The Dumas Brothel
In the late 19th century the city of Butte, Montana was a boom town, fueled by the lucrative copper mines in the region. Women had been selling sexual services in Butte since the town was founded as a mining camp in the 1860s and by 1880 the town included dance halls, saloons, hotels, and brothels. East Galena Street became known as the twilight zone, with numerous brothels and other businesses which supported prostitution. A pair of brothers, Arthur and Joseph Nadeau, busied themselves buying up properties in the area, and in 1890 built a brothel on East Mercury Street. They named their new business the Dumas Hotel, after the maiden named of Joseph’s wife.
The Dumas Hotel was soon known locally as the Dumas Brothel. It was built of brick, with several basement tunnels providing surreptitious access (and exit) and it contained several basement “cribs” for the use of the women employed there. In 1900 the cost of a tryst with one of the women was fifty cents, about $14 today. By 1902 the business was run by Grace McGinnis, who employed four or five women at different times, as well as a cook and a maid. The sex trade was highly lucrative in Butte, and by 1910, though only two women resided in the brothel, several more were employed there, working in shifts.
While many residents of Butte objected to the brothel, its employees supported Butte’s other businesses, such as merchants, dressmakers, hairdressers, and so forth. These businesses objected to efforts to shut down the source of many of their customers. Butte’s brothels were estimated to be injecting about $2,000 into the city’s budget every month, and local officials had no desire to shut off the flow of income. The Dumas was expanded several times prior to the First World War, as increased demand for copper (mostly for electrical wiring) generated higher prices and more money for the miners.
World War 1 forced a crackdown on Butte’s red light district and most of the competing brothels closed, but the Dumas remained open for business, still owned by the Nadeau brothers, but operated by a series of madams. The brothel survived the Prohibition era and the Great Depression and on the verge of World War 2 sex at the Dumas was offered at the price of $2 (about $35 today). After the federal government ordered the closure of all brothels to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in 1943, the Dumas disguised itself as a boarding house and remained in operation through the time-honored method of bribing local officials and judges.
The Dumas remained in business until 1982, although the Nadeau brothers divested themselves of the business in the early 1950s. In 1980 the price of a prostitute was $20 (about $60 today). It closed after its final madam, Ruby Garrett, was convicted of tax evasion and served several months in prison. The building still stands and is in the process of being renovated. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970, when it was still active as a brothel. The Dumas brothel was the longest running active brothel in US history, operating from 1890 to 1982.