May 11, 1959

Robert Wallace
LIFE Staff Writer

pp. 66-86 (excerpts).

How the West was Won Part VI

The Frontier's Fabulous Women

Brave, strong-minded -- and gay -- ladies helped tame the pioneers

DANCE HALL GIRLS, all elegantly dressed, line up decorously for a picture outside their place of business in the boom mining town of Goldfield, Nev. Gold was discovered near town in 1902, producing a rush in 1903-10.

THE Western Woman or Pioneer Mother is a sainted figure immortal in bronze, history books and the hearts of her descendants. Stalwartly she strides toward the sunset, holding her child by the hand, her piercing glance forever fixed on the horizon. The wife of a farmer or cattleman or prospector, gallantly and obscurely suffering and enduring in a covered wagon, log cabin or sod house, she comes immediately to mind in her faded sunbonnet whenever the words "West" and "woman" are put together. But she is less a person than an institution, as sainted figures frequently are. If she may be left on her great and deserved eminence, there are other western women worth looking at, fabulous women not of bronze but flesh and blood -- as are those portrayed on the next eight pages.

To understand the women of the West, one must first look at the situation beyond the wide Missouri. One of the dominating, formative and frustrating facts of the early West was the great female shortage. In 1849, for example, there were only about 5,000 women among the 50,000 Americans who went west. When the first California census was taken in 1850, men outnumbered women by 12 to 1. In many mining camps there were no women at all, which led to fantastic domestic complications -- as when a miner wanted to have his shirts washed and there was no one to do it. "The consequence is," wrote a forty-niner, "large quantities of soiled linen are sent [7,000 miles] to China to be purified.... A vessel from Canton brought 250 doz. which were sent out a few months ago; another from the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] brought 100 doz."

In upper California in the 1850s a married woman who traveled wrote in her diary: "I am afraid I should have had a very mistaken impression of my own importance if I had lived long among [these men]. At every stopping-place they made little fires in their Frying pans and set them around me, to keep off the mosquitoes while I took my meal. As the columns of smoke rose about me I felt like a heathen goddess to whom incense was being offered."

Many opportunistic white women undertook to solve the problem immediately and forthrightly. As soon as a cow town or a mining camp grew large enough to have a few saloons and a general store, prostitutes arrived from the east and set up shop. "First came the miners to work in the mine, / Then came the ladies who lived on the line," says an old ballad. They established themselves in rows of one-room shacks, called cribs, and often hung out shingles bearing their trade names: Spanish Queen, Molly b'Damn, Little Gold Dollar, Em' Straight-Edge, Peg-Leg Annie, Contrary Mary and others of more ribald nature.

It may be deplored that these light ladies should have been prominent in the great train of women who tamed and civilized the male West. Often, writers more concerned with morality than with accuracy have ignored the fact or hastily glossed it over. But it remains a fact and there is no reason not to face it here: in many a frontier town these were the only women the miners and cowhands knew. The romanticized lady of easy virtue, the dance-hall girl with the heart of gold, was usually a hard-bitten money-grabber for whom the men had no respect. But there were many who were good at heart and were held in wide esteem. A miner who knew Molly b'Damn in Idaho in the 1880s described her as "an uncommonly ravishing personality. Her face gave no evidence of dissipation, her clothes no hint of her profession. About her, at times, was an atmosphere of refinement and culture. . . . She quoted with apparent understanding from Shakespeare, from Milton, from Dante." In addition, Molly b'Damn and her colleagues had qualities which the rough frontiersmen, who took things at face value, greatly admired. Molly b'Damn felt no compunction in taking a miner's season's profits for a single evening's entertainment, but when the same miner later fell ill, Molly would close down her business and nurse him back to health free of charge. According to one account, when there was illness and suffering among "her boys," the Irish Queen would wade through deep snow in midwinter "to take soup to some poor devil to whom she didn't owe a damned thing."

JULIA BULETTE made a fortune between 1859 and 1863 from miners who were working the comstock lode.

Against this background the famous prostitutes of the West, such as Julia Bulette, may perhaps be glimpsed as the miners saw them then. When Julia Bulette came to Virginia City in 1859 she was the only unattached white woman in that incredible town. Miners by the hundred and later by the thousand were burrowing into the Comstock lode, from which eventually they were to take more than $300 million in gold and silver. But the money meant little without something to spend it on, and that Miss Bulette provided. She was young, she had a particularly lively and engaging personality, and she may have been very pretty by the standards of the time.

