Friday, December 17, 2010

Madams, Prostitutes, and Brothel Operations in Early Colorado

Material in this article is from the forth coming book:
Tales of Colorado’s Sporting Women 1860—1920: With a List of Over 1550 Names
(to be released early 2011, check web site


 Jay Moynahan

Soiled doves in Colorado thrived far and wide, especially before the inevitable arrival of a community's more virtuous women. Prostitutes were among the first to populate and establish businesses in the bourgeoning towns of the late 1800s. Like other early settlers, they played a significant role in developing the areas in which they lived and worked.1

Middle and upper level brothels were mostly found in larger Colorado towns that had been established for some time. These brothels sold sex and companionship for a fee. Some men visited the women for companionship only, but most wanted sex.

The madams (or landladies, as they were referred to) ran the brothels. They were generally former prostitutes and at this stage of their career, let their girls do all of the entertaining. A special customer might be entertained by a madam but generally she did not sell sexual favors.

The brothel's size was determined by the number of bedrooms in the building. Each girl had her own room. The women’s rooms in the middle and upper class brothels were very tastefully decorated. Most of the Old West brothels housed no more than four or five girls. Only rarely were there larger brothels with 20 or more ladies.

In most houses, the women rented their rooms from the madam and paid the madam a percentage of their take, usually 50%. Tips were not split.

A predetermined price was paid for different sexual favors. The money was usually paid up front and collected by the madam, then placed in a box inscribed with the girl's name. At the end of the night or the next day the madam would divide up the money with the girls.

In some houses chits, a token with cash value, were used to pay for anything from drinks to sex. The customer purchased one or more chits when arriving at the bordello and would pay his playmate for the evening directly in chits. These tokens were later exchanged for cash by the prostitute from the brothel’s owner.

Prices for various brothel services varied according to geographical area and the class of the brothel. The highest class bordellos in the largest cities charged the highest rates.

Larger houses had a staff to assist with household chores such as cleaning and laundry. Many of the bordellos had cooks who prepared meals for the women as well as some customers. When available, Chinese men were highly sought after as cooks.

In an attempt to cultivate an atmosphere of dignity, culture and entertainment, larger houses often employed a piano player fondly referred to as the “professor”. These piano players, often of African descent, entertained customers and the girls. In some houses customers could dance with the girls if they wished.

Some houses employed a bar man who doubled as a handyman and bouncer when those services were needed. The combination and number of staff people depended on the size of the house, the larger the house the more staff. The madam supervised them all.

Usually younger and more attractive women worked in the middle and upper level bordellos. These women commanded higher prices for their services and were considered the crème de la crème of the sporting world.

Lower class houses employed women who were older and less attractive. Many of these women were considered past their prime. Some of these lower class brothel women had severe drug and alcohol addictions. The longer a woman was in the trade, the more likely she was to become an addict.

The procedure in the houses was fairly uniform. In larger bordellos a customer came to the door and rang a bell. He was greeted and admitted by the maid, the madam or another
staff member. He might first get a drink at the bar, if there was one. If he wanted some light-hearted conversation, women sitting in the room visited with him.

A former employee of Madam Laura Evans described how business was conducted in a typical house.2

When callers would ring the doorbell to the house, the housekeeper or Miss Laura herself would answer the door. After the caller was ushered into the house, Miss Laura would call upstairs to us –Girls-and then she’d tell us how many men were in the ballroom or the parlor, and we’d come downstairs. We’d never go over and sit next to a new man in town. We’d sit across the room on the divan or on chairs. Or we might sit in a nice pose on the library table. In the parlor-where the callers were always referred to as gentlemen-they would always sit down and talk a while, while the girls remained at another part of the room. Then a man might say to one of the girls, “why don’t you come over here and sit down and talk to me.” But even after accepting his invitation, and sitting down next to him, we would still behave like refined ladies. We would make no play for him, such as touching him or patting him, or any of that stuff, but would always talk to him the way Miss Laura wanted us to, when she used the words courteously and nicely. Then after a while he’d usually say “Let’s go upstairs.” After a man made his choice and would go upstairs with a girl she would call him a friend instead of a gentlemen.

In some middle level houses, when a customer first came in the madam announced: "Company is here". This was a cue for available ladies to line up in the parlor, so the man could look the group over and select his partner.

The woman often encouraged him to buy drinks, as she received a percentage on each drink sold. To avoid intoxication the women were served a watered-down drink or water that was colored to look like alcohol.

Before the two went up to her room the man decided what type of sexual encounter he wanted and he paid the madam. Women were always very accommodating, as it was good for repeat business and the man might leave a sizeable tip.

The woman and man then went to her room. If he wanted additional drinks they were delivered to the room. The woman partially undressed and had the man take off his trousers. She inspected him for signs of venereal disease.3 Once satisfied that none were present, she washed his genitals with soap and water and they undressed and retired to the bed.

