A Tale Of Virginia City

pat2When my blogging time comes along, I retreat to my personal western library. I love finding those odd little tidbits in history that make the past a little more alive and personal.Take Virginia City, for instance. As western fans, we are probably all aware of Virginia City, home of the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa. I visited there not long ago and, as I am apt to do, spent all my money on books about its history and characters. And colorful characters it had abundance.One of them was Mark Twain who worked at Virginia City’s “Territorial Enterprise” in the early 1860’s. The newspaper office exists as a museum, and one of the exhibits is the toilet he used. Yes, the toilet. It was preserved if not much else. I can’t say it was the highlight of the trip, but as an ex-journalist myself, I found it of considerable interest.

As I have blogged previously, newspapers were extremely abundant and powerful in west. Some 17 different newspapers were published in Virginia City between 1860 and 1880 but the distinctive style and editorial policy of the Enterprise kept it from ever being surpassed. It’s one of the great journalistic legends.

And then there are the prostitutes. We’ve written about the “Soiled Doves” before but because they were such a vital part of the west and I’ll soon have one as my heroine, I have to tell you about one in Virginia City.  She’s the model for one of my characters.

As in all early day Western communities, prostitution was an ubiquitous and accepted facet of local society. The ratio of men to women was twenty to one. In 1860, Virginia City had 2,390 men and only 118 women. Something had to give.

While never officially legalized, prostitution was nontheless regulated to a certain degree. According to “Virginia City and the Silver Region of the Comstock Lode,” there were three main districts where this activity was allowed – the main red light district, the rude bordellos of Chinatown and an infamous “Barbary Coast” area.

The best class lived in fancy brothels, often with parlors containing a piano played by a paid musician which gave rise to the term, “parlor house.” Women employed there often charged $10 to $20 a customer.

Next down on the social ladder were the single prostitutes who lived alone in rented cabins. One of these women was Julia Bulette, the most famous of all Comstock prostitutes. These women, also according to “Virginia City and the Silver Region of the Comstock Lode,” were usually quiet, discreet, of “good” character and often allowed only one customer per night.

Below them were the women employed in disreputable brothels, those who worked in the back rooms of saloons and dance halls, and Oriental women sold into slavery.

Julia was the stuff of legends, some true, some not so true. Born in England in 1832, she married a man named Smith in New Orleans. No one seems to know what happened to Mr. Smith but she showed up as a prostitute in California, then changed her name to Julia Bulette before moving to Virginia City in April, 1863. There she won the hearts of the fire department’s Engine Co. No. 1 and was even named an honorary member of the company.

The Territorial Enterprise once described her as being kindhearted, liberal, benevolent and charitable, although she was never wealthy. She was well liked by everyone.

On the morning of January 20, 1867, she was found murdered in the small frame house she rented and the deeply shocked firemen turned out en mass to bury her, then sought the murderer. Five months later, a Frenchman was tried and hanged for the crime. In the summation, the district attorney, said, “True, she was a woman of easy virtue. Yet hundreds in this city have had cause to bless her name for her many acts of charity. That woman probably had more real, warm friends in this community than any other. . . ”

The legend grew and in the early 1950’s, the fence around her grave was moved to make it visible from C Street salons. A highly fictionalized episode about her was televised on Bonanza. A fictitious painting purported to be her was placed on display, and erroneous books on her life story were published.

No one will ever know the specifics of her life. Why and how she became a “soiled dove.” Why she gave most of her earnings to help others. Or even why she was murdered. But she must have been a truly remarkable woman of the west.

Have you ever been to Virginia City? It’s one of the best preserved of the old mining towns. Many of its buildings date back to the mid and late 1800’s, and its cemetery is fascinating. The tales are endless, and you feel as if you’ve just stepped back in history.


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13 thoughts on “A Tale Of Virginia City”

  1. Loved the post. I have never been to Virginia City, but I would love to visit it. I learned some things today about Virginia City that I didn’t know before.

  2. Great info, Patricia. I’ve been to Virginia City several times. I love the old west ambiance. I think I remember seeing the info about Julia… It’s been a while. What is it about “Soiled Doves” and a romance writer? When I visit some place and it’s history intrigues me I inevitably buy books about it’s history and the prostitutes. I think because they do make great characters and give a true tone to the times and the area.

  3. What I can never figure out is why the prostitutes didn’t get married. Surely there were men who would take them, regardless of their past, with that scarcity of women.

    Have any of you read Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers? It’s the story of a man who marries a prostitute. It did NOT go well for a while.

    An absolute classic novel.

  4. I loved your post. I have been to Virginia City, but only from my living room. I am ad avid Bonanza Fan. The story of Julia sounds like it is the thing legends are made of. I am sure that woman who had to make their way in the world turn more often to prositution as way to survive in those early days,like Julia.
    I love stories where the heroin start life as afallen woman, but wants a better life and the hero of course, who at first knows what she is, but loves her despite it. Makes for great reading.

  5. I visited Virginia City as a child, so I don’t remember much about it. My father was a fan of westerns and we would often stop by those types of sites when we traveled for summer vacations.

  6. Hi Pat,
    I’ve been to Virginia City many times. I never head up north (I live in CA) without making a visit there. Love it! Love it! I’m like a kid in a candy store when I travel the streets. I’ve set two westerns there, one in a brothel and another just outside of town about a woman who sewed gowns for the soiled doves.

    We probably have the same books. I bought a great book about prositutes and how they lived. I love the Opera House, the mine, the train and the entire flavor of the town!

  7. Fascinating blog, Pat. I’ve never been to Virginia City. Will have to pay it a visit–it’s not that far for me. So much material for stories there. Can’t wait to read what you do with the prostitute story.

  8. Many of the prostitutes did marry, but really the money was pretty good for the time, and they probably figured they wouldn’t improve their lot by marrying a miner or farmer. Many of them ended up starting their own businesses and becoming “respectable.” A greater number probably fell to drugs and alcoholism. Drugs were readily available at the time.

  9. Hi Pat, fabulous post! We visited Virginia City not long ago and I just absorbed every living inch of it. The mine was fabulous. I think one of the mini-museums there had a tableau of Julia’s death. The whole town is just an amazing place and I can’t wait to go back.

    Thanks for reminding me I need to go soon!

  10. No I have never been to Virginia City except when I watch Bananza on TV. That is about as close to Virginia City I will ever get, because I don’t travel much!

  11. Like Kathleen and Quilt Lady, my visits to Virginia
    City were made via TV and the Bonanza show. Thanks
    for the information on this interesting town.

    Pat Cochran

  12. Good post. Don’t think we made it to Virginia City when we were out west. When we were traveling there, our children were young and my aunt came with us. We took the train over the mountains from Sacramento, but I think that put us in Nevada City. One of these days we’ll get back out there and be able to explore at our own pace. People sometimes forget how hard it was for a woman to make her own way during the 1800’s. Even with money and an education, there were few fields that would welcome them. For someone left alone, prostitution was about her only option.

  13. Hey guys, I live very close to V.C., it is wonderful, no matter how many times you visit, there is always something new and of interest. From someone who has been many times it is a great place to visit. There is also a train now between Carson and VC, I believe it follows the same trail of the original V&T railroad. You get to ride in a refurbished, historical train. But to sum up the post, it is definately a must see for anyone who loves history.

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