Firemen were among her mourners when she was murdered.
The Virginia City miners had taken real soap-and-water baths, picked out their best shirts and even cleaned and dressed up their Nevada town for the big event. As the red, white and blue bunting fluttered in the July wind and the spirited brass band warmed up, everyone was more than ready to celebrate Independence Day.
At the center of the festivities was a parade, and one of its most celebrated components was the freshly washed fire truck of Engine Company No. 1. The vehicle sparkled and shined, and so too did the woman riding atop it—Miss Julia Bulette, among the booming silver town’s most treasured citizens. The firemen had made the slim, dark-eyed beauty an honorary member of their company as well as queen of the July Fourth parade. And when the horse-pulled fire truck rolled down the street, Julia sat pretty and proud, wearing a fireman’s hat and embracing a brass fire trumpet filled with fresh-cut roses. The firemen marching behind her were no doubt equally proud.
That particular Independence Day parade might have occurred as early as 1861, though accounts vary as to the year, as well as to exactly when Bulette first arrived in Virginia City (more likely it was not until 1863). Everyone agrees, however, on the date of a much sadder occurrence in town—Julia’s demise. In the early morning of January 20, 1867, someone beat her, strangled her in bed and then made off with most of her furs, jewelry and fine clothes.
News of Bulette’s death spread like a prairie fire after a friend found her body later that morning. Many of the hardened miners of Virginia City mourned with free-flowing tears. Never again would they see their beloved “Queen of the Comstock” sitting high atop Engine Company No. 1’s truck or perhaps even lying atop fancy clean sheets. The women in the largely male community also mourned her, or at the very least were disturbed by the brutality of her death. Bulette was no valued school marm or esteemed minister’s wife; she was a prostitute by trade, and by all accounts quite popular. At the time of her death she was prospering in her chosen profession.
The details of Bulette’s early days are obscure at best. By most accounts she was born in 1832, perhaps in England (London or Liverpool), though of French ancestry, and given the name “Jule.” Recent research, however, places her more probable birthplace as Natchez, Miss. From there she apparently went to New Orleans and then California, but exactly when she drifted into the “sporting life” is also uncertain.
The 1859 Comstock Lode silver strike gave birth to Virginia City. Some accounts claim Bulette moved there from the West Coast that same year, but more likely she didn’t arrive until 1863. Unlike most of the other soiled doves who fluttered into that rowdy place, Julia didn’t have a hard-crust personality. She was warm, compassionate and even relatively well read and sophisticated. As she settled into Virginia City life, even the proper ladies came to respect her kindhearted manner and generosity to worthy causes.
First among those causes was the town’s fire department. Julia donated freely to help the struggling department maintain its state-of-the-art equipment. Her assistance apparently didn’t stop with donations. At times she would work the brakes of the handcart engines as the firemen battled the flames. As Virginia City comprised primarily wood frame buildings perched on a windswept mountainside, soaring sparks from wood-burning stoves kept the fire department —and Miss Julia—busy.
Virginia City was laid out in distinct sections. A and B streets were reserved for rich folks like the silver kings, bankers and mining engineers. C Street housed the stores, gambling halls, saloons and eateries. And if a fellow had finished his meal and polished it off with an evening of drinking and gambling, he could always head down the backstairs to D Street, where the soiled doves nested.
Bulette plied her trade in a wood-frame house at 4 N. D Street. Nestled in among the mahogany furniture, Brussels car pets and lace curtains, a customer could partake in his favorite alcoholic beverage as he enjoyed the company of his accommodating hostess. He would be her sole customer for the night and was expected to dig a little deeper into his pocket than with some other less-exclusive neighbors. But nobody seemed to mind—the Queen of the Comstock was worth it.
Although it makes for a great legend, there is no evidence to support the fanciful stories Bulette owned a sparkling brothel palace and treated hundreds of sick miners there during an epidemic. At the same time she couldn’t have become so well respected in Virginia City (not just anyone was made an honorary member of Engine Company No. 1) had she not been, to some degree, the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold. When she became a murder victim, it was big news on the Comstock Lode, only in part because of the crime’s brutality and the fact she was a woman. Most townsfolk genuinely liked her.
On the evening of January 19, 1867, Bulette dressed to take in a performance at Piper’s Opera House, solely owned by John Piper since that March. Apparently her local respectability even had some limits. According to reports, she was told that though she had always been allowed to sit in the main section of the theater, a town ordinance had changed. She must now sit in a special viewing box reserved for the red-light ladies of the town. The curtains of that section were to remain tightly drawn to keep them from view of the proper ladies of Virginia City. When Bulette refused, a door attendant denied her entrance to the theater.
Shaking off her indignation, Bulette decided to visit neighbor and friend Gertrude Holmes for an evening meal and pleasant conversation. Leaving Gertrude’s company a little after 11 o’clock that evening, Julia explained she was to meet a miner friend at her house. Those would be the last words any of her friends would hear from her.
At about 11:30 the next morning Holmes stopped by with breakfast for the two of them. To her horror she discovered Bulette had been murdered, and it seemed the killer had stolen many of Julia’s belongings. Soon Holmes would be joined in her grief by most of Virginia City’s citizenry. The mines, mills and even the saloons closed out of respect. The next day, a cold snowy Monday, a crowd turned out for her funeral in the firehouse. Although the religious leaders held firm with a town regulation that no prostitute should be buried in their cemetery, her admirers found a spot on a nearby hill overlooking the town. They arranged for a formal Catholic funeral and placed Julia in a silver-handled casket carried by a black-plumed, glass-walled hearse.
Some 60 firemen led the procession to her grave, followed by the Brigade Nevada Militia Band. To the accompaniment of the band’s funeral dirges, 16 carriages, packed with mourners, rolled behind the hearse. Trailing after them, thousands of dejected miners and storekeepers trudged through the gusty snow to Bulette’s final resting place.
After several men solemnly put in place a wooden marker bearing the painted name JULIA, the procession shuffled back down the hill. The men of Engine Company No. 1 filled the frigid air with a heartrending version of “The Girl I Left Behind.” The town they returned to was draped in black for the first time since President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Even the bars remained closed.
Authorities had no leads in the Bulette murder case for nearly three months. Then one of Julia’s old friends, Martha Camp, reported to police that a man bearing a weapon in hand had roused her from sleep. When she screamed, the intruder had fled from her room, but not before she saw his face. The police promptly arrested a Frenchman named John Milleain. While the suspect was in jail, a resident of nearby Gold Hill reported she had recently purchased a dress pattern from Milleain that he claimed to be selling for a widow whose husband had died in a mining accident. When police showed the pattern to local dry goods merchant Sam Rosener, he recognized it as one he had sold to the late Bulette. Authorities then discovered a trunk owned by Milleain. Popping open the lid, they found other belongings stolen from Julia.
Confronted with this evidence, Milleain admitted that he was involved in the crime (a statement he later retracted). He then claimed two other men had actually murdered Bulette and given him her jewelry and other belongings to store. If there were other accomplices, authorities never found them. In July 1867, after a one-day trial, Milleain was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. He claimed it was because he was French.
A large crowd gathered in Virginia City on April 24, 1868, to watch Milleain hang. Among the observers was Mark Twain, who had been a reporter for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise from 1861 to 1864 and was back in town as a lecturer. It can be safely said that far fewer Nevadans were on hand for Twain’s lectures at Piper’s Opera House on April 27 and 28 than had attended the “stupendous hanging” a few days earlier. At that time Twain did not have nearly the drawing power as the public execution of the Frenchman who likely cut short the life of the Queen of the Comstock.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.