Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Vice in the Old West: Whores with a Heart of Gold

Vice in the Old West:
Whores with a
Heart of Gold
by Jacquie Rogers
Copyright © 2009-2012 Jacquie Rogers

Just because a woman sold sexual favors, or other women’s sexual favors, to men, didn’t mean she shirked her civic responsibility. When I attended the University of Idaho, most of the young men made at least one pilgrimage to Wallace, Idaho, where several brothels operated (the law looked the other way). But we’d all known about the brothels earlier, because at the high school marching band competition, the Wallace High School Band always had the best and flashiest uniforms in the entire state—paid for by the madams of the Oasis Bordello. I’ve been told that other madams paid for Wallace’s fire station, and another donated money for playground equipment at the city park.

Don’t believe it? Read this article from the Los Angeles Times. A few years ago, my husband and I visited the Oasis Bordello. It closed in 1988 and is now a museum.

The point is, where brothels co-existed peacefully with the town, there was nearly always at least one “whore with a heart of gold.” I’m from the Pacific Northwest so most of the lore I’ve read is from here. Wherever you are, I’ll bet there’s a story of a whore with a heart of gold there somewhere.

Molly B’Dam
Maggie Hall was born in Ireland and emigrated to America when she was twenty. She was 5’6” with golden hair, blue eyes, and a bubbly personality. New York didn’t hold the pot of gold for her, though, and she went to work as a barmaid, charming the fellows but not engaging in any further activity. She married a wealthy customer named Burdan, and changed her name from Maggie, which she considered plain, to Molly. Her situation wasn’t what she’d envisioned at all. Instead of a Catholic ceremony, they were married by the Justice of the Peace. And once Burdan’s wealthy parents knew of his marriage, they cut off his allowance.

Burdan was in debt, and he begged Molly to let men have sex with her to ease his debts. Heartbroken but still in love with him, she agreed. When she went to confession, she was excommunicated. Her dreams were shattered, and her soul was forever damned.

Molly went west and plied her trade as a prostitute. She was high-priced and popular. In 1884 she headed to Idaho Territory and traveled there on the train with Calamity Jane. Calamity returned to Deadwood, but Molly traveled to Murray (that’s in northern Idaho) by pack train. The weather was freezing and snowy. When a mother with a toddler was unable to keep up with the train, Molly gave her a fur coat and put the two of them on her horse. The train went on, leaving the three of them to fend for themselves. The next day, Molly brought the mother and child into town, rented a cabin for them, and saw to their comfort.

The townspeople mistook her Irish brogue when she said her name was Molly Burdan—and from then on she was Molly b’ Dam. Molly rented a brothel and set up shop. She was generous to the miners, lending many of them a grubstake. In times of difficulty, she was the first one to help, either with her own two hands, or her bank account. She and her girls nursed the town through a small pox epidemic, and they never forgot what they owed her.

Here’s a bit of her eulogy, printed in Soiled Doves—Prostitution In The Early West by Anne Seagraves, p. 111:

Generous to a fault with her worlds good, and with her bodily strength, she was one in whom no sacrifice was too great. She was a ministering angel to the sick and suffering when exposure of illness laid men low. Neither snow nor heat kept her from an unfortunate’s bedside, and these kind acts have been recorded in the Book of Books to her credit, overbalancing the debt side.

No photos of Molly exist, although there are a few posted on the internet labeled as her.

Madam Lou Graham
(born Dorothea Georgine Emile Ohben)

Washington State Trial Lawyers Association,
formerly Lou Graham's Bordello

This is one interesting lady. She came to Seattle in 1888 after working in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast. The first thing she did was approach city officials, who were trying to get a railroad to Seattle, and tell them that if they were to be successful, the city would need an establishment where gentlemen could take their comfort in the posh style of Paris or New York City. They bought into her line of thinking and Madam Graham went to work building the classiest whorehouse in the Pacific Northwest.

Her palace of pleasure was wildly popular and profitable. She had a standing policy that any city official could get whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted at no charge. This obviously paid off, and it’s said that the lion’s share of city business was conducted there, even though city hall was only a block away. In 1889, a huge fire burned must of downtown Seattle but Madam Lou had plenty of money to not only rebuild in grander style, but to buy waterfront property as well.

The new bordello was a four-story brick structure, and is now the place of business of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association.

When she died, she bequeathed over $250,000 to the Seattle School District.

Julia Bulette
Julia with her firehat.

Julia Bulette was the first white woman to set up shop in Virginia City, Nevada. It was in 1859, and Wikipedia reports that she charged $1,000 a night for her services. Silver was flowing and it made a lot of men rich, so I don’t have any reason to doubt this amount.

