Mary Porter, Queen of the Fort Worth Madams


In almost every town in the old West lonely cowboys could find entertainment in a red light district. Fort Worth’s seedy part was bigger and a lot rowdier than most. Due to the notoriety, it became known as Hell’s Half Acre and it comprised Tenth to Fifteenth Streets while Houston, Main, and Rusk (now Commerce) crossed. Boarding houses (wink, wink,) gambling parlors, hotels and saloons lined the avenues and it became a hideout for outlaws and violent criminals. The murder rate was high on a nightly basis. But if a woman had enough guts and could stomach the hard life, she could make a good living.

One woman was Mary Porter. She was born in Ireland in 1844 and came to Fort Worth about 1885 where she operated a high-end brothel. She employed four girls: Kittie Wilson, Etta Daniels, Mabel Thomason, and May Keller.

From 1893 to 1897, Mary was arrested 130 times but never spent a night in jail. Her clients were the wealthy and powerful and they made sure they kept her in business. Her fines usually ran around $100 but she viewed that as the price of doing business.

She operated within the laws—didn’t advertise, kept fighting to a minimum, got regular medical checkups for her girls, and kept a clean house. She was well-respected as someone in that business, and her girls sang her praises. Still, depression, suicide, and murder were things they all faced.

In 1887 following the famous shootout between Jim Courtright and Luke Short, a prostitute named Miss Sally was discovered nailed to an outhouse door. The murderer was never caught.

As the years passed, Madame Mary Porter’s fame and coffers grew. But somewhere before the turn of the century, a committee made up of ladies of the Union Bethel Mission and accompanied by two officers paid her a visit. They demanded that she vacate the premises by Monday, that her house was needed for other purposes. If she refused to leave, she would be the subject of a grand jury investigation.

Mary thought long and hard, then told her girls to start packing. She moved out all right—into one just a few doors down. The committee didn’t bother her again. On the 1900 census, she listed her occupation as “boardinghouse keeper.”

She once entertained the Wild Bunch led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid plus other notable outlaws.

June 10, 1905, Mary suddenly died leaving an estate valued at $20,000 ($500,000 in today’s currency.) They buried her in an unmarked grave in Oakwood Cemetery. Then in 2009, over 100 years of her death, a group of citizens got together and bought her a gravestone engraved with the simple words, “Call me madam.”

I love stories that give colorful accounts of what life must’ve been like before we became “modernized.” I can close my eyes and picture this seedy part of Fort Worth and the rough and tumble daily existence. I wish I knew more of Mary’s story and what led her to prostitution. Maybe she got trapped in it as so many other women were who found themselves alone. Occupations for women were very limited.

Can you imagine how scary it was for a woman alone back then? Especially if she had no one to turn to. What do you think of Mary Porter?

It’s almost time! Longing for a Cowboy Christmas releases on September 24th! Six heartwarming stories sure to put the Christmas spirit in your heart by Leigh Greenwood, Rosanne Bittner, Margaret Brownley, Anna Schmidt, Amy Sandas, and me.



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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

47 thoughts on “Mary Porter, Queen of the Fort Worth Madams”

  1. Good morning Ms. Linda! We woke up to some rain & it’s a welcome sight. Are you getting any down in Amarillo? I loved learning about Mary. I also love hearing the mention of Jim Courtright & Luke Short, they both were up here in Dodge City, too.
    I too would like to know more about her story, how she came from Ireland all the way to Ft. Worth.
    Thanks for the amazing blog. Congrats on another fantastic anthology. It will be Christmas before we know it. Love you my sweet sister friend. Have an amazing week in your new series. I can’t wait to meet a grown up Gracie.

    • Good morning, Miss Tonya……Yes, we’re getting some rain and I’m loving it. I’m sitting here sipping coffee from my fall mug and giving thanks for this wonderful life God has given me. Mary Porter really interested me. There was a lot more to her than anyone knew. As with most women in her profession, she left her past behind, whatever it was. Jim Courtright and Luke Short showed up together quite a lot in these rough frontier towns so by the time they had their famous shootout in Fort Worth they had a bad history.

      Christmas is indeed a coming. These days are whizzing by. So fast my head is swimming. I think you’ll like the grown up Gracie. She’s impulsive but so passionate about women’s rights. Love you dearly, sister friend!

  2. Most women who ran a brothel didn’t care about there women even high end to me she would be a saint only because she did care and made sure they were taken care of. I think every large city has a part of downtown mostly that has a history and not a good one.

    • Good morning, Kim…….Thank you for coming. You’re right about those madams in that a lot didn’t care about their working girls. Some madams (who were no more than pimps) didn’t let the girls keep but a small portion of their earnings. Mary Porter had her faults but she had a good heart. She’s an interesting woman and I would like to have met her.

