Often called “soiled doves” or “scarlet ladies”, prostitutes and madams who operated parlor houses, cribs and brothels in frontier towns during the days of the “Old West” were a normal part of the social fabric that made up this subsection of society. Many of the madams and prostitutes represented the only women in some frontier camps and were considered “necessary evils” by other women who might be present in these forming communities. Historians estimated that prostitutes may have represented nearly one-quarter of the population during the Old West. Parlor houses were identified by the red lanterns hung outside the door and the garish red curtains framing the front windows.
Madams of the West enjoyed lavish parties, adventure and independence, while their more conservative counterparts labored as laundresses and housewives and led dull existences. While not all prostitutes and madams led such interesting or successful lives, there is some similarities between these examples and all “working women of the West.”
Squirrel Tooth Alice
Born as Libby Thompson in 1855 in Belton, Texas, Squirrel Tooth Alice received her name due to a gap between her front teeth and her penchant for keeping prairie dogs as pets. She was kidnapped as a young girl by the Comanche tribe. Kept for three years, she was shunned by society as a “marked” woman upon her release.
At the age of 14 years old, she ran away to Abilene, Kansas, and became a dance hall girl and prostitute. After marrying Billy Thompson in 1873, she moved from Kansas to Texas to Colorado.
In Sweetwater, she and her husband bought a ranch, and she opened a dance hall and successful brothel. She bore nine children (three of which were said to be her husband’s), and retired successfully in 1921 at the age of 66.
Josephine Hensley, known as Chicago Joe, was born in 1846. Her family saw to her education and attendance at etiquette school. Despite her formal upbringing, Josie (as she was known by her family) felt the need for adventure. At the age of 18, she headed west by train. However, by the time she reached Iowa, she was broke and resorted to “working girl” status in order to fund the rest of her trip. When she reached Chicago, she set up a brothel business.
Hearing of the gold discovery in Montana, Chicago Joe headed to Helena and established the town’s first house of ill repute. Her establishment featured drinks, dancing and a full orchestra. She recruited other girls like herself from Chicago to work in the business.
By 1874, her business had grown and she moved into a larger building. As she became more successful, she bought more real estate including the “Grand” Bordello, Red Light Saloon and the Coliseum Variety Theatre, in addition to other small businesses.
The law attempted to shut her down in 1855 for running a “hurdy gurdy” house, however the court found her not guilty. Sensing the push for reform, Chicago Joe shut down her brothel and lived a lifestyle featuring a lower profile. However, she kept the Coliseum Variety Theatre open and it provided “services” to customers.
She died in 1899 of pneumonia, and her funeral was attended by the leading citizens of Helena.
Madam Dora DuFran
Born in England, Amy Helen Dorothy Bolshow immigrated to Nebraska with her parents when she was 1 year old. Starting her career as a dance hall girl, Madam Dora DuFran worked her way up to a madam in Deadwood by the time of the great gold rush.
She married Joseph DuFran, who helped her to build her business, which grew to include branch houses in Rapid City, Sturgis and Belle Fouche. Her house in Belle Fouche was named “Diddlin’ Dora’s” and advertised itself as providing the 3 D’s: drinking, dining and dancing. She also said it was a “place where you can bring your mother.”
Madam Dora DuFran was said to be friends with Calamity Jane, along with being her occasional employer (as Calamity Jane was known for working as a prostitute when the need for money arose).
In addition for being known as one of the most successful madams in the Old West, Madam Dora DuFran was kind-hearted and nursed the sick when they needed it.
She died of heart failure at the age of 60 and was buried alongside her husband and pet parrot.
The madam of Cripple Creek, Pearl deVere opened her brothel in 1893 in a small-framed house on Myers Ave. It is reported that Pearl was beautiful, red-haired and strong-willed.
She grew up in Indiana, and her family thought she had moved west to be a dress designer to the wealthy.
Her brothel featured many aspects of modern day escort agency, including the requirement for her girls to obtain monthly medical examinations.
After marrying C. B. Flynn, both of their businesses were destroyed by fire. Her husband moved to Mexico to start fresh, but Pearl stayed in Cripple Creek and rebuilt her brothel in 1896. The new establishment was a two-story brick house with Parisian wallpaper and hardwood furniture. “The Old Homestead,” as it was called, featured leather-topped gaming tables, electric crystal chandeliers, a telephone, intercom and two bathrooms. Clients were required to produce references and pay up to $250 per night.
She threw lavish parties at “The Old Homestead,” and after one of them, she headed upstairs to go to bed. She took some morphine to help her sleep. It was reported that she accidentally overdosed and never woke up.
“The Old Homestead” operated until 1917.
Madam Fannie Porter
Moving to the United States from England as a baby, Madam Fannie Porter eventually landed in San Antonio as a widow. She opened her bordello in the late 1800s, which became a welcome post to outlaws including the Wild Bunch. Officially called a boarding house, the bordello featured fine glass fixtures, plush carpeting and silk sheets. Special customers were recipients of fine champagne.
Fannie’s brothel was known as the headquarters, hideout and rendezvous point for Butch Cassidy and the Hole In the Wall Gang.
Never having much trouble with the law, Fannie Porter was said to chase police officers off her property with a broom.
She closed the “boarding house” during the reform era and disappeared from San Antonio. Rumors indicate she retired as a rich woman, returned to England and died in a car accident in 1940. Nobody knows for sure what happened to Fannie Porters.
There are many other famous madams of the Old West. They and their girls helped to civilize and bring a bit of gentleness and beauty to frontier towns in their own ways. Despite being regarded lowly by “respectable” women, many madams, escorts and prostitutes of history lived life on their own terms.