Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Soiled Doves of the Old West

The Old West is full of legends…cowboys, gunslingers, Indians, pioneers, outlaws, Marshalls and "soiled doves".

What would a true western novel be without a brothel, cathouse or crib? There are several madams who made their mark on the Old West, but the parlor houses that were most profitable were the ones run by an adept business woman, flaunted elegant furnishings and boasted the most beautiful girls. Those Madams not only turned a profit but had a wealth of real estate, fine horses and material goods.

The finer brothels prided themselves on setting a good table, offering choice cigars and the finest liquor and wine to their male clientele and some would only allow the girls in the house to be seen by appointment. Parlor houses averaged six to twelve girls and the madam entertained only those customers she personally selected. Much of the profit in brothels came from drinks served, which were higher in price than the local saloons. The most successful madams maintained a strict air of respectability and a "charming home life" on the main floor of their houses, insisting the girls wear corsets when in public. Even though parlor houses were not accepted by society, the madams paid their share of community taxes and fines to corrupt law officers. They also contributed heavily to community charities.

Pearl de Vere, Cripple Creek, Colorado's famous madam was known to charge a $1,000 for her personal services. She catered only to the prosperous men of Cripple Creek and her girls were the most beautiful of any parlor in the mining camp. They wore fine clothing, received monthly medical exams and were paid well. Pearl was known to "prance" through the camp daily in a small open carriage led by a team of expensive black horses. Dressed in a different beautiful costume every outing her clothes were the envy of the respectable women in the camp.

Other famous "soiled Doves" of the Old West were Mary Elizabeth "Libby" Haley Thompson better known as Squirrel Tooth Alice because of the gap in her front teeth.

At age ten she was kidnapped by the Comanche and held prisoner for three years. After her release she was considered a "marked woman" and shunned by society. She ran away from home and turned to prostitution to support herself. Libby set up a dance hall and brothel in Sweetwater, Texas which she ran until 1921 when she retired. Libby died in 1953 at the age of 98 in a rest home in Los Angeles.

Dora Dufran was considered the Blackhill's leading madam.

Aside from her parlor house in Deadwood, South Dakota she established branch houses in Sturgis, Rapid City and Belle Fourche. In her early days in Deadwood, she became a friend and occasional employer to Calamity Jane, who sometimes worked as a prostitute. She was also said to have had a "heart of gold," often providing nursing services to those in need and helping the poverty stricken. Sometime after moving to Deadwood, she married a man named Joseph DuFran, a gentleman gambler, who not only wasn't bothered by her profession, but helped her to grow her business.

In 1909, Dora's husband Joseph died at the age of 47 and Dora returned to Rapid City, where she set up another brothel, which became popular during the Prohibition years and served as a speakeasy. Dora DuFran died at the age of 60. Her obituary in the Black Hills Pioneer mourned the passing of "a noted social worker.” Her grave is marked by four urns that feature grinning imps, symbolizing the four brothels that she had owned.

Soiled Doves lived a hard life but no matter what your opinion of their chosen profession, these women shaped the American West and found a way to survive and even thrive in a man's world. For those of you whose family roots go back generations in the Old West, can you claim any "soiled doves" in your family?

Roughneck Cowboy (Feb 2011)
Rodeo Daddy (April 2011)
Harlequin American Romance


  1. MARIN--you have to admire these women in a way. Most likely, most if not all, had to make their own way in some manner, and maybe simply could not do anythiing else. Interesting stories about each of these. It makes them real women with female hearts. I always love photos and these were especially good. Thanks! Celia

  2. Marin,
    I've always wondered about the reasons for some women chosing the life of a prostitute. In most cases I imagine it was in order to survive without any other choices. I've read that during the Civil War in some cases women took in men in order to put food on the table and pay other bills. Some of the women became good business women and made a success for themselves. But it must have been a hard lonely life. They had to be very strong women, I think.

  3. While not condoning the profession, many women had not choice but to become a prostitute or starve. I'm sure many of them were nicer than the so-called "goog" women of the town.

    Great post, Marin!

  4. Hi Marin,

    This just goes to show that women are survivors. I'm sure these madams were a combination of needing to make a living this way and liking the way they made their living. I saw an interesting thing on the History Channel about the prostitutes in Hawaii around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. Apparently no one holds back a determined lady of any stamp. Interesting post.


  5. In my opinion you can't have a western and not add in the soiled doves. They were just as big a part of the west as the hills, valleys and mountains or the cowboys, miners, lawmen,and outlaws.

    Good info.


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