After finishing the sexual and social elements of their encounter, the woman put on a robe and escorted him downstairs, She bid him farewell, closed the front door and went back to her room. After cleaning herself, which might involve a douche and quick sponge bath, she dressed and made herself ready for the next customer.

Some men were repeat customers who preferred a particular woman. Such a man might call ahead or make an appointment so the lady was available when he arrived. This usually took place in houses where there was little turnover in women.

Men who were well-known in the community might not want other residents to know they frequented sporting houses. They used back or side doors to gain entrance and were often ushered past the parlor and taken directly into a woman's room.

Madams and their girls were careful to protect a man's identity. If a woman saw a customer in town she did not greet him or show signs of recognition unless he acknowledged her first.

The town's business communities welcomed the brothel women. They usually had a good deal of money to spend and bought expensive and lavish clothes as well as other items. But the communities in which these women lived and worked generally considered them fallen women. A woman who charged for sex was believed to be irredeemable. Although she might be forgiven by the church, society or her family, she was still a fallen woman.

In many established Colorado towns, moral crusaders objected to the fallen women and everything associated with prostitution. They coerced town officials into putting restrictions on the ladies, including when they could shop. The fallen women could only shop on weekday afternoons, never on weekends. The ladies didn't particularly like the restrictions but they were forced to observe them to avoid having the houses shut down.

The “proper” women of the community looked down on the prostitutes and were quick to look the other way when approaching one of them on the street. It was not unusual for a “proper” woman to cross the street when she saw a madam or one of the girls walking toward her.

A story survives about a brothel woman named Bertha who reportedly plied her trade in Dayton. One day a highly respected and genteel woman, of who also lived in Dayton, went downtown to do some shopping at a local mercantile. As luck would have it, Bertha was also shopping but the woman did not immediately notice her. As the paragon of virtue brushed up against Bertha, her nose went into the air and she did not try to hide her extreme distaste at the unexpected contact with such a lowly person.

Bertha immediately turned to the lady and spoke in a voice which that could be heard throughout the store, “Lady, you shouldn’t be so uppity, because we have something in common. Your husband helped pay for my clothes, too!”4

 Sometimes a madam shopped for her girls. She picked out clothes, paid for them and then charged the women, keeping everything in a ledger. The girls paid the madam back over time. This was advantageous to the madam in that she could choose clothing she thought would be most attractive to customers. She also maintained control over the girls by having them indebted to her. Most madams were good businesswomen and adept politicians, both essential traits for a profitable operation.

The madams paid all expenses of the house as well as the license fees and payoffs to politicians and police. They also paid wages to their bartenders, professors, kitchen staff and domestic help. In order to be successful a madam had to be good at financial matters.

Many madams were prosperous and willing to contribute to political and social groups, even to local churches and because of these philanthropic gestures, they would become a peripheral part of the community. Because they made contributions to politicians, it wasn't unusual for them to have influence with both local and state officials. Most were on good terms with the local
chief of police and sheriff.

Maternal instincts were a must when it came to discipline. Because the majority of soiled doves were young, moody, temperamental and often depressed, the madam had to be a combination of psychotherapist, surrogate mother and referee. Some women were fighters and general troublemakers. These women had to be disciplined and controlled, so a madam often had her hands full.

It took a successful madam to manage a classy bordello in a sizeable town. Her demeanor and attitude set the tone for her house, which determined the quality of her customers. She accomplished this by being a charming and capable hostess.

To recruit and maintain a staff that was volatile by nature, she needed to be both tough and flexible. There was always a bar to look after, a maid to watch, a kitchen to supervise or a rowdy customer to eject. Her skills were rarely acknowledged by members of her profession or businessmen of the time.  

Most Colorado brothels were well-organized and practical institutions. The ladies who entertained in the middle and upper level houses were an important part of the early community. Whether they were called parlor houses, brothels, bordellos, or houses of ill-fame, everyone in the community knew their location and purpose.5

1. Some of the material for this section came from Moynahan SOILED DOVES, SPORTIN’ WOMEN AND OTHER FALLEN FLOWERS: PROSTITUTION ON THE AMERICAN FRONTIER (Spokane, WA: Chickadee Publishing Company, 2005.) 52-61.

2. The employee was identified as LaVerne. See Miller, Max and
Fred Mazzulla HOLLADAY STREET New York, NY
: Ballantine Books, 1962.174-175.

3. Ibid, 175.

4. Although this took place in Dayton, Washington it could have just as easily happened in a Colorado town. See Moynahan CULINARY DELIGHTS FROM THE RED LIGHTS (Spokane, WA: Chickadee Publishing Company, 1999), 59.

5. The author would like to thank Jan Koski for her suggestions on this article. Jan is the web mistress of the outstanding soiled doves web site:

For a list of my books go to  and click on my photograph.

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