Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West

Larry Holzwarth - November 27, 2017

They have been called by various euphemisms in film, novels, television shows, and songs. Saloon girls, soiled doves, ladies of the evening, and many other names have been used to describe practitioners of what is known as the oldest profession: prostitution. In the west, they were found in bordellos, brothels, houses of ill repute, opium dens, hotels, tents, and saloons. Many fictional characters have been created around their profession; Belle Watling in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Kitty Russell on the long-running radio and television program Gunsmoke are two examples. Both of these characters were presented as being good-hearted, strong women of character and moral standards despite their chosen professions.

Throughout the American West, and in the eastern cities which were contemporaneous with the heyday of the American West from 1865 -1900, prostitution was big business. Some women made fortunes and retired wealthy, although kept at arm’s length by ladies of society. Some became famous as a result of the company they kept, either famous criminals or lawmen in a society where the difference between the two was sometimes hard to distinguish. Some became the basis of fictional characters in later works, and some became famous for other activities in addition to their occasional forays into prostitution made necessary by prevailing economic conditions.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
San Antonio was so proud of its “sporting district” that it published an annual guide for tourists and “…those seeking a good time while in San Antonio, Texas. Wikimedia

Here are some of the more famous and infamous professional women of the American west, and some of their customers and companions.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
Butch Cassidy (seated right) and the Wild Bunch were dedicated customers of Fannie Porter’s brothel in San Antonio. So were the lawmen on their trail. New York Daily News

Fannie Porter

Fannie Porter was born in England and by 1888 she was living in San Antonio, Texas where she began working as a prostitute that year at the age of fifteen. After five years she had saved enough money to open her own brothel at the corner of Durango and San Saba streets, an area which became famous as the San Antonio Sporting District. The sport presented in the Sporting District was mostly gambling, drinking, and prostitution, with numerous brothels and other houses which offered all three.

Fannie’s establishment developed a reputation for fair prices, attractive women, and honest dealing at the card tables. One of her girls, Della Moore, became a particular favorite of Kid Curry, who often rode with the gang known as the Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid.

Besides catering to many known outlaws, some of whom used her establishment to pass along money stolen during their various crimes, Fannie Porter was also well known for catering to lawmen. There was no national law enforcement apparatus at the time, the closest thing to it being the privately owned and operated Pinkerton National Detective Agency, whose operatives were frequent guests of Porter’s house.

Fannie was well known among the outlaws for her discretion in keeping their presence in the house quiet even when Pinkertons or other law enforcement were on the premises. By extension, the customers on the right side of the law did not press her or her girls for information.

The San Antonio Sporting District continued to operate through World War I (even publishing a Blue Book of attractions for tourists) but went into a gradual decline which culminated in its being shut down as America began to mobilize for World War II. By then Fannie had retired. A local legend has it that she was killed in a car accident between 1937 and 1940, although whether such occurred is far from certain.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
Belle Brezing in her parlor on Megowan Street in Lexington following her retirement. Her brothel became nationally renowned. University of Kentucky

Belle Brezing

Belle Brezing was a madam in Lexington Kentucky who achieved national acclaim – or notoriety, depending on the point of view – for the brothel she ran there in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many believe that Belle was the basis for the fictional Belle Watling, who ran a similar establishment in Atlanta in Gone With the Wind. Belle first worked in a brothel in Lexington in 1879 at the age of 19; the house had been the former residence of Mary Todd Lincoln and remains standing today.

When she opened her first house of her own is unknown but she was granted a pardon by Governor Luke Blackburn in 1882 for operating what the governor referred to as a “bawdy house.” Another house she operated is now on the campus of Transylvania University where it serves as a women’s locker room.

Belle became nationally known when the United States entered the Spanish-American War, and units of the army were encamped in Lexington prior to being shipped overseas. Officers in the army were mostly volunteers from established eastern families in cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, and they passed along to their friends in society the pleasures available at Belle’s.

Belle’s earlier establishments were of a less expensive nature known as dollar houses but by 1898 she had established a more luxurious house on Megowan St. known as a $5 house (Megowan street is known as Northeastern Avenue today).

Belle’s employees purchased their clothes in Lexington’s best-known stores, although Belle herself favored New York as the source of her outfits. Her profession was well known throughout Lexington but she encountered little hostility in town. When the Army returned in 1915 it ordered the brothels closed as a means of controlling the incoming troops. After World War I ended most of Lexington’s houses reopened, but Belle did not as she preferred to enter a quiet retirement, which ended with her death in 1940.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
Mattie Blaylock was a prostitute who became the common-law wife of Wyatt Earp. Daily Mail

Mattie Blaylock

Celia Mattie Blaylock was raised on the small Iowa farm where she was born in 1850, brought up in an atmosphere of Sunday school and Biblical strictures before running away in the company of her sister in 1868.

Although both girls were skilled seamstresses they found it difficult to make ends meet. Sarah, the sister, returned home before a year had gone by, where her parents considered her to have disgraced the family, although they did take her back in. Celia began using the alias Mattie and by 1872 court records in Fort Scott and Dodge City indicate that Mattie had taken up prostitution.

Mattie probably met Wyatt Earp sometime between 1871 and 1873, by the 1880 census she appears in government documents as his wife. Earp led a wandering life and by 1879 was headed to Tombstone, Arizona where Mattie joined him. Sometime between 1876 and 1879, Mattie began to suffer from severe headaches for which she took laudanum, a medication to which she was soon addicted.

After the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Mattie left Tombstone, believing that Wyatt would contact her at some point to arrange a place and time for them to be reunited.

No word ever came from Wyatt. Mattie drifted to Colton California and from thence to Pinal City Arizona, attempting to make a living from prostitution in mining towns where the mines had stopped producing and the miners had moved on. With few potential customers and those few having little money, making a living was nearly impossible. In 1888 Mattie died, the coroner’s report designated her death a suicide by laudanum poisoning. She was buried in Pinal City.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
Mattie Silks was a financially successful madam who was unlucky in love. Wikipedia

Mattie Silks

Mattie Silks hailed from Fayette County Pennsylvania, spent most of her childhood in Indiana, and began her career as a prostitute and madam in Springfield, Illinois. From Springfield, she headed west to Dodge City and after working there for a short time, in 1875 at the age of 29 she went to Georgetown, Colorado, pursuing the miners who were pursuing Colorado gold.

In Georgetown, she set up a brothel that was soon profitable. She also began a relationship with a noted ne’er-do-well named Cort Thomson. When a rival madam began making amorous overtures to Cort Mattie fought a duel with her rival, Kate Fulton, the first known instance of a formal duel between women in the United States.

Cort was generous to Mattie, buying her expensive jewels and furs with her own money, and his own business ventures frequently came to grief. Cort often importuned Mattie for money to support his various get rich quick schemes, or merely to fund his gambling and drinking. He proved to be better at the latter than he was at the former. When Mattie moved her house to Denver in 1877 Cort followed.

Mattie’s house was the most successful in Denver for the next 20 years, before being supplanted by a house named House of Mirrors in 1898, owned by a madam named Jennie Rogers. Rogers died in 1909 and Mattie purchased House of Mirrors, operating it for another twenty years. Investments in Denver real estate and other ventures made her a wealthy woman.

A three-month operation of a bordello in Dawson City, Alaska netted Mattie the equivalent of $1 million in today’s money and Mattie used her wealth to provide food and temporary shelter to the needy of the Denver area. In 1929 she was injured in a fall and complications led to her death that year. She was buried in Denver under the name Martha Ready (she had married a man named Jack Ready, known locally as Handsome Jack) but her grave is next to that of Cort Thomson, who had died in 1900 from food poisoning acquired, supposedly, from eating spoiled oysters.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
This photo of Big Nose Kate, former consort of Doc Holliday, is believed to have been taken when she was about 40 years of age. Wikimedia

Big Nose Kate

Mary Katherine Horony (her last name is recorded in a multitude of different spellings) was born in Hungary in 1850 and emigrated to the United States in 1860. An apocryphal tale describes her father as appointed physician to Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Kate grew up in Davenport, Iowa running away at the age of 16 to St. Louis.

By 1869 she was working as a prostitute for a madam named Blanche Tribole there, five years later records show that she was in a brothel in Dodge City, Kansas where she was employed by Nellie Earp, wife of James Earp, a saloon keeper and older brother of Wyatt. Sometime in 1876, she moved to Texas where the following year she met John Henry “Doc” Holliday.

