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Wild West Book Review: Red Light Women

3/26/2018 • Wild West Magazine

Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains

by Jan MacKell, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2009, $34.95.

Coloradan author Jan MacKell has expanded her horizontal horizons with a book about Rocky Mountain whores. Back in 2004 she raised a few heads with her Brothels, Bordellos and Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado, 1860– 1930. This broader perspective five years later introduces the reader to a slew of new women as MacKell, director of the Cripple Creek District Museum, delves into the history of prostitution and its effects on the West. In many places, the red-light districts did a booming business, so certainly not every diligent practitioner of the profession could find her way into a book of 458 pages. “The ladies in this book have great stories to tell, sometimes sad and tragic, sometimes happy and funny,” MacKell writes in the preface. “Their race for a hard-earned place in these pages has been well run, but I selected every single one of them because she was special in some way and best suited to give a good understanding of the prostitution industry’s place in the American West.”

Frontier prostitutes don’t all fit one mold, but certainly they had to bring a combination of tenderness and toughness to the table and bed. The author found they were usually single women, varying in age from 14 to 40-plus, who faced frequent brushes with the law, venereal disease, alcohol and drug addiction, physical abuse and unwanted pregnancies. “They strived to leave the business eventually and did so by marriage, retirement or death,” writes MacKell. “Many, such as restaurant owner and middle-aged widow Amelia Rucker of Tombstone, Arizona, supplemented their main income by working part time as a prostitute.” Others profiled include Mary “Chicago Joe” Welch, who in the 1870s adroitly ran a brothel in Helena, Montana Territory; Big Nose Kate, who sometimes made Doc Holliday happy in Arizona Territory; Mattie Silks, Denver’s most notorious madam; Sadie Orchard, whose British accent added class to Sadie’s Place in remote Hillsboro, New Mexico Territory; and Gertrudis “La Tules” Barcelo, the most celebrated courtesan in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory.

Leading with a chapter on the dawn of prostitution, MacKell looks at the soiled doves in the various geographic areas, sparking such alliterative chapter headings as “Amazons of Arizona,” “Courtesans of Colorado,” “Illicit Ladies of Idaho,” “Madams and other Women of Montana,” “The Undoing of Utah’s Soiled Doves” and finally “Wicked Women of Wyoming.” More than 100 historic photos accompany the text, ranging from one of hefty madam Lou Bunch lounging in a gown in Central City, Colo., to an eye-catching shot of a naked whore who keeps her “modesty” by doing some amazing large card tricks. For time travelers interested in doing further research, the author provides appendixes listing prostitutes in Leadville, Colo., and Cheyenne, Wyo., both in 1880, and in Butte, Mont., in 1902. The Rocky Mountain prostitution industry, the author says, sprouted, flourished and died between 1825 and 1988. Of course, in nearby Nevada, prostitution remains legal in some counties, but this book does not go there—leaving the bedroom door open to a third book on the subject by MacKell.

 

Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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