Hell’s Belles, by Clark Secrest

Review by Abby Quillen

Vice – June 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Hell’s Belles: Prostitution, Vice, and Crime in Early Denver
by Clark Secrest
Revised edition published in 2002 by the University Press of Colorado.
ISBN 0-87081-633-0

HELL’S BELLES is the story of early Denver, a place where reportedly “every fifth building… was a saloon, every tenth a gambling hall, and those in between [were] not always reputable”; a place where most gambling halls guaranteed a free funeral for paying customers killed on the premises; and a place where harlots with names like Rotarie Rosie, Cock-eyed Liz, and Liver-Lip Lou gravitated to McGaa Street to set up shop in make-shift parlor houses.

The first years of Denver City inspired Horace Greeley to say that there was more fighting, shooting, and general lawlessness in “this log city … than [in] any community of no greater number on earth.” And prospector William Hedges remarked that he doubted that “there was ever a place on this continent, where [a] great[er] amount of evil to the square acre was so spontaneously and openly developed.”

Fortunately for Clark Secrest it was the seamy side of Denver that interested him, and he found no shortage of things to write about. Secrest starts at the beginning, with Denver City’s very first crime, when a man named Vincent shot — not fatally — one John Atwell in late September of 1858. From there, Secrest sets out to document what he calls the “quartet of indulgences,” namely drunkenness, murder, gambling, and prostitution, that developed in Denver, as they did in frontier towns across the West.

Secrest writes the sort of history that can bring the past to life. He’s more into telling stories than proving theories. And with him as a guide, you can almost smell the stink of whisky in the air of early Denver’s dirt-floored and canvas-walled saloons and gambling halls, where murders were an all too common phenomenon. You can feel the dark smoke crawling up your body in the opium dens of Arapahoe Street, where Chinese men and white women lazily lit their pipes in bunks, and sat back in dreamy intoxication. And most of all, you can see the bordellos on McGaa Street (later Holladay, then Market Street) — from the mirrored, velvet-covered halls of Mattie Silks and Jennie Rogers to the crudely-erected, vermin-infested sheds on Blue Row — because in Hell’s Belles, it is prostitution that steals the spotlight.

UNLIKE MANY Western historians, especially those concerned with gender issues, Secrest doesn’t seem preoccupied with myth — either with propagating it or disproving it. On rare occasions, he does single out and attack a legend of the Old West, like that of Silver Heels, Park County’s mythic whore with a heart of gold, who gave up her beauty to nurse men back to health during a small pox epidemic. Secrest puts that fable down more quickly than a harlot could hustle a man in and out of the door of her crib. But, by and large, Secrest doesn’t talk about the way it might have been; he just tells it like it was.

Secrest gathered his information from an impressive variety of sources, including published historical pieces, old newspaper articles, journals, interviews, and letters. What emerges from his research are the real tales from Colorado’s past. Not surprisingly, they aren’t much like the ones in serial western novels or in movies like High Noon. The good guys and bad guys aren’t quite as predictable and the characters are usually more complex.

Secrest includes countless tales of prostitutes — from the famed madams Mattie Silks and Jennie Rogers to the pitiful and unknown Mollie Hill. Through their stories, it is clear that the prostitutes of early Colorado aren’t easy to typecast. Their motivations, their circumstances, and their personalities varied widely. They could be ruthless businesswomen, helpless victims, or dangerous villains. Some women ended up in prostitution because they had few other options. Poorly educated women were allowed into very few occupations at the time, and some women were conned or forced into prostitution by men; some were even drugged and raped. Others were victimized by the female madams they worked for, who tried to keep them in the business by keeping them in debt.

BUT MANY PROSTITUTES were quite the opposite of victims. Take Salida’s famous madam Laura Evans, for instance. One of the most unforgettable parts of Hell’s Belles is Miss Laura’s boastful claim that “if all the male sex appendages she personally harbored during her career were laid end to end, such a chain would girdle the earth.”

