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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

Old West: What About the Women? Part 3

Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Pat Garrett. The history of the West is filled with tales of famous men and their exploits. Except for a few respectable women, Annie Oakley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and some rather notorious ones, Belle Starr, Calamity Jane Canary, Etta Place, Western stories tend to be quite lacking in females.

Of course, women were definitely on the scene. As listed in previous posts, they were homesteaders, living in isolation, raising children, and determined to survive. Or they resided in newly-established towns, working as seamstresses, shop clerks, or laundresses. Still others were bandits, generally disreputable figures, or soiled doves.

When I worked on my Western novel, The Life and Times of Lilly Quinn, I based the main character on a composite of real women who achieved a measure of success in the Western man’s world. To gain that success, they had to establish businesses in the world’s oldest profession. In a place where most of the population were men, women’s attentions were in great demand, even if those attentions were simply to listen and provide conversation to lonely old miners or buffalo hunters.

It was not necessarily an easy employment, as the women could fall victim to disease or violence. Julia Bulette's life gives an example of the dangers. She kept an elegant cottage in Virginia City, Nevada, and was considered high class. She chose her customers and charged as much as $1000 a night for her favors. But she was a painted cat with a tender heart. Among her plentiful good deeds, she nursed the sick through a smallpox epidemic, continually fed the poor, and donated her earnings to charitable causes, such as the fire department, Virginia City Company Number One.

Unfortunately for Julia, in 1867, she was found beaten and shot, and all her valuable possessions stolen. No perpetrator was ever found. Her many friends in town gave her the most expensive funeral they could buy and all the saloons closed for the day. A Catholic service was allowed, but not burial in the consecrated cemetery. Instead, she was buried outside of the city, a plain wooden marker stating simply, Julia.

Molly, Annette, Lottie. Some only used first names, but many more frontier girls of the night were known by the same traits of compassion and thoughtfulness, while they were also tough against those who deserved it.

Josephine Airey dubbed herself Chicago Joe. She shrewdly saved her money, became the madam in charge, and ran her own bordello in Helena, Montana. She ruled her business with an iron hand, but most in the community gave her respect, as people recognized her generosity and ever-present willingness to help any in need.

In the latter half of the 19th century, madams were often viewed as enterprising ladies and part of the fabric of frontier towns. Certainly, the men truly liked them, rank-and-file women, not so much. But as a group, madams employed the largest number of females in the Western territories. They supplied homes for thousands of young women who had no husbands or families to care for them and, especially if those girls were illiterate, no other means to earn an income. Many of those poor girls were grateful for the opportunity. Some even saved enough to relocate in towns far away, arrived referring to themselves as widows, and eventually found husbands.

Lilly Quinn would have fit right in with those historical women.

Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West, Ann Seagraves, 1994.

Pioneer Women: The Lives of Women on the Frontier, Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, 1996.

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