      Have a blessed day filled with love and laughter.

  3. I loved Longing for a Cowboy Christmas especially your short story!

    I could picture becoming a lady of the night for a madame like Mary if I found myself alone in the Wild West era. I’d just have to hope for a madame like her and not some evil male running the saloon. My biggest thing would have been that my clients would have had to have a long bath first. Lol

    I too would love to know more about Mary’s story! I can just imagine the stories she could tell us about her life! I can’t even begin to picture Ft. Worth’s old Red Light District but I wish there were pictures of it!

    Best of luck on the release of the Christmas Anthology! I can’t wait for your next book to be released!! Love you dear lady!

  4. OhLinda , your blogs always fascinate me and the research you put into it. I wonder was her life so hard or was it comfortable because of her connection with the high profile clients and the famous outlaws we’ve read about? I hurt for the lady nailed to the outhouse door, how awful but was that a warning to Mary ?? Stories like this are so interesting to me , I may have to do some research on my own . Thank you for a great blog and I can’t wait for Cowboy Christmas to be released. I found you through the first book of this series, I live Lee Greenwood books and look forward to discovering new authors.

  5. This is an interesting post. I hate to think about what the women went through back then just to survive. I know I could never do it. But then again, I don’t know what circumstances they were going through to make them desperate enough to sell their bodies to strange men.

    • Good morning, Janine…….What some women had to go through back then was really bad. It probably made them as tough as shoe leather. A lot of those working girls back then were led into the profession by men they trusted and once in, they couldn’t get out. Life was so hard. I read an account the other day where a woman sold her hair, then sold her teeth, but finally had to sell her body to survive.

      I’m so glad you came and happy you liked my post. I hope you have a glorious day!

    • Good morning, Melanie…….Well, I do it for you and the fact that I love sharing pieces of history I find. There’s an unending supply if we care to look for it.

      Have a lovely day!

  6. I love hearing about things and how you bring it to light. I could picture it while reading this. I am sure the book will be just as amazing. God bless and have a wonderful day.

    • Good morning, Kristi……Thank you for stopping by and reading my post. I love seeing you. I hope you like the Christmas book. Come back on the 19th for more about it and giveaways.

      Love and hugs! Have a wonderful day.

  7. Great post Linda and it does make you wonder how she got started. She must have had a rough life at one time. You have to give her credit for taking care of her girls because a lot of time the girls had to take care of their self.

    • Good morning, Quilt Lady……You bring a morning smile. 🙂 Yes, a lot of those working girls had to manage for themselves. I’m sure it was nice to find someone to care about them. You have a great day! Love and hugs.

  8. Good Morning. Your post was very interesting. Stong independent woman who took care of her girls. Just think she or women like her could be one of our family. I would love to know more of her story.

    • Good morning, Yvonne…..I’m so happy to see you. You pose an interesting thought…that one of those women might be our kin. So very true. They were someone’s kin, someone’s daughter or mother. What a sad existence. Love you, lady.

    • Good morning, Debra…..Thank you for stopping by and joining in the conversation. There is much to admire about Mary Porter despite the kind of life she led. Have a wonderful day!

  9. Good morning, Linda! What is it about madams and brothels that we find so fascinating? On our Alaskan cruise last year, we stopped at a former brothel called the Red Onion Saloon in Skagway. It was packed!

    I always wonder about pregnancies. I know they had birth control, but out on the frontier, I can’t imagine that it was readily available or much practiced.

    A hard life for sure. I hope the majority of these women eventually found husbands and families to care for after that time in their lives.

    Great blog, as usual, my friend.

    • Good morning, Pam……You know, I was wondering the same thing when I wrote this post. I’m kinda drawn to people who had it roughest and these women saw the very worst. I’m sure they were scared and very lonely for family. No wonder the suicide rate was so high. They weren’t even considered a person just a thing. I admire Mary Porter and those like her who tried to make things just a little better. I’m almost sure some of my ancestors were prostitutes. Our family has always been so poor.

      Love you, Filly Sister.

  10. Good morning Linda! We stopped in Wallace, Idaho last year and walked back in time as we ventured throughout this town which is included in the National Historic Society. Saloons, brothels, mining, etc. So interesting!

    Looking forward to another wonderful book to read … holding it off for the first snowy Minnesota night!

    • Hi Miss Kathy……It’s so good to see you! Thank you for coming. You know, I think us women are very curious about life in a brothel and I tour each one I come across. A sad, wasted life. Very good about the Christmas book. I bet you’ll have a snowy night in the near future up there. I’m so happy that fall is about here. Makes my heart happy…and my MS too. Love you, lady!

  11. Wow, what a history for Mary! There are definitely interesting stories for so many back then. Thanks for sharing about her and that part of Fort Worth history.