With Wyatt Earp in tow, Kate and Doc moved to Dodge City where Doc opened a dental practice to support his gambling and drinking proclivities. Kate and Doc were known to fight frequently and violently. Eventually, the Holliday’s (Kate claimed they had been married in Valdosta, Georgia although there is little evidence to support this) settled in Prescott, Arizona where Kate continued to work as a prostitute while her “husband” gambled. When the Earps went to Tombstone Doc went along, and Kate rejoined him there. Kate was persuaded by enemies of the Earps to sign an affidavit which implicated Doc in a robbery but the Earps countered by presenting evidence which cleared Holliday, who then sent Kate away on a stage, though she later returned.

After Doc Holliday died in 1887 from tuberculosis Kate married an Irish blacksmith named George Cummings. They traveled through several mining camps where she continued to work as a prostitute and occasionally as a baker. After Cummings committed suicide in 1915 Kate eventually settled into the Arizona Pioneers’ Home, established by the state in 1910 for the destitute.

It took the intervention of the governor, an old friend named George Hunt, to allow her to enter the home as she had never become an American citizen. She resided there until her death in 1940, less than a week before she would have become 90 years of age. She was buried there under the name Mary K. Cummings.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
Julia (or Jule) Bulette’s life is shrouded in mystery and legend. A character based on her life was featured in an episode of Bonanza as a love interest for Little Joe. Nevada Historical Society

Julia Bulette

Julia Bulette was born in either London, England and given that name, or Mississippi where she was given the Christian name Jule, depending on which source is given credence. Sometime in the early 1850s, she moved to California, residing in different locales until 1859 when the Comstock Lode silver and gold strike lured miners to nearby Nevada.

When Julia Bulette arrived there she reportedly soon discovered that she was the only unmarried woman (and one of the very few women at all) in the camps. The readiness with which she took up prostitution to take advantage of her situation is an indication of the type of work she did during the preceding years in California. At any rate, her status as the lone available woman was short-lived and brothels, bordellos, saloon girls, and streetwalkers were soon commonplace in burgeoning Virginia City.

Julia worked as an independent, living in a rented home. Virginia City grew with boomtown speed and by 1861 Julia was honored by the city’s new fire department, awarded membership in an engine company. Her popularity with her customers grew to legendary status after her violent death; evidence suggests that she had fewer customers than what her legend implies and that she was ill with either tuberculosis or venereal disease, possibly both.

In January 1867 Julia’s body was found in her bedroom. She had been severely beaten, probably pistol-whipped, and strangled to death. She was buried the next day, and local newspapers began what became her legend by referring in obituaries to her great beauty, charm, and the reverence in which she was held by the community.

She was buried in Flower Hill Cemetery following a funeral attended by thousands. Her murderer was determined to be a drifter named John Millain who was hanged the following year, an event attended by Samuel Clemens, who in Virginia city had adopted the pen name Mark Twain.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
An 1890s photo of Calamity Jane standing at the gravesite of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. Unusually for her she is wearing women’s clothes. Wikipedia

Martha Jane Canary

Martha Jane Canary was an illiterate who published her autobiography, which she dictated to ghostwriters, a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show who preferred to wear men’s clothing, an unreformed alcoholic, a self-proclaimed army scout in the Black Hills, and an occasional prostitute for madam Dora DuFran. She is known to history as Calamity Jane, has been portrayed as the lover of Wild Bill Hickok by Doris Day, and so little of her legendary life is verifiable that it is difficult to accept any of it.

Years after her death, a bundle of letters allegedly written by her were presented as proof that their owner was the daughter of Jane and Wild Bill, a hoax revealed when evidence was presented that Jane never learned how to sign her own name, let alone write a letter.

In 1867 Jane was described as an attractive woman, and she took her five siblings with her to Fort Russell after the deaths of both of their parents. There and at Fort Laramie she was by 1874 working as a cook, saloon girl, dance hall girl, and prostitute. She claimed in her autobiography to work as a scout for the Army in its campaigns against the Plains Indians, several army officers disputed this account. None of her accounts of her service with the army as a scout or courier has been verified by military records, and most have been disputed, with one officer writing in 1904 that she “…never saw service in any capacity…never was in an Indian fight…she was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish…”

Her relationship with Wild Bill Hickok appears to have been the product of her imagination as well. During the time Hickok was in Deadwood, South Dakota, Jane worked with and may have lived with Dora DuFran, the town’s leading madam. Hickok had married Agnes Lake in March of 1876, he died in August of that year in Deadwood.