Because of the wealth of the miners and her virtual monopoly of trade, Miss Bulette commanded exceedingly high prices, reputedly as much as $1,000 per evening. Very soon she collected a considerable fortune and with it built a great rococo house known as Julia's Palace, which she staffed with pleasant young girls from San Francisco. It became the center of the social life of Virginia City. But it was not a brawling, boisterous bawdyhouse. Julia imported fine wines, served a delightful French cuisine, dressed herself and her girls in the latest Parisian style, and almost daily decked her palace with fresh-cut flowers rushed by Wells Fargo express from San Francisco. To the lonely, rugged miners she brought touches of long-forgotten grace and gentility; her house was the only real home that many of them knew; they thought she was a lady and they loved her. One of the few official tributes they could give her was to make her an honorary member of the Virginia City Fire Company, and on the Fourth of July, 1861, at the summit of her career, she led a parade through the city, riding in a fire truck and carrying a fireman's trumpet filled with fresh roses, while her delighted "boys" marched in red-shirted ranks behind her.

When several hundred miners became ill from drinking water, Julia turned her palace into a hospital and herself into a nurse. During the Civil War she raised huge sums for Lincoln's Sanitary Commission, the Red Cross of its day. But as Virginia City grew in size and as hundreds of proper ladies and gentlemen moved into the community, Julia Bulette's status began to change. Her boys still loved her, but the forces of uplift were becoming too powerful. She could no longer sit in the orchestra of the theater surrounded by dozens of admiring men. Instead she occupied a box at the side, partially curtained to keep off the glares of the righteous.

In 1867, attracted by Julia's storied collection of jewelry, three thugs crept into her palace on a winter's night and strangled her in her bed. Her funeral was perhaps the most impressive Nevada has ever seen: thousands of men, led by the firemen and the state militia band, mournfully followed her body to its grave in unconsecrated ground--while the respectable element of Virginia City remained indoors behind drawn shutters. On the way home the band, not in levity, cut loose with the gay, marching strain of The Girl I Left Behind Me, and the miners wept.


PROVOCATIVE ACTRESS, Adah Issacs Menken toured West for years in melodrama Mazepa. Play's high point came when Ada, clad in pink tights which gave the effect of nudity, rode across stage tied to a horse's back.

Adah Isaacs Menken was no martyr and her color was shocking pink, like that of her theatrical tights and the faces of the men who gaped at her. To many of these Adah was the premier sight of the West, the Rockies a very poor second. Even Mark Twain, who had a notably level eye in his head, saw her as a "whole constellation ... a magnificent spectacle ... like a vast spray of gas-jets."

Adah ,was a strip-teaser who managed to tease without really stripping, Part and perhaps most of her attraction lay in her face and figure, but she also had that hint of wickedness about her that makes an attractive woman more so. She told fascinating tales about her past. some of which may have been true. Had she really been raped at 15 by her mother's lover? Captured by Indians and saved by the Texas Rangers? Had she been a ballet dancer, a circus rider and a teacher in a girls' seminary? Only Adah knew, and she manufactured a different story for every reporter who interviewed her, meanwhile flaring her pink nostrils that "open and shut like those of a war horse." In any case the demonstrable truth was vivid enough. She was a highly intelligent girl who wrote poetry, although it was not very good poetry. When she visited England, Algernon Charles Swinburne, the British poet, tried to suggest this to her one morning at breakfast when he remarked, "My darling, a woman with such beautiful legs as yours shouldn't bother with poetry." In addition to close friends such as Algernon, Adah had four husbands. One of them scarcely counted, to be sure, because she only married him in annoyance when she was seven months pregnant, and left him three days later. Another was Big John Heenan, the American heavyweight bare-knuckle champion. whose conversation was limited almost entirely to oaths and who practiced his left jab on her.

Adah came to the West in 1863, when she was either 22 or 28, depending on which of her autobiographical stories one believed. As the star of a melodrama called Mazeppa, she fell, toward the close of Act I, into the clutches of a villain who had plotted a long-drawn-out equestrian murder. "Bring forth the untamed steed" he cried to his minions, and presently they led on stage a real, live horse. Stripped, Mazeppa was bound to the steed's back and sent forth into the world. "Now let the scorching suns and piercing blasts, devouring hunger and parching thirst, with frequent bruises and ceaseless motion, rend the vile Tartar [Mazeppa] piecemeal!" shouted the villain. In Act II, the horse galloped on a treadmill past changing scenery, unrolled yard after yard, showing steppes and mountains, wolves and vultures. Writhing on the horse's back, Adah cried, "Eternal Heaven! Where will these horrors end?" She was not naked. The modern eye would find nothing indecorous in her opaque, skin-tight costume. But to the Victorian eye she seemed utterly unclad and wildly provocative. Everywhere she went -- Virginia City, San Francisco, Salt Lake City -- she left windrows of deliciously shocked and restless men. Long after poor Adah died in Paris in 1868, aged 27 or 33, those men remembered her, and many an oldtimer had as his proudest boast not the fact that he had looked the fierce Comanche in the eye or had a drink with old Jim Bridger but that he had seen Adah on that horse.

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