The show Deadwood on HBO gave us some incredibly delicious views into the Wild West: women in corsets and fringed skirts, men with leather vests and guns. It was truly a wild time, as the gold rushes sprung highly-trafficked, quickly-built cities where drinking, gambling and prostitution ran hand-in-hand with immigrant families trying to make it big in the rough frontier.
Because of the abundance of men and the need for some quick loving, it’s no surprise that brothels sprung up in cities from Nebraska to Utah to our beloved Deadwood, South Dakota during this period. Escorting wasn’t exactly the profession of choice during this Victorian period, but many women turned to it after parents and husbands died due to mining accidents or, as happened often on the long treks between states, of illness.
Such was the case of the famous frontierswoman Calamity Jane. Born Martha Jane Cannary Burke, Jane grew up with five siblings, all of which she had to support when her parents died within a year of each other. She was a pro with a rope and a gun, but for years before campaigning against the Native Americans she would spend time as a cook, dishwasher, waitress, dance-hall girl, nurse and, off and on, a prostitute.
Prostitution at that time was incredibly popular: some tales tell that when a new bordello opened up, the local parliament would adjourn early so the gentlemen could be first in line. While there were some horrifying conditions on one end of the spectrum—there were wagons that would carry women to forts where military men were waiting and women who were too old, diseased or drug-addicted were put at the “end of the line” and saw little money for their “tricks”—there were also opulent brothels that offered fine entertainment, food and company.
The women at these halls would today be considered escorts. Whereas other locals might be seeing clients in the dozens by the night, the women at the higher end would charge a high fee of sometimes up to fifty dollars for the pleasure of her company for an entire evening. Lavish mansions would be decked with plush furniture, live music, fine food and champagne, all aglow with electrically lit chandeliers.
One madam of such houses was Dora DuFran. She emigrated with her parents as a baby from Liverpool, England and settled into Lincoln, Nebraska. Tragedy struck, and the family lived in starvation. DuFran buried her mother, sisters and then father after their progressive deaths on the ranch. She then walked into town, in her dead father’s shoes, and starting prostituting herself at the age of 13. Naturally beautiful, she graduated to being a dance hall girl and then, at the young age of 15, promoted herself to Madam when the gold rush moved west.
DuFran’s origins may be horrifyingly sympathetic, but the opportunity that the Wild West and the women who served it offered brought her out of one life and into another. She insisted that the girls who worked for her were well paid. That they saw doctors regularly, were very hygienic and dressed well. Her brothels—and there were several over the years—were tastefully designed and executed. She had a successful marriage with her husband Joseph DuFran, running her brothel throughout their marriage and subsequent move to Deadwood, South Dakota. She lived into her seventies, when she died a natural death from heart failure.
One of her rivals, another successful brothel owner, was Mollie Johnson. Unlike other women of the time, Johnson did not fall into escorting or prostitution as a desperate means for survival—she saw the need and took the profession on as her own.
Migrating herself from Alabama north, she embraced the gold rush. She was known for being beautiful but also incredibly intelligent and business-minded. Never being one to back out of a fight if she needed to, she was also unusually protective of her girls. During a fire that consumed one of her early brothels, she took care of one of her girl’s dead body before running back to save her possessions (fires were incredibly common in this period and she would experience several in her years as a madam).
By the time DuFran joined up in Deadwood, Johnson’s business was already established. And though the women might have professionally fought for the prettiest girls and the wealthiest clients, their relationship was thought to be a healthy one. And there were plenty of men in need in Deadwood to patronage both of their establishments.
DuFran ran her brothel as well throughout her marriage. After she left Deadwood with the end of the gold rush, she disappeared from history.
We can rather easily picture what life was like for these three women and the thousand who accompanied them in their professions. Life was incredibly hard as immigrants flooded into the United States and then move their way across the literally wild west. There were few roads, if any. Travel was hard, and many died from starvation and disease on the trail.
Small towns were competitive and dangerous for those who didn’t quite know their way around. Alcohol was made in backyard barrels, men and women drank to quench their thirst from the dry air and a hard life. Guns weren’t regulated, and villains like Jesse James preyed on those unwilling to defend themselve.
On the opposite side of the scale was the morality and strife for a better life that we can all relate with. Mothers buried children too early, and often a family would relocate several times, trying to figure out how to plant roots that would grow. Most women who fell into what we would call escorting today were doing so to support their families, or because they had been abandoned by parents who could no longer afford to support them. Similarly, our modern day escorts spend time with clients to feed their families and put themselves through school or to fund new business.
Calamity Jane. Dora DuFran. Mollie Johnson. Good job, ladies.