Angels or Whores

Prostitutes in the Mining Camps
by Ken Adams

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the "oldest profession" being in the Western mining camps, it was only inevitable that this type of activity would find a place in their history. After all, the Western mining camps being mostly male societies encouraged ladies of easy virtue to ply their trade among the lonely males. In the early history of the Western mining camps, it was not unusual for males to out number females 50 to 1 (90 to 100 men for every 2 women [Seagraves x]. The majority of people who ventured West were single men seeking adventure and fortune. Whore houses became popular in order for the males to satisfy their "natural needs" [Christiani 6]. Most of these men were uneducated and illiterate, so their free time was involved in worldly pursuits rather than academic or spiritual pursuits. Men had four recreational pursuits in the mining camps drinking, gambling, fighting and prostitutes. It was a place where other than working/hunting for survival; manhood was measured by how much whiskey they could drink, their skills at cards and other games of chance, how fast they could draw their weapons, how tough and strong they were, and their abilities to woe and impress the women. Since women of virtue were highly respected and defended but unavailable, that left their abilities to impress to the women of easy virtue, the prostitutes [Seagraves x].

Then as now, there were different types of prostitutes in American society. Most of those who came West to ply their trade were of the lower types. They were the "house girls, barroom girls and the street girls" of the Eastern Cities. Most of them came West for the same reason the men did, adventure and fortune. Through prostitution the double standard of sexuality was preserved, as it presented polarized images of women as either whore or angel. Prostitution also reinforced the gender roles by exemplifying the ideal patriarchal society in which women existed to serve males. The association of prostitution with bad health and sexual indulgences served as a threat to young women to follow the "Cult of True Womanhood". Economically it provided a source of income for low class women and other low class procurers (doctors, liquor sellers and police who would otherwise not have clientele [Christiani 6].

Prostitutes quickly became recognized as two different types in the mining camps, good ones and bad ones. Generally the good ones were called prostitutes with hearts of gold [Seagraves 110]. The bad ones of course were called whores. What seemed to make the difference between the two was where the value of gold was held. If gold appealed to her head in the way of financial gain only she was generally considered to be a whore. Using her body for no other reason than to acquire her fortune. If however gold appealed not only to her head but her heart as well, she could earn the reputation of a prostitute with a heart of gold. Generally, this title was reserved to those who not only worked hard to acquire their fortune, but to those who took an active, usually behind the scenes role in the community where they did their business.

What would it take for a common prostitute to earn this title of honor. Anne Seagraves in her book Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West states some examples of prostitutes who rose above their "profession" to earn the respect and admiration of those in their communities. Some examples can be found in the likes of Mary Welch of Helena, Montana and Maggie Hall of Murray, Idaho. Their story is the purpose of this paper. For they are true examples of these "prostitutes with the hearts of gold". This much is clear. Even if your "profession" is viewed by your community as a shameful sin, what really counts in the end is what you did for the benefit of the community not necessarily who you are in the community.

Both of these women have a common beginning. Both were born in Ireland, Mary Welch in 1844 and Maggie Hall in 1853. They both left Ireland to find their fortune and make a new life for themselves in the United States. When they arrived they had little money, big ambition, a hearty Irish brogue, a sharp wit and warm natural charm. These characteristics would prove to be the driving factors that enabled them become successful entrepreneurs in the profession where both would ultimately end up. Both also would face an untimely death brought about by the profession that they chose.

Mary Welch changed her name when she immigrated to the United States in 1858 to the more stylish name Josephine Airey. New York and the menial job she found sooner tired her and she moved to Chicago. There she became a member of the demimonde ( a woman who lost her reputation due to her behavior and joins the sisterhood of prostitution). At the age of 23 in 1867, Josephine boarded a train for Helena, Montana. She brought three things with her from Chicago - money, experience and her Irish charm. These she garnered into her first successful business a hurdy-gurdy house.

After outwitting a notorious lender, she expanded her business adding to her wealth. A fire in 1874 helped to buy property from those who could not afford to rebuild. This move made her the largest land owner on Wood Street.

In 1878 she married James T. Hensley. They built a large stone fire proof dance hall and "The Red Light Saloon". This venture enabled her to rent her properties to other businesses and she became an influential landlord in Helena. Her wealth and influence enabled her to generously donate to community charities and important political candidates. She also took the name of "Chicago Joe" Hensley.

The city of Helena attempted to shut down the dance hall and hurdy gurdy house declaring prostitution and hurdy gurdy houses immoral. "Chicago Joe" challenged the city law because of a technicality. The law talked about mechanical machines as a hurdy gurdy, but her music was provided by a three piece band. The courts threw the case out and the doors to her saloon remained open.

The changing of the times meant a change in business for "Chicago Joe". She and her husband "Black Hawk" Hensley built a new establishment called the Coliseum. It was a great success because of the quality of the "ladies" who worked there and the lavish furnishings. This lead to her and her husband making a handsome profit on their investment. She had thought of everything to accommodate her clientele. Her lifestyle, clothes and lavish parties were the talk of Helena.

