In a world where drunk men and competing crib girls could get mean.
They were called sporting women, soiled doves, crib girls, fallen angels, calico queens, prairie flowers, daughters of sin, doves of the roost, painted cats, horizontal workers, ceiling experts and many other unflattering names. In Western movies these shady ladies of the Old West have usually been portrayed as pretty women who also sing and dance and, because of recent bad luck, have temporarily turned to the oldest profession in order to survive. But in the real West, prostitutes were usually coarse women who looked bad, smelled bad, smoked cigarettes, drank too much and spent years “plying their wares.”
One thing they also had in common was that they were often beaten, stabbed or shot by out-of-control drunks and psychopaths, sometimes even by their female competition. In 1867 in Virginia City, Nev., high-class French prostitute Julia Bulette was strangled to death in her palatial bagnio by three drifters; and when John Millais, one of the killers, was captured in 1868, many of the mining town’s most respectable women treated him like a hero right up to the day he was hanged on April 24, 1869. In 1886 El Paso, Texas, prostitutes Alice Abbot and Etta Clark shot it out with each other, and Alice was hit in the “public arch” (as one newspaper reported it) but survived the bullet wound. As historian Richard F. Selcer wrote of the prostitutes of Fort Worth, Texas, in his book Hell’s Half Acre, “Like fear, violence was a constant companion.”
And so, “fallen” women of the Old West kept small pistols handy in their beds, or next to their beds, to protect themselves from the human hazards of their profession. If she was well enough endowed and wore a tight chemise, she could slip one of these little “protectors” in her cleavage. Some strapped them against their thighs with a garter. Others carried them in form-fitted holsters hung on a small belt. During the cap-and-ball firearms days of the 1850s and 1860s, the pistol of choice was usually one of Henry Deringer’s blunt-nosed, big caliber single shots, or one made by his many copyists. And when cartridge revolvers evolved after the Civil War, almost every U.S. gun manufacturer began making small, short, large-caliber, single-action revolvers in .32, .38 or .41 rimfire or centerfire caliber, usually made with a bird’s head–shaped butt and a spur-shaped, sheathed trigger instead of a trigger enclosed by a cumbersome trigger-guard.
These spur trigger revolvers were made as “hideout” guns for men and women alike in all walks of life, but the prostitutes of the Old West found them to be ideal guns for their self-protection. The ones made by manufacturers other than Colt, Smith & Wesson and Remington could be had at low cost, and the prostitutes more often than not added engraving and ivory or pearl grips as a feminine touch to the little pistols. The same master engravers who worked for Colt, Smith & Wesson and Remington sometimes did the engraving. But because most of these off-brand compact pistols were marked with generic names rather than the makers’ names, we will probably never know how many of them were made during the1870s,’80sand’90sor,inmanycases, even who made them. For example, an 1884 ad by a St. Louis gun distributor (see image above) listed .32-caliber spur trigger revolvers—Electric, Robin Hood, Defender, Kittemaug, Red Jacket and Victor—with prices ranging from $1.60 to $3.66, depending on whether they were plain, engraved or had ivory or pearl grips. But the price for a plain similar gun made by Colt usually ranged from $5 to $10, and for a Smith &Wesson $12 to $15.
The most prolific maker of these “bordello guns” was Hopkins & Allen, headquartered in Norwich, Conn., which advertised itself as being “the largest manufacturers [sic] of high-grade, popular priced firearms in the world.”Hopkins & Allen was created in 1868 when the partnership of Charles Converse, Samuel Hopkins and CharlesW. Allen bought out the defunct revolver maker Bacon Manufacturing Co. Besides making a stewpot of dozens of different sizes and models of cartridge revolvers and single-shot pistols, Hopkins & Allen also produced all of the popular Merwin, Hulbert revolvers, and also bought out the Forehand &Wadsworth revolver company in 1902. Among the trade name spur trigger revolvers that H&A produced before the company finally discontinued business in 1915 were the Blue Jacket and XL series, with the various sizes numbered 1 through 8, and other generic names like Captain Jack, Mountain Eagle, Ranger and the heavily advertised Czar.
Sullivan Forehand and Henry C.Wadsworth, the sons-in-law of pioneer gun maker Ethan Allen, had formed the gun firm Forehand & Wadsworth Co. after Allen died in 1871. F&W, too, made spur trigger revolvers with trade names like Terror, Bull Dog, Bull Dozer and Swamp Angel, the latter of which may have been a discreet attempt to appeal to the fallen angels of the brothels.
Another major maker of spur trigger revolvers was Harrington & Richardson Arms Co., formed in 1874 in Worcester, Mass., by Gilbert H. Harrington (nephew of Frank Wesson, the brother of Smith & Wesson cofounder Daniel Wesson) and one of Frank Wesson’s gunsmiths, William A. Richardson. The company was so successful that by 1897 it was cranking out more than 200,000 various-sized revolvers a year.
Other types of pistols popular with the denizens of the brothels included the famous twoshot Remington Double Derringer, the four-shot Sharps pepperboxes and the five- and six-shot double-action Bulldogs, made in England and the United States. But the spur trigger revolvers remained the working girls’ pistol of choice. According to Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms, over 300 different trade names have turned up on 19th-century spur trigger revolvers. Alert, American Boy, Aristocrat, Bang Up, Big Bonanza, Bloodhound, Brutus, Buffalo Bill, Dead Shot, Defender, Defiance, Earthquake, Faultless, Guardian, Half Breed, Hero, Liberty, Little Giant, LongTom, Monarch, Paralyzer, Patriot, Success and Tramp’s Terror are a few examples.
Probably because so few prostitutes got much newspaper ink in the shoot- ’em-up days of the OldWest, unless they were fined or murdered, not many surviving pistols are known to have belonged to soiled doves. The Tombstone Western Heritage Museum displays a .32 rimfire Smith & Wesson New Model 11⁄2, No. 112812, that is engraved on the frame, AUGUSTINE,TOMBSTONE, A.T., along with a February 1, 1898, city license to “Augustine” for the business of“Ill Fame.” And an unnamed Denver madam’s Forehand &Wadsworth .38 rimfire spur trigger revolver, No. 10126, marked “Bull Dog,” along with its red velvet-lined tin holster, still exists in a private collection (see photo below).
And so, in summary, it can be said that the little spur trigger revolvers may not have been the“guns that won theWest,” but—with tongue partially in cheek— they can easily be called the “guns that won some peace of mind and protection in the cribs of the Old West.”
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.