860, it is not surprising that prostitutes were allowed and even welcome to practice their trade with impunity. As Jacqueline Barnhart points out in her book regarding prostitution from 1849 – 1900, ”What a woman was did not matter so much as to the fact that she was a woman.”’ –Labor of Love: Prostitutes and Civic Engagement in Leadville, Colorado, 1870 – 1915 by Darby Simmons
- Many prostitutes died in poverty. Though some were able to keep their own pay, often times their wages were taken by their pimps or madams. Quotas were required to be met to continue to have a place to live and food to eat. Visiting the Leadville cemetery, they would be found in the “Pauperville” section.
Women of the Cabins
Annie Layton was accused of stealing Mollie May’s dress. She counterattacked by filing charges which claimed that Mollie May ran a house of ill fame. Mollie May came back with the claim that Annie Layton worked at said house. In the end, all charges were dropped.
In 1880, Cora made the papers when she jumped on a sofa to referee a duel. Two men were in a spat over her at the parlor house where she worked. The men took off their coats and brandished pistols. At Cora’s request, the men settled on a fist fight. They swung and ducked and tackled. When the winner was declared, the men were caked in blood. The loser slinked off into the twilight and the winner took Cora’s hand.
Ella ran a brothel in 1892, which made headlines when customer Thomas O’Rourke reported being robbed of a $20 gold piece. He made a grand fuss, but declined to press charges. The next morning, he found the gold piece where he had stashed it in the bottom of his work boot.
Among Leadville’s last wave of prostitutes was tough and true Emma Nelson. She worked in the red light district when it was called Springtown. She took in an abundance of stray cats and dogs into her brothel home.
She was a generous force well into her old age. She died in May 1918 and her tombstone is engraved with the words: “A Friend to the Friendless.”
Frankie Dodge fell in love with one of her customers, Henry Williams, who she moved in with to start a life of domestic bliss. Henry turned out to be a high stakes gambler and soon Frankie started noticing little items had gone missing from her closet. One morning her fur coat was gone. Henry started taking business trips and was absent for long stretches. Frankie decided to follow him on one of these trips to see where he went.
In Kansas City, Frankie discovered his affair with one time prostitute of Leadville, Lida King. Frankie went home devastated. The couple eventually reconciled, but it wasn’t long before possessions started disappearing and Henry was out burning the midnight oil. When Henry pawned a watch that Frankie bought for his birthday, relations between the couple grew violent. He threatened her with a razor, she chased him with a gun. Frankie fired and missed. In 1889, a Leadville court found her not guilty of attempted murder.
“Last night Georgia Dunbar, an inmate of a house of ill fame on West Fifth street, filled herself full of whiskey… and had reached that state of hilarity in which she was insensible to the cold. She proceeded to undress herself for the purpose of a walk… she started up West Fifth street and landed in a snowbank three feet deep.
This had the effect of cooling the inebriated Georgia off. While she floundered in the snowbank, officer W. Milner came along and assisted her… she was taken home, allowed to dress herself, and then escorted to the police station, where she was booked for drunkenness.” -Leadville Evening Chronicle on January 31, 1883
Laura rolled her own cigarettes, married young, and escaped domestic life to freewheeling prostitution. She was in her late twenties when she showed up in Leadville in the 1890s. She made a splash when she rode a horse named Broken Tail Charlie through the middle of Leadville’s extravagant Ice Palace.
It wasn’t long before she became known for her skill on horseback, and when there was a strike at Maid of Erin mine, officials asked her to deliver $27,000 dollars to the workers. She rode a horse past rioting miners, armed guards, with the money under her dress. Her efforts broke the strike. She said she enjoyed “crossing over” and passing herself off as a decent woman. She loved to dress up as a nun for parties. She lived to be 91 and will be remembered for her grit, charisma, and passion for the midnight hour.
Lil was known to be one of the most glamorous madams in the business. A former opera singer who took up the trade for unknown reasons, she arrived in Leadville in 1887 and by 1889 she owned a fine house of prostitution.
She had an eye for décor, and her house was an appreciated spectacle in town. She purchased it from Winnie Purdy, another madam. Lil adorned the walls with lavish paintings, colorful tapestries, rich Oriental hangings, and the floors were under the spell of velvet carpet. She ran the house to a great profit until 1895.
Mollie May was born in 1850, and made her living as a travelling prostitute and performer. After a brawl with another prostitute that resulted in a torn ear, she left Deadwood for Colorado. In a cowboy bar, two brothers were fighting over her and she was shot. The bullet hit a steel rib in her corset. She survived. By 1878, she was in Leadville living in a house of girls on Fifth St. By 1880, she was a boss, employer to ten women and two men at her bordello called the Bou Ton.
She had the only telephone in town, which made her quite popular. She got into gun fights with neighboring brothels. Her nemesis was fellow brothel owner Sallie Purple. The two exchanged bullets. Mollie sold her house in 1881, which the city turned into a courthouse. Mollie May died April 11, 1887 from neuralgia of the heart. Her funeral was one of the most lavish processions the town had ever seen. There was a $3,000 hearse followed by eight carriages and many loyal mourners. She left behind a large estate and several diamonds. She was known for her fierceness as well as generosity, donating to churches and hospitals.
Nellie Bartlett, formerly Anna Brock, came from an Indiana farming family, but ran off with the drummer of a band when she was nineteen. In 1882, she arrived in Leadville. She worked at the dance halls and called herself part of the soiled sisterhood. She had many friends and admirers.
After a raucous New Year’s Eve party in 1883, she grew extremely ill. Her friends moved her to a cabin on State Street. She was looked after closely, but on February 25, 1883 she passed away. Her friends wrote to the Leadville Evening Chronicle, “If she was a low dance girl she was good and we all loved her.”
In 1860, Red Stockings was an original Leadville working woman known for her fashionable crimson socks. She had bright eyes and wore red ribbons in her hair. Newspaper articles claim her smile was “bewitching.” Her refined nature reflected her status as the daughter of a Boston merchant.
She held such favor among the men in the California Gulch mining camp that they would cheer for her as she rode by on her horse. She collected not only admiration, but over $100,000 by the end of her stay. Red Stockings threw a lavish banquet before she left, telling the miners: “I’ve had enough good times.” She got married, moved to Nevada, and started a family with her fortune.
Sallie Purple was a woman of the night who wasn’t afraid to fire a gun. She was a powerful madam who lived next door to Mollie May, another famous bordello owner. The two were in competition and often exchanged bitter words.
One evening they got in an argument over which of their birth places was better to hail from. There were rounds of insults first, then a spray of bullets fired between the houses. The battle ended two hours later with no injury. The Herald Democrat reported: “Both parties are resting their arms and awaiting daybreak to resume hostilities.”
Etta Murphy or “Spuddy” worked at the same brothel as Laura Evans. When the Ringling Brothers’ circus came to town, the two girls had a few drinks and went down to the circus grounds. They had the idea to borrow the horse drawn chariots and race each other down Harrison Ave. They managed to talk the stable hands into letting them take the chariots for a spin, in exchange for five dollars and a bucket of booze. They were each allowed a chariot and Laura took a corner too fast and hit a telephone pole. Spuddy had a smooth ride.