By Charmaine Ortega Getz
“Drive the brothels out of town,” the Boulder County Herald editorialized in June 1886. “The first thing a person sees upon alighting from the cars in Boulder and the last seen on getting on the train are these institutions of infamy.”
Indeed, despite an 1873 ordinance that outlawed any “bawdy house, house of ill-fame, house of assignation, or place for the practice of fornication,” Boulder once had enough of them downtown to cause chronic civic heartburn. They dotted the working-class neighborhood known as “Bugtown” (among other epithets) that centered around Canyon Boulevard, then called Water Street. It was also known as Railroad Street because the tracks ran down it.
As thrice-elected mayor Montford S. Whiteley pointed out to indignant citizens in 1897, clearing out Bugtown’s brothels would only mean they’d relocate elsewhere in Boulder. Whenever the newspaper reports got too colorful there would be a flurry of police raids, court appearances and fines, yet the “parlor houses” stayed open.
For example, under the succinct Page 1 heading “Paid Their License,” the Boulder Daily Camera reported on July 18, 1891: “Madame Kingsley and her three young ladies accompanied Shep and Metcalf [local constables] up to Judge Adams’ office last evening, pled guilty to keeping a house of ill-repute and were assessed $50 and costs for the madam and $10 and costs for each of the girls. They gave security for the fines and were released.”
Ladies of the Night
After researching archived newspapers, retired physicist and local history writer Sanford Charles Gladden (1902-1992) published a booklet titled “Ladies of the Night” in 1979 as part of his “Early Boulder Series.” It listed approximate addresses with estimated start dates for the known brothels, with some madams’ names. A few are listed below:
1870s – First location near Broadway and Canyon Boulevard, moved in 1905 to 1024 Walnut St. Called the “White House” or “Bon Ton House,” it was one of Boulder’s finest residences when built in 1867 about where the Band Shell is today. Later sold, it became the notorious landmark visible from the train depot that the Herald complained of. In 1918 it was razed.
1876 – 1909 Broadway, near Walnut Street, over John Kletts’ saloon. The madams in succession were Julia “Frenchy” Nealis, Nellie Rivers and Lottie Diamond.
1878 – 1939 and 1945 Canyon Blvd., Susan Brown. One of Brown’s two houses was set afire on Jan. 30, 1878. Three firefighter companies fought to save what they could under dangerous winter conditions. It was the seventh time Brown had been burned out.
1881 – 2100 block of Canyon Boulevard, Mary Day. Day’s place, torched on July 11, 1878, was ruined despite the efforts of two fire companies. Afterward, Day marched over to rival Susan Brown’s establishment and threw a punch that was reciprocated and resulted in a fine, according to the Boulder County News. The madams apparently suspected each other of being the arsonist, but both were insured and continued business for some time after.
1882 – 1036 or 1042 Canyon Blvd., Mary Etta Kingsley. “Officer Ed Knapp gallantly carried Madame Kingsley through the flood to dry land. The rescue was a gallant one as the madam sat astride the shoulders of the stalwart night watch—a pug dog in each arm and misery depicted on her countenance. Ed carried them all. The colored lady of the bagnio was told to wade. She was too heavy for the officer to carry else, doubtless, he would have volunteered … ” (Boulder Daily Camera, May 31, 1894.) Boulder Creek’s flood of 1894 caused most of the affected brothels to move to second-story quarters in businesses along Pearl Street.
1886 – 1034 Canyon Blvd., Mollie Gordon. Newspapers of the day were prompt to report the ethnicity of nonwhite folks, so we know that one madam was Mollie Gordon, an African-American, who employed an armless woman with one leg named Maggie Wells. At least one newspaper seemed to have an occasional soft spot for the madam. The Boulder Daily Camera reported on Aug. 30, 1891: “Miss Mollie Gordon gave a recherché reception last evening at her home on Water Street. She entertained a large number of the colored society and furnished music for the dance on her own violin. She is an artiste and every body [sic] had a good time.”
1886 – Northwest corner of 11th and Walnut streets. It was a sore point with Boulder citizens that this enterprise was housed in Colorado’s first school building. Built in 1860 at 1440 Walnut St., the Pioneer School was sold to prominent citizen Anthony Arnett and moved in 1872 to make way for a bigger school. (Arnett was one of the three donors of the land for the University of Colorado.) He turned the old schoolhouse into a rental duplex before it became a brothel and burned down four years later.
‘The Life of a Scarlet Woman Weighs Nothing’
It wasn’t all hijinks and gaiety for the women of these “temples of Venus.” As the Boulder County Herald reported on May 16, 1888: “Mamie Price died Wednesday from cocaine poison, being a victim of that accursed habit as well as morphine. She will be buried today from Trieze undertaking rooms at the expense of Miss Kingsley, at whose house she died.”
On Aug. 20, 1894, enraged wife Maud Hawkes, accompanied by her mother, tracked down and shot to death teenage prostitute Trixie Lee, who had allegedly taunted her while in the drunken company of Maud’s husband, Fred. Maud and her mother were charged with manslaughter but were easily acquitted.
As the Boulder Daily Camera opined: “They had been freed from all blame for the taking of that little human life, and the world had again been admonished by an American jury that the life of a scarlet woman weighs nothing in the balance as against the avenging right of a woman wronged.”
Bugtown brothels’ days were numbered when the “Better Boulder” reform ticket swept city elections in 1907. The Boulder News reported that the women quietly faded away, one day before the installation of new city officials on April 15, 1907.
Charmaine Ortega Getz is a freelance journalist and author of Weird Colorado: Your Travel Guide to Colorado’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets.