Nine "Soiled Doves" Who Changed the Face of the Old West
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

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

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