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.