The Old West inevitably conjures certain images – a dimly lit saloon, a lone gunslinger, and bustling brothels. Old West prostitutes and madams caused as much havoc as any Wild West gang, and did as much good as any honorable, white-hatted sheriff. They did all this by using their wits and chasing their passions, whether those passions were matters of the heart, building an empire, or fighting for human rights.
With the growth of mining camps that were mostly populated by men, famous madams in the Old West took advantage of the opportunities presented to them and capitalized on their assets. Whatever your views on prostitution, you cannot deny that some of the women on this list were ambitious and extraordinary entrepreneurs who made the most out of the hand they were dealt.
Eleanor Dumont Chased Down a Man Who Swindled Her and Threatened Him with a Shotgun
Like any true entrepreneur, Eleanor Dumont saw opportunity wherever she went. She opened several successful gaming parlors in California, offering a rarity during the time – a respectable lady dealer. Her parlor, Vingt-et-un, was finely furnished, served Champagne instead of whiskey, and only accepted the patronage of well-dressed gentlemen. It was hugely popular, but men lost interest as Dumont’s beauty waned and more women began to fill the camps.
After the gold ran dry and the crowds cleared out, Dumont bought a ranch. During this time, she fell in love with a handsome, silver-tongued man named Jack McKnight. Dumont fell head over heels for the man; unfortunately, McKnight was a con man, and he ended up stealing all of her hard-earned money and selling her ranch, leaving Dumont completely destitute. Not one to take that type of treatment from anyone, she chased down her former lover with a shotgun and ended him.
In need of money, she began to set up gambling tables at mining camps; it’s said that she met Calamity Jane at one of these camps and tried to teach the famous frontierswoman how to play poker.
Fannie Porter Entertained Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at Her Brothel
Fannie Porter ran one of the more high-end brothels in Texas, one that was said to have “fine glass fixtures, silk sheets and plush carpeting.” Special guests, like the members of Butch Cassidy’s gang of bandits (known as the Wild Bunch) were given chilled Champagne. Despite being a classy lady, she was no pushover, and was known to chase law enforcers off her property with a broom.
Porter’s “boardinghouse” “served as a rest stop, hideout, rendezvous, and headquarters for Butch Cassidy and the rest of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.” It’s said that the Sundance Kid met his later girlfriend and partner-in-crime Etta Place while she was working at Fannie’s brothel. The last time the Wild Bunch showed up to Fannie’s place, intent on going their separate ways, she treated them like real VIPs, throwing them an elaborate going-away party.
Big Nose Kate Broke Doc Holliday Out of Jail
Mary Katharine Haroney, or Big Nose Kate, is probably best known for her on-again, off-again relationship with famous gunslinger Doc Holliday. Haroney ran away from her foster home when she was 16 and became a prostitute shortly after. She met Holliday when she moved to Texas and the two started their lengthy and rocky relationship. It is said that Haroney and Holliday would have heated arguments that would become violent whenever Haroney drank too much.
Despite their unhealthy relationship, Haroney once broke Holliday out of jail by starting a fire and pulling a gun on the jail guard. Holliday was so grateful that he promised to give up gambling. Haroney also promised to live a clean life, giving up prostitution. However, both their promises were short-lived and their rocky relationship continued until Holiday’s death.
Mollie Johnson Was a Tabloid Superstar
Mollie Johnson owned a brothel on one of the corner streets in Deadwood. Her life appealed to the town’s people in the same way the lives of reality show stars appeal to us today. Her antics often made headlines in the Deadwood newspapers. One of her favorite pastimes was renting a carriage and riding it up and down the camp, snubbing any “lesser” women she passed. She also turned heads when she married a black entertainer, Lew Spencer. Johnson served as mentor to three golden-haired female employees (Ida Clark, Ida Cheplan, and Jennie Duchesneau) and was known as “Queen of the Blondes.”
One notable event that was reported by the papers was a buggy race between Johnson and some of her girls. After getting drunk at a baseball game, she rented two buggies and raced them. None of the women were hurt, but it is said the buggies were reduced to splinters.
Pearl de Vere Charged Her Clients $250 Dollars a Night
Pearl de Vere’s gaming parlor in Cripple Creek, Colorado, catered to the more prosperous gentleman in the area. De Vere’s girls fared better than other women in the business – they received regular medical exams, wore fine clothing, and were paid well.
Like Mollie Johnson, de Vere liked to parade around the town in her carriage. She wore a new luxurious outfit each time she went out, seducing men as she made her daily rounds. She built The Old Homestead, an incredibly decadent parlor which featured fine furnishings, a crystal electric chandelier, and a telephone. (The latter two were considered luxuries during the period.) The Old Homestead exclusively catered to rich clientele, asking for $250 a night, which would be around $6500 today.
