Friday, August 28, 2015

Tales of the Bagnio, Vol. 1

     I have all these different ideas of what I want to write about, some recurring features, some long-winded diatribes about Queen songs and the current hilarious state of Philadelphia sports franchises. If I ever get the chance, I'd tell you about what I've been up to, but it isn't very interesting. None of my plans involve my experiences as a father or the how wise I am now because I have to encounter human feces on a regular basis. That's the Cotton promise™.

     But today, I want to tell you a story, an old one. Not like India old, but old enough for this country and this coast in particular. For the past year or so, I've been reading an eye-raising number of essays and accounts of prostitution in the American West. My library account remains scandalous. It started as research as something I've been working on for what feels like a decade (but actually only 7 years, thank you very much) and am no closer to finishing than when I started.

     This began with Herbert Asbury's incredible Barbary Coast, an amazing account of San Francisco's early days. You might recognize Asbury as the author of The Gangs of New York, and this is a very similar book. I love nonfiction pieces like this because they provide that rare account of what the lower classes (i.e. 80% of the population) did with their time. Obviously there are church records and censuses and all that stuff, but when you really want to know something about the culture of an era, look to that era's dirtbags. I could go on and on about this and probably will on another day, but I still have that story to get to.

     Anyway, this incredible book put me on a path of finding anything I could about prostitution of the era. The bagnios, the brothels, the pretty waiter girls and the madames. It's difficult to put to words how important this aspect of life was to the creation of American culture and the west in particular. You could argue (easily, as Cy Martin does in his book Whiskey and Wild Women) that these women, along with the barkeepers, were the only vestige of culture in the American west through its nascent years.
There are so many incredible stories contained in these accounts, and I'm sure I'll discuss some of them in greater detail at another time, as I keep having to delete whole paragraphs as I get sidetracked talking about the importance of these "degenerate" institutions within the development of an American culture and psyche.


     This is the story of Ada LaMont, the first madame in Denver. Well, the first white one, anyway, Records from that era are spotty at best, and unfortunately almost always with a European bent. But this we already know.

     Ada LaMont is said to have boarded a wagon train from Indiana in 1858 or 1859 with her husband, a young minister hoping to spread the Word in the morally abandoned West. She was all of 19 years old. Somewhere on the journey West, her clergyman husband disappeared at the same time as a woman of "questionable character" (a pretty broad term and usually just meant that she was unmarried and not a schoolteacher). The wagon train halted to search for the missing parties, but when they were not found the assumption was that Ada had been abandoned in favor of the other woman.

     Dismayed, LaMont had little choice but to complete her journey in heartbroken silence. When the wagon train reached Denver (the neighborhood of Auraria, to be specific), the once demure Ada stunned her fellow travelers by appearing before them and stating "As a God-fearing woman, you see me for the last time. As of tomorrow, I start the first brothel in this settlement. Any of you men in need of a little fun will always find the flaps of my tent open."

(how great -and utterly American- is that?)

     Anyway, Ada (or Addie, as she renamed herself), was true to her word. She worked as a well-liked madame in Auraria for most of the remainder of her life. She began on "Indian Row" on Ferry Street, now known as 11th street and currently appears to be the center of the UC Denver campus. Later, she relocated to a two-story brick building on Arapahoe Street. Aside from the notoriety of her scandalous profession, Addie was also famous for her reasonably priced liquor, sympathetic ear and workers who never stole from their clients (all rare for that time).

     Over time, she fell in with a rough crowd, which is to say her clientele and competition, notably a gambler named Charley Harrison. Harrison was a charming man of the South, the proprietor of the Criterion Saloon, and allegedly an undercover agent of the Confederacy. He was also a raging psychopath known to commit murders all over Denver. After being acquitted of one, he aspired to kill twelve white men, so that he could "have a jury of his peers in hell." Apparently, he did not consider the dozen non-white men he'd already murdered his peers, although some say he counted the murder of three women equal to that of one white man.  Charming guy. Addie LaMont, it seems, was instrumental in getting bribing the right people to get Harrison off the hook for at least one killing, although he was later chased out of town. Justice eventually caught up with him, though, as a party of Osage caught up with him and sent him to the hell he was looking for.


     But this story is not yet done. Because years later after decades of infamy as a a bordello operator, an old friend from back East came to see her and brought with him a startling artifact. It seemed that while camping in Kansas, he had stumbled across several corpses, and in the arms of one, found a bible that bore Ada's inscription to her minister husband. There was a bullet hole in his skull. The missing woman that he had been suspected of running off with all those years ago was also found among the dead. It had been supposed that they had been killed by natives, but I've never been able to find confirmation to that effect.

     Devastated, Addie turned to drink. After squandering her considerable fortune in an alcoholic stupor, her business had declined and she moved to nearby Georgetown (then in the throes of a massive silver find), where she herself worked as a prostitute before dying penniless on the streets of a wealthy boom town.

     Is that not a story or what!? I know it doesn't have the happiest of endings, but there is rarely such a thing if you follow the plot long enough down the line.

So that's what I got for this beautiful day. I'm going to go for a walk in a little bit and if I get the chance, I'm going to try to start a new regular feature thing later this evening. In the meantime, I hope you all have a fantastic Friday.

Below is an old news story about Charley Harrison because it's sadly a lot easier to find information about him than Ada LaMont.

All True--All Fact--Stories of the Real West, 15(3). 1968.

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