Arizona’s Territorial prostitutes led challenging lives wrought with violence, disease and addiction – but research reveals some new insights.
Arizona’s soiled doves are once again flying high. Big Nose Kate, Crazy Horse Lil, and other notorious prostitutes of yore have returned to prominence – both as costumed props in Arizona’s Old West-themed tourism industry, and as subjects of a new wave of academic inquiry by Arizona historians.
Visit virtually any historical mining town, and you’ll find cosplay harlots loitering on street corners to pose with tourists, and boutique B&Bs loudly trumpeting their past incarnations as notorious bordellos – all the better to connect with couples on romantic getaways. But the cheeky nostalgia for Arizona’s Territorial-era sex trade masks the complex lives of prostitutes, many of whom who were known by catchy monikers like “Lizette the Flying Nymph.”
“Frontier prostitutes were multifaceted individuals struggling to succeed in an often hostile environment,” Arizona State archivist Melanie Sturgeon wrote in the winter 2007 issue of The Journal of Arizona History. “Ultimately, prostitution was a strategy for economic survival.”
Although shunned by genteel society, scarlet ladies were an important part of Territorial Arizona. They could be found in every mining boomtown and the bigger cities, but a bordello is a big business and smaller communities could not support them. “Prostitutes were considered to be a necessary evil, providing a safety valve to stop men from seducing or raping proper ladies,” historian Helana Ruter says.
But it was a hard profession. “Prostitutes risked everything to make their way in a man’s world,” Jan MacKell Collins, author of the 2009 book Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains, says. There were few occupations available to women, aside from teaching school or operating boarding houses or apparel shops. Prostitutes, who eschewed these traditional low-paying jobs, were subject to violence, theft, venereal disease and pregnancy. Personal, off-the-clock relationships with men frequently proved destructive. To cope with the harsh conditions, prostitutes often descended into opiate or alcohol addiction. A lucky few managed to marry well (like both of Wyatt Earp’s common-law wives), or retire wealthy, like French madam Blonde Marie, who operated a bordello with an ever-changing menu for wealthy patrons in Tombstone. “She was able to trade her girls out from other places so that her customers had an endless variety of new girls at any given time,” MacKell Collins writes. “Marie saved enough money to retire and return to Paris.”
Prostitutes followed the money to frontier Arizona, moving to mining boomtowns like Tombstone in the late 1870s. “Mining camps attracted a wide variety of folks looking to get rich quick, not all in the mines,” Heidi Osselaer, faculty associate in the history department at Arizona State University, says with a chuckle. “With the ratio of men to women about 10 to 1, there were ample opportunities for sex workers.”
Tombstone’s first licensed brothel opened in 1881 and was operated by Cora Davis. “Her sense of humor is apparent from the alternative business terms she wrote on her license fees, like ‘young ladies seminary’ and ‘flute players,’” Osselaer says with a laugh.
The profession included many ethnicities, but French prostitutes usually earned more because of their perceived better knowledge of sex. There was a workplace hierarchy starting at the top with parlors run by madams, who were usually retired prostitutes. “Parlor houses were upscale places with fine décor, linens and silks, offering wealthy customers live music, servants and security,” Osselaer states. Next were brothels in red light districts that catered to the working class. “Décor was shabbier, women had coarser manners and plain clothing,” says Osselaer, whose research on Tombstone businesswomen won the Barry M. Goldwater Award for best paper at the 2012 Arizona Centennial Conference and was published in the Summer 2014 issue of The Journal of Arizona History. “Prostitutes might be older, less attractive, and more likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol. Expectations were that a girl might service 25 men a night.”
A rung below were the saloon or “hurdy-gurdy” girls working for pimps. Near the bottom were prostitutes working in “cribs,” flimsy two-room buildings located in the roughest part of the tenderloin district. Servicing up to 80 men a day, crib workers finished each transaction in a few minutes. Streetwalkers were the most pitiful. “Often these women sold their bodies for a drink,” Osselaer says with a wince.
Prostitution was also legal and common in Phoenix. “Female boarding houses, code for bordellos, were located on blocks seven and nine along Monroe and First streets of the Phoenix Township in 1893. The most notorious madam was Rose Gregory, known as Minnie Powers, whose girls lived adjacent to the Powers Saloon in block seven,” says archaeologist Greta Rayle, who presented her research, “Behind Closed Doors: ‘Female Boarding’ Houses in Early Phoenix,” at the 2015 Arizona Historic Preservation Conference. An Englishwoman, Gregory was living in Utah when her husband died. She sent her young daughter to live with family in San Francisco and moved to Phoenix. Gregory twice left prostitutes to burn to death in saloon fires. “Her only concern appears to have been her possessions,” Rayle states. “She was quoted as saying, ‘It was just my luck; I didn’t have a thing insured,’ after the fire.”
Phoenix profited from bordellos through licensing, taxes and fines. Territorial Act 29 outlawed brothels within 400 feet of schools and shifted the industry south in 1893. “There are now only 12 prostitutes within the city limits though there are about 50 hanging like scarlet fringe on the southern border,” asserted an October 1893 Arizona Republican article.
In 1894, Phoenix Resolution 27 confined prostitution to block 41, located north of Jackson Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. In reality, however, this entire neighborhood became the city’s sordid tenderloin district. Constituent brothels included the Depot, Columbus, Quadri & Rolleto, and the Red Light Saloon, all run by Italian men.
Prostitution in Arizona was officially outlawed in 1918, six years after statehood. Phoenix’s brothels, greased with police kickbacks and municipal fines, continued to operate for decades. The red light district’s vice-ridden activities eventually stretched north to “the Deuce,” the city’s infamous skid row that was centered along Second Street until it was razed in the 1980s.
Researchers sifting through the minutiae of Territorial-era prostitutes’ lives are impressed with their business savvy in handling law enforcement and customers who were often armed and drunk. Their role in settling Arizona continues to be reevaluated, and what constitutes a scarlet lady remains open to debate.
“Many historians assert there was a distinct line between decent and immoral women, but I disagree,” Osselaer says. “The line was often blurred. Women’s jobs paid poorly – seamstresses and boardinghouse keepers worked long hours for little money. Sometimes they made ends meet through prostitution.”
Some historical bordellos remain open for business – but are utilized for a new line of work.
Bird Cage Theater
This one-stop shop for sin during the height of Tombstone’s silver boom was reopened as a tourist attraction in 1934. More than 120 bullet holes remain in the ceiling, attesting to its reputation as one of the West’s most wicked establishments.
Red Garter inn
“Over 100 years of personal service” is the motto of this former bordello on Route 66 in Williams. The two-story Victorian building featured a saloon on the first floor when it opened in 1897; the bed and breakfast dates from 1994.
House of Joy
Perched on a Jerome hillside, this historical building serviced appetites as a bordello from 1912-1946 and later as a restaurant. The current tenant is the Brothel Boutique, which sells burlesque paraphernalia and other offbeat bric-a-brac.