    • Hi Susan P……I’m happy you enjoyed my post. There’s so much history to explore and interesting stories waiting to be found. I never tire of looking. Love and hugs!

  12. This is interesting! Most women didn’t willingly go into prostitution, but were forced into it, whether actually by a man or circumstances. I don’t think any of the owners carried about the ones working for them, they just wanted to make sure none of them left or got sick, or passed diseases to their customers, as that would definitely be bad for business!!! I think circumstances and bad choices still lead up to the “profession” today, too, due to addictions. I think some today are forced into being sex slaves by traffickers, too. That’s made the news a few times.

    • Hi Trudy…….How nice to see you! Thanks for coming. I totally agree about the women that got forced into it and although the times have improved a good deal women are still being trafficked. So horrible. Have a wonderful rest of your day, sweet lady.

    • Hi Linda….I don’t know why you’re unable to see the pictures. They should show up. Have you tried refreshing your screen? Or maybe trying a different browser? I pray you get the problem solved. You should be seeing them. Thanks for reading my post even though you could see no pictures.

  13. Linda, I always wonder, too, what circumstances caused these women to go into prostitution. It’s fascinating to think about, but some of them actually CHOSE that profession and were not forced into it at all. I’m sure that’s a small number, but still…I wonder about “what happened”–think that’s probably the writer in me, always wondering about the “story” of the person. This is so interesting, and I’m glad they did buy her a tombstone–the inscription is just perfect, isn’t it?

    • Hi Cheryl…….I’m sure you’re right about some choosing this life but the percentage had to be small. But even then there had to be a catalyst, something that sparked a desire. Maybe it was money and they saw it as the only way to make a living or maybe they needed to escape something. It’s fun to think about. Yes, the tombstone was perfect. Love you, Filly sister!

    • Hi Kit…..I’m glad you enjoyed reading about Mary. She was a very interesting person and almighty tough. A lot of books have been set in Hell’s Half Acre in Fort Worth. In fact, my new series will be set there. Love you!

  14. Linda, what a fascinating post. I’m like Cheryl, in wondering what caused the ladies of the night to select that particular occupation…using the term lightly. As we all know, back in the day there were few job opportunities for women. I think teaching was the biggest then along came being a waiting tables, helper in the mercantile, but few others. But, then a woman had to make a living, so they did what they had to do. Great post, my friend.

    • Hi Phyliss……Glad to see you! Men kept women squeezed out of the workplace because they wanted to keep them at home where they felt they belonged. Women winning equal rights was a long and very hard fought battle. Glad you enjoyed my post. Much love and big hugs, Filly sister!

  15. I’m sure it was a job made out of necessity for some and desperation for others. While it wasn’t one I’d choose for myself, it’s not fair to judge the women who had to make this hard decision years ago. Sounds like she did it in the best way she could for her and for the girls.

    • Hi Denise……I’m so happy you came! Thank you for reading my post about Mary Porter. She could’ve been an ancestor. Lots of things to think about. Love and hugs!

  16. Hi, well I guess brothels have always existed and unfortunately they always will. I agree, at least Mary made sure she ran a clean brother, so good for her on that part. That was nice that she finally got a grave marker. Who knows what makes women do this, but they have their reasons.May God keep them safe. Thank you for this very interesting post. I am ready for Christmas and this book sounds like a good one plus the cover is Beautiful! Have a Great week. God Bless you.

    • Good morning, Alicia……Thank you for coming to read about Mary Porter. 🙂 And bless you for having Longing for a Cowboy Christmas on your radar! 🙂 🙂 I hope you enjoy these special stories. Love and hugs!

  17. One can only imagine what led Mary and others to their line of work. The fact that she was older, 41, and obviously organized could indicate that she had acquired experience in the business in her younger years. The way she set up and ran her “Boarding House,” treated her girls, and attracted her clientele could indicate that she worked in a high-end brothel or observed how one operated and decided to copy it in a new location.
    It is sad that she was buried in an unmarked grave. It seems like a rather vindictive thing to do, especially when her clients were among the pillars of the community. I am glad they finally gave her the recognition she deserved.
    I am really looking forward to the Christmas anthology. I always add new books to my Christmas collection and this one is on the list for this year.

      • Patricia…..I always find history so interesting. I want to know about these people who came before us. Mary Porter had a lot of guts and pure determination to make things a little better. I, too, am happy she got her marker.

        Longing for a Cowboy Christmas is almost here! Won’t be long now. It releases on September 24!! Love you so much, lady!

  18. I agree, back in the west if a woman wanted to survive, sometimes she had to be drastic, hard working and smart. This is an interesting story about Mary. Im sure there were a lot of stories similar to this.

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