Readers loved the look inside the histories of the famous madams of the Wild West and we heard from a few of you that you’d like us to dig deeper into the topic. As an Arizona girl currently living in Denver, women of the Wild West is one of my absolute favorite historical topics, so I am happy to oblige. And because of my ties to the Southwest (I am also a descendent of Utah pioneers), I thought it might be fun to do a post on soiled doves, or “sporting” girls who came through these parts. Although they were eventually put out of business, from Tombstone to Ogden, brave and resourceful women helped to build the Southwest and have stories that deserve to be remembered.
Big Nose Kate
One of the soiled doves from the Wild West who remains the most “popular” today is Big Nose Kate. This could be because she is forever linked to one of the most intriguing characters from that time, because she has the more interesting nickname of all the Wild West sporting ladies, or because the saloon named in her honor is still one of the most visited sites in Tombstone. Whatever the case, this interesting lady knew how to make a name for herself!
As with many of the notorious women of her time, there is some confusion and speculation about Kate’s early years. During her life, it was even said that her father was the physician to Maximillian I back in the family’s homeland of Slovakia. There is little evidence to support this claim. What is known is that the family immigrated to Iowa when she was a girl and that both parents had died by the time she turned 15, at which time she left town for St. Louis.
It is widely believed that Kate graduated from a St. Louis grammar school and that she was remarkably intelligent. She also developed a love of freedom early on that would never die. With few opportunities for smart, independent women at the time, she turned to the sporting life and apparently never looked back or apologized for it.
Kate made her way through many of the known frontier cities, leaving after getting caught up with the law, even being arrested at one point for assault and battery. When working in Dodge City she first encountered the Earp family while under the employ of James Earp’s wife Nellie. It is believed by many that Kate was responsible for introducing Wyatt and Doc Holiday to each other some years later in Texas. Wyatt would later write an article about his life for a San Francisco newspaper and refer to her as “Big Nose Kate” for her “strong bold character” rather than the size of her nose. The nickname took and we are still talking about her today.
I absolutely love the fact that there is a notorious madam from Ogden, Utah. If any of you have ever visited the charming mountain town you undoubtedly have walked the shops of 25th street and would have passed or visited the very location where Belle London used an ice cream shop as a front for her prostitution operation. Recognizing that the new railroad was bringing in demand for the trade, at one point she was given permission to run a legal establishment on the block, “making her the only state-sanctioned madam in Utah history.” What a legacy!
There is virtually no information on Belle’s early life or how she came to be in Ogden working in the sex industry. What is commonly believed is that she set up a system that would provide a safe location for women to work as independent contractors in the block she ran and that she prioritized disease prevention. Remarkable Women of Utah reports that ‘She later told a newspaper that she never liked or wanted to be in the business of prostitution. “My conscience – yes, I have a conscience – has troubled me about it a good many times,” she said, but added, “I can do this much: I can make the business as clean as it is possible for such a business as this to be, and I can persuade a great many girls who are just starting in a life of shame to travel other paths…’
In stark contrast to these claims about Belle’s character is the fact that she was sentenced to 18 years for enticing a 16-year-old into work in her state-sanctioned block, those she was later acquitted. After the Utah government switched gears and drove her out of town, Belle took up residence in San Francisco and continued her trade, though less is known about her life after leaving Utah.
Like Big Nose Kate, Belle has a dining establishment named after her that is successfully serving customers in its own way. I look forward to visiting the London Belle Supper Club the next time I am in Salt Lake City.
We’ve got to talk about Pearl Hart!
Pearl Hart is best known as one of the most fearless female bandits of the Wild West. And while she led an impressive life of crime related to robberies, her initial walk on the wild side was when she joined the sporting life and became associated with other rough characters.
Pearl was born in Ontario, Canada to religious parents, but after being seduced by an older man when she was just 16, started to make her way from one town to another and into the American frontier. When finding themselves at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Pearl enjoyed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and became obsessed with the perceived lifestyle of the American frontier. Though she would go back to Ontario at least twice when pregnant, she abandoned her children and devoted her life to obtaining the glamour and excitement of the Wild West.
After finally freeing herself from her abusive and degenerate husband (and leaving both of her children with her parents in Canada), Pearl ended up in Colorado where she took up work as a prostitute. The sporting life was far from Pearl’s endgame, however. In 1898 she partnered up with miner Joe Boot to undertake what is considered to be the last stagecoach robbery in American history. While her dreams of living the cowboy life may have seemed to be coming true for Pearl and while the heist was a success, the pair were shortly arrested and Pearl became the first female prisoner in the Yuma Territorial Prison. Pearl was sentenced to five years and Boot to thirty, though he managed to escape one year into his sentence and was never seen again.
While incarcerated Pearl built a reputation for herself. Because of being the only female in shackles, she was given her own cell and quite a bit of freedom. She met with tourists, signed autographs, posed for photos, and charmed every guard. She became so popular that when she claimed to be pregnant just a year into her sentence she was released. No child was ever delivered.
Pearl hadn’t given up. In fact, her story sort of went full-circle. Before quietly fading out of the limelight she joined up with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
One thing that is so fascinating to me about the sex industry in Frontier America is how seemingly respectable it appears to have been viewed in some cases. After all, many famous men became romantically involved with known prostitutes and carried on long-term relationships with them. One of these couples was Josephine and Wyatt Earp.
The couple’s introduction is quite idyllically documented in one of my favorite films, Tombstone, which even got some of the details correct. Josephine really was a trained performer, having attended dance school as a girl. And she really had been previously involved with Sherrif Johnny Behan before meeting Wyatt Earp. However, some of the details get a bit murky when it comes to her Tombstone years, as she was fiercely private about this time in her life, refusing to speak about it after the couple got together. Much research has since taken place and it is widely believed that after Behan backed out of his promise to marry her that she turned to the sporting life for a time. It is even believed that rather than arriving in Tombstone as part of a performing troupe that she came as part of her work with a traveling brothel.
Working as a prostitute may have been how she actually met Earp. As we saw with the story of Big Nose Kate, the Earps were not unfamiliar with the industry and don’t seem to have had a problem associating with working girls (it is commonly believed that Wyatt’s previous wife had been a known prostitute). While the question of whether or not she worked as a prostitute is a matter of debate, I still think that she was close enough to the industry to be included, though perhaps she deserves a post of her own.
After becoming Wyatt Earp’s common-law wife, the two really did lead a life that is one for the books. At one point they headed to Alaska and made enough money to theoretically survive on, though apparently, Josephine had a taste for gambling that led the two to live in pretty sparse conditions for the rest of their lives.
The physical legacy of Josephine is her memoir, I Married Wyatt Earp. Though I look forward to adding it to my collection, historians almost unanimously agree that it is a whitewashed attempt on Josephine’s part to protect her reputation and that of her then late husband.