Ah Toy Used the Courts to Her Benefit
Ah Toy was the first Chinese prostitute in San Francisco and the most famous Asian American woman in the Old West. Ah Toy immigrated from China with her husband, but when he died during the ocean crossing, she took up with the captain of the ship. The captain “showered gold upon her,” giving her quite a nest egg when she landed in San Francisco.
An Asian woman in the West at the time was something of a curiosity, and she would charge clients an ounce of gold (or $16) for just a peep at her goods. In time, she was able to build her own business and brought women over from China to work at her numerous brothels. Because she ran a lucrative business, people often tried to extort her. However, Ah Toy was a clever woman, and she repeatedly used the San Francisco court system to ensure her and her girls’ protection. Unfortunately, in 1854 a law was passed that prohibited Chinese Americans from taking their grievances to court, allowing her to be hassled by both white Americans and rival Chinese businesspeople.
Mary Ellen Pleasant Was an Abolitionist Hero
Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was also known as Mistress Pleasant and was called the Mother of Civil Rights in California, was a busy woman. Perhaps a former slave (though her early past is not entirely known), she was heavily involved in the abolitionist movement. Along with her husband James Smith, Pleasant helped free slaves via the Underground Railroad.
When suspicions arose about her involvement with John Brown and Harpy’s Ferry, she escaped the East Coast and moved to San Francisco where she was able to pass as white (despite being African American or perhaps of mixed race) and secure herself a position as an adviser to Thomas Bell, a Bank of California director.
It is said that at one point she was one of the richest black women in America. She made her money in a number of ways. Some reports say she owned and ran a number of lucrative bordellos where she would set up her girls with rich white men. Others say she would groom and train the girls to marry these men. On the abolitionist front, she gave $30,000 to help fund John Bell’s slave rebellions and won a court case against a company when she was refused a seat in one of their streetcars.
Julia Bulette Was the Original Hooker with a Heart of Gold
It is said when Julia Bulette arrived in Virginia City, Nevada in 1859, she was the only single woman in town. She was described as being a beautiful and witty woman who was sought by many of the miners in town. Soon after arriving in Virginia City, Bulette decided to become a self-employed prostitute. Bulette was said to have a heart of gold, donating large sums of money to the town, nursing sick miners, and raising money for the Union during the Civil War. She was made an honorary firefighter because of her numerous charitable contributions to the townspeople.
In 1867, Bulette was brutally murdered in her bed by a French drifter. She was found in her bedroom strangled and bludgeoned to death. Thousands attended her funeral, and many businesses in town closed shop out of respect.
Dora Dufran Became a Madam at 15
Dufran started off as a dance hall girl and at the age of 15, quickly promoted herself to madam. Dufran had several prostitution houses in Deadwood, the most popular of which was called Diddlin’ Dora’s. The brothel promised its patrons “The Three D’s – Dining, Drinking, and Dancing” and called itself “a place where you can bring your mother.”
During her time in Deadwood, she befriended Calamity Jane and the two women remained friends well into their 40s. They reconnected later in life when Jane, suffering from the effects of alcoholism, came to Dufran looking for work. She gave Jane a job at her brothel as a cook and laundry woman. Jane died shortly after.
Squirrel Tooth Alice Kept Prarie Dogs as Pets
Mary Elizabeth “Libby” Haley Thompson (or Squirrel Tooth Alice, as she was more commonly known because of a gap in her teeth and her love of prairie dogs) had a traumatic youth. She was kidnapped by Comanche when she was 10 years old and remained with the tribe for three years. Though her family paid the ransom fee and had her returned, she was shunned by society thereafter, with the exception of an older man who took an interest in her. He wanted to marry Thompson, but her father did not like the match so he shot and disposed of suitor.
After that incident, Thompson ran away from home and worked at several establishments as a dance hall girl and a prostitute. She eventually opened her own place when she and her husband settled down in Sweetwater, Texas.
Mother Damnable’s Body Turned to Stone
Mary Ann Conklin (or Mother Damnable, as she was more commonly known, on account of her temper and constant swearing) managed a hotel and brothel in Seattle. She could curse like a sailor in English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Chinese. It is said that she was always surrounded by wild dogs and that she carried stones in her apron which she would throw at people who incurred her wrath.
Conklin died in 1873 and was buried in Seattle Cemetery. Years later, the bodies in the cemetery were moved to make room for a park. According to legend, when Conklin’s body was dug up, it was incredibly heavy. Curious, the workers opened the coffin and found that her body had completely turned to stone.
Josephine Hensley Became the Largest Landowner in Montana’s Red Light District
Known as Chicago Joe by her customers, Josephine Hensley left Chicago and set up shop in a mining town in Montana. She opened her first brothel in a log cabin in Helena, Montana, employing a full orchestra to entertain the guests when she and her girls were busy entertaining the other guests. Her brothel was so popular that she eventually had to move her business to a larger building. She started to invest in real estate, and, with her husband, opened a dance hall and The Red Light Saloon. She became the largest landowner in the district and was so prosperous that she was dubbed “Queen of the Red Light District.”