Calamity Jane appears to have met Hickok when the two were part of the same wagon train to Deadwood in the spring of 1876. Calamity Jane did work as a wagoneer, possibly as a miner, tried her hand as an innkeeper, and definitely worked as a prostitute. Beyond that most of her claims regarding her colorful life are questionable.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
Along with her husband and her pet parrot Dora DuFran is buried in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery

Dora DuFran

Dora Bolshaw was born in the English city of Liverpool and came to the United States following the American Civil War, probably in 1869. By 1877 she and her parents were living in Lincoln, Nebraska, some accounts have them arriving in 1876. She began working as a prostitute to soldiers around the age of 14, working both in a brothel and independently as a dance hall girl.

When the Deadwood Gold Rush hit, Dora followed the wave of miners and prospectors to the new mining camp in the Black Hills, declaring herself to be at the age of fifteen a madam, and opening a brothel which originally was little more than a mining tent.

Despite her youth, Dora was insistent that the women who worked for her, most of whom were older and more hardened members of their profession, practice good hygiene and dress. Calamity Jane worked for her on an occasional basis, but her refusal to bathe and her habit of wearing men’s clothes served to limit her appeal to Dora and to the men who Dora solicited. Towards the end of Jane’s period in Deadwood Dora employed her as a dishwasher and cook. Dora enjoyed the company of cats as pets and after Charlie Utter delivered several to her brothel in Deadwood, she began referring to it as the “cathouse” adding a new word to the American lexicon.

Dora’s enterprise grew to include several brothels in nearby communities such as Lead, Belle Fourche, Miles City, and Sturgis. She married Joseph DuFran, one of the many professional gamblers who made mining camps and boomtowns their places of business, and DuFran helped her scout locations and grow the brothels as he made money at the poker and faro tables.

Dora DuFran wrote a twelve-page pamphlet on Calamity Jane later in life, and after the death of her husband relocated to Rapid City, where she opened yet another brothel. She died in 1934 and is buried in Deadwood’s Mount Mariah Cemetery, along with Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock, her husband and her pet parrot.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
The Bella Union Saloon and Theater in Deadwood South Dakota, where Mollie Johnson met her bigamist husband. Wikimedia

Mollie Johnson

Mollie Johnson was another Deadwood madam who operated as the main competition of Dora DuFran for many years. Mollie came to Deadwood from Alabama, where she had begun working as a prostitute at the age of 14 or 15. In Deadwood Mollie became known largely through her own self-promotion as the Queen of the Blondes. Her sobriquet was based on her employing three blonde women who worked in her brothel as well as maintaining separate boarding houses for itinerant miners and other drifters through the camp.

Mollie’s brothel was known as a loud and sometimes dangerous place, as the women, there were competitors both for renters in their boarding houses and customers in the brothel. Frequently this competition led to physical confrontations between the women, often to the entertainment of the customers.

By 1878 Deadwood had a facility presenting touring shows and other entertainment known as the Bella Union Theater. Mollie met Lew Spencer there when he was performing as a comedian. Spencer was an African American touring performer and he and Mollie were married in 1878, although Spencer continued to tour as a performer and Mollie continued to work as both madam and prostitute.

While on tour Spencer was arrested for shooting a woman later identified as his first wife, evidently the marriage to Mollie was an act of bigamy. There is no evidence that Mollie ever saw Spencer again.

Mollie suffered at least three fires which destroyed her brothels in Deadwood, rebuilding each time. By 1883 business in the mining camp had largely fallen off and Mollie left Deadwood to vanish from history. Stories of her bordellos and the women who had worked in them were common in the Deadwood newspapers up until the time she left town for parts unknown, and many can be read today.

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

True West Magazine – Fannie Porter

True West Magazine – The Nude Duel that Will Not Die

Texas Public Radio – Why Did San Antonio’s Most Famous Brothel Lose Its Historic Designation?

The Vintage News – Fannie Porter- The Most Iconic “Madame” Of the Old West

Medium – The High Life of Belle Brezing

Owlcation – Big Nose Kate: A Gunslinger’s Gal

History Net – To the Miners of Virginia City, Julia Bulette Was the Beloved Queen of the Comstock

Mental Floss – Big Nose Kate, Independent Woman of the Wild West

Legends of America – The Painted Ladies of Deadwood Gulch

History Collection – The Notorious Men of the Wild West