The 1890's were the undoing of "Chicago Joe". Helena became a city of importance and culture. The Coliseum lost its popularity. The 1893 depression caused her to loose all of her property but "The Red Light Saloon". She and her husband moved into an apartment above the saloon and lived the quiet life.

"Chicago Joe" Hensley died of pneumonia on October 25, 1899 at the age of 55. The citizens of Helena provided her with a large funeral and made long speeches of her many accomplishments. Many of them would consider her to truly be a "prostitute with a heart of gold" for her community involvement and charitable contributions [Seagraves 87-89].

Was "Chicago Joe" merely a whore or did she earn the respect of the citizens of Helena to be a "prostitute with a heart of gold"? Measuring by the characteristic afore mentioned the author feels that she rightly earned the second title. Angel or whore? Angel would probably be a better choice!

A true angel of the mining camps was probably Maggie Hall of Murray, Idaho. Her story closely parallels that of Mary Welch. However, she to this day is still remembered and respected by the citizens of Murray and the Coeur d' Alene mining district. So popular is her memory, the citizens have named their annual city celebration the Molly B'Damn Gold Rush Days after her.

On her grave marker it states: "Sacred to the memory of Maggie Hall" Molly B'Dam died at Murray Jan. 17, 1888, age 35 years. Just how this Irish lass earned this admiration and respect is the next part of my report.

Maggie Hall arrived in New York from Ireland in 1873 at the age of 20. She like Mary Welch had come to the United States for adventure and fortune. Her story is a little more tragic than Mary's though.

Maggie Hall started her adventures in the United States like so many of the other Irish lasses that immigrated to it in the later part of the 19th century. Not being able to find a job on her arrival in New York, she took the only offer made that of a barmaid in a sordid establishment. From the beginning, she let it be known that she was a good Catholic and no-nonsense girl. Her wit, charm and sense of humor quickly earned her the respect of her patrons.

Maggie had many offers of marriage, but it wasn't until she met a gentleman by the name of Burdan that she fell in love and married. She was hoping for a large wedding, but settled for a ceremony before a Justice of the Peace. Her new husband was from a wealthy family in New York. Fearing their disapproval of his marriage he kept it secret from his family. Knowing that they would cut off his allowance, and he would have to get a job to support Maggie. It was he who changed her name to Molly and introduced her to a life of prostitution. He had a serious gambling problem and persuaded Molly to sleep with his debtors as a way of paying off his debts.

"Show me a hero, and I'll show you a life of tragedy." [F. Scott Fitzgerald]. This could be a good quote for Molly's new life. But she made the most of this new life. She left her husband, boarded a train and headed for the mining camps of the West. While in San Francisco, she read of a gold strike in Murray, Idaho. Boarding another train she traveled to Thompson, Falls, Montana. She and others got off the train and headed over Thompson Pass to the Murray gold fields. She was wise enough to provision herself with a good strong horse, appropriate clothing and food. Joining a pack train she proceeded to Murray.

The minute she entered the Murray area her reputation as an angel began to develop. On the way to Murray the pack train encountered a blizzard. A woman and her child could not keep up with the others and fell behind. Molly would not allow this and stayed behind to help. They had to spend a cold and snowy night on the trail. The news of what she did reached Murray before her. Upon arrival, she was greeted by cheers and praise. She ordered a cabin and food for her new charges.

It was during this time that she saw a rollicking Irishman in the crowd with a twinkle in his eye. He approached her and asked her name. She said Molly Burden, he thought she said Molly B'Dam and the name stuck. This man, Phil O'Rouke, was to become her life long friend and confidant.

Molly's occupation was quickly learned when she asked and got "cabin number one". In the mining town this was the residence of the madam of the red light district. She felt that she finally found home. She liked Murray and the citizens liked her. She treated the girls who worked for her well. If anybody was in need of anything, they could count on Molly to provide.

There are many stories of Molly's contributions to her new found home. The most notable being her organized efforts to help the sick when a Small Pox epidemic hit Murray in 1886. Though she never caught the disease herself, her tiring effort to help those who did lead to her tragic end. She developed a case of consumption and died. The citizens of Murray gave her a simple but elegant funeral. In respect for Molly, the whole town shut down for the day.

Molly B'Damn lies buried in the Murray Cemetery. On her tombstones it states simply: "Sacred to the life of Maggi Hall, Molly B'Dam" [Seagraves 103-113].

Molly's life became legend in Murray and the Coeur d' Alene mining district. Many locals still remember the lady and her dedication and commitment to the citizens of Murray. Many still refer to her as " the patron saint of Murray". Was she a whore or and angel? Ask any resident of the area and they will say ANGEL!

It is up to the reader to ultimately decide whether the women who plied their trade in the mining camps deserved to be called a whore or an angel? Some were just out for adventure and fortune. Do they deserve to be called a whore for that? What about the "prostitutes with a heart of gold"? Do they deserve any more recognition than the common whore. History has spoken and heralded the "prostitutes with a heart of gold" with recognition, respect and love. Who is to say otherwise?


Copyright July 11, 1997 Ken Adams (