She was well-liked for her wit and personality as well as her shapely body. She was generous with her spirit as well as her money, and at one time turned her posh bordello into a hospital to nurse dozens of ill miners.

We visited the Julia Bulette Red Light Museum in Virginia City. It houses some very interesting sex toys and devices—frankly, I have no idea what they did with most of them. But the most interesting thing was her obsession with the fire department. She donated heavily for equipment, wagons, uniforms, and hats. The curator said Julia wanted to be a fireman-lady, but the fire chief thought it too dangerous. He did, however, let her work the water pump on occasion.

She was brutally murdered in 1867. Thousands attended her funeral and she was buried with honors, loved by all. But she was buried outside the “respectable” area of the cemetery, so even in death, that distinction was made.

Dora Hand

Dora Hand (I think)

Dora drifted to Dodge City, Kansas in either 1877 or 1878. She was an accomplished musician, but her background is shrouded in mystery. Some reports say she left her home for a drier climate and that she had consumption. That’s not documented, however, and only a guess.

Hand came to Dodge City on the advice of friend Fannie Garretson, a seasoned performer who had made the rounds of the cow towns and mining camps. Garretson was also a friend of Dog Kelley, the flamboyant Dodge mayor and part owner of the Alhambra Saloon and Gambling House. Through that connection, Garretson and Hand landed stage gigs for a lucrative $40 a week at the Lady Gay Dance Hall and Saloon, co-owned by Ben Springer and Jim Masterson (younger brother of the late Marshal Ed and Ford County Sheriff Bat). . .

In Dodge City: Queen of Cowtowns, Kansas historian and author Stanley Vestal also speaks of her generosity: "During the day she proved a kindly, resourceful and energetic person, always ready to help anyone in trouble. If some raw boy from Texas who had never even seen a train before lost his pile at faro or drank too much redeye and was rolled south of the Deadline, she could be counted on to grubstake him or redeem his saddle so that he could ride home. She asked no security or even the names of the men she helped. When someone fell sick, she was willing to play the part of a practical nurse. Of course, in such a small community, everybody knew all about everybody else, and few people in Dodge were more respected than Fannie Keenan [Dora Hand’s stage name]."
Dora was killed by Spike Kenedy, who fired shots into the cabin where she was staying, thinking he was killing Dog Kelly, who’d thrown Kenedy out of his saloon earlier. A posse came together almost immediately. Guess who?
At 2 p.m. on October 4, a posse set out after the suspected murderer. Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson, Marshal Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp and soon-to-be-lawman Bill Tilghman rode out with Ford County Deputy Sheriff William Duffy.
Quite a posse!

Dora’s funeral was huge.  One old cowhand who witnessed it was quoted as saying, "Every store, saloon and gambling house in Dodge closed during the funeral, and 400 men with their sombreros on their saddle horses rode behind the spring wagon that carried Dora Hand up Boot Hill."

There you have it—whores with a heart of gold. All of them died young.

Win Free Stuff!
 I'm also running a contest at Martha's Bookshelf.
Comment to win either a print copy of
Hearts of Owyhee #1 
or a Kindle copy and a
$10 Amazon gift certificate
Martha wrote up a really nice review, too:

you could win
Three Kindle copies of
Hearts of Owyhee  #2

All you have to do is tell me which actor you think should play Reese McAdams, and who you'd cast as Lucinda Sharpe. (Need help? Read excerpt of Much Ado About Madams and how it came to be written in Monday's feature -- Jacquie Rogers: Much Ado About Madams.)

Small print:
All comments must have your email address to be eligible.
Drawing will be held May 26, 2012, at 9pm Pacific Time.


  1. Loved the post! Another interesting Madam is the one who ran the bordello in Pendleton! She helped her girls go to school and better themselves. She was respected by the citizens of Pendleton because of her generosity and community service. Great post!

    1. Patsy, we stayed at that bordello in Pendleton--it's a hotel now (or was--that was several years ago). We also went on the Pendleton Underground tour of the speakeasies and opium dens. Really interesting. Pendleton has a lot of history that is ignored by those who don't live in the area.

  2. Loved the post, but it made me sad. Those women had little opportunity for a different life. They needed a Lucinda Sharpe in their lives!

    1. And Daisy's going to enlist the help of Miss Hattie, of Miss Hattie's School for the Refinement of Young Ladies fame. :)


Romancing The West welcomes you to show your appreciation of our guest blogger by leaving a comment. If there's a contest, don't forget to leave your contact information. Thanks!