Then, there was Black Ide, a Denver prostitute who was arrested for clubbing a woman with a baseball bat; for murdering a man on Market Street; for “choking and pounding” another man; and for pulling a gun on a miner after stealing his money. Black Ide was known for getting drunk and swinging her straight-edged razor or baseball bat in the middle of the street. The press reported that she was “one of the most dangerous in the city,” but according to Secrest, she wasn’t the only prostitute who assaulted, robbed, or murdered customers.

The prostitutes in Hell’s Belles come in all shapes and sizes, but most of them come off as neither victims nor villains nor swindlers. Most were women who took advantage of opportunity and whose lives were mundane and without glamour. They sold themselves for anywhere from ten cents to five dollars depending on the establishment they worked in, and only took home about fifty percent of their earnings. Most of them were far from home; many were addicted to narcotics; and nearly all of them were preoccupied by the fear of contracting and spreading syphilis and gonorrhea. Between clients, prostitutes douched with potassium permanganate, carbolic acid, or bichloride of mercury, but because none were very effective and venereal disease was sure to destroy a prostitute’s livelihood, the women of the red light district had to become adept at diagnosing the maladies and turning men away.

If the criminals aren’t the villains in Hell’s Belles, it makes sense that the heroes aren’t who you’d think, either. In the legends, the lawmen are usually the ones who save the day, but in reality, the police in Denver were known for being some of the most corrupt in the nation. They were “ill-trained, … often drunk on duty, unashamedly careless with human rights, and forever unsupervised.” Far from shutting down the vice industries in Denver, the police were known to participate and profit off of them.

And the politicians weren’t any better. Laura Evans said of Robert Speer, whom Secrest repeatedly refers to as the crookedest mayor in Denver history, “Mayor Speer was a wonderful man. He kept Market Street open.” The gambling houses, saloons, and parlor houses of lower downtown Denver were big contributors of money and votes to Speer’s political activities, and Speer managed to keep them open despite widespread reform efforts in the early 1900s.

HOWEVER, A FEW HEROES do emerge in Hell’s Belles, and who they are may say more about the author than about the characters themselves. Detective Sam Howe, a Denver policeman from 1883 to 1921, is by far the most revered character in the book, and not because he was a good cop, although he was that. Sam Howe did something else that gained the respect of the author: he kept records. Howe amassed fifty-six scrapbooks — some a foot thick — of newspaper clippings detailing nearly every crime committed in Denver between 1883 and 1920. Sam Howe wasn’t thinking about future historians when he started compiling and indexing his records; he was just trying to do what sophisticated computer networks do for law officers today: store and exchange crime data. But, his records are a historian’s dream come true. Other record keepers emerge as heroes in this book, too, like doctors Frederick Bancroft and G.W. Cox, who recorded the health conditions of Denver’s parlor houses.

Perhaps it is the recorders of the past who emerge as heroes in Secrest’s tales because he is also a record keeper at heart. Hell’s Belles is a little like Sam Howe’s scrapbooks: an indexed collection of records and case studies from the past, with few authorial insights, theories, and conclusions. When Secrest does present theories, they are the ideas of others, from historians like Caroline Bancroft, Patty Limerick, and Richard White to sociologist Ruth Rosen. Secrest relies on others to analyze data and draw conclusions.

Unfortunately, Secrest’s unwillingness to draw from his own data sometimes leads to poor scholarship. One example is Secrest’s use of works by historian Fred Mazzulla. Secrest quotes and paraphrases from Mazzulla’s works on topics as broad as the reasons prostitutes abused the drug laudanum to specific incidents like Mattie Silks bailing her husband out of jail. Then, in several of Secrest’s notes, he proceeds to completely discredit the work of Fred Mazzulla. Secrest writes that Mazzulla was known to exaggerate, and that Caroline Bancroft refused to review one of Mazzulla’s books because it was so clear that he misrepresented the truth. And the book Holladay Street by Max Miller and Fred Mazzulla, which Secrest uses extensively, isn’t annotated and includes no bibliographic references, so where the information came from is unknown. Why Secrest felt it necessary to rely on Mazzulla’s observations and insights is unimaginable since Secrest obviously had a wealth of original documents, interviews, and

With that in mind, though, Hell’s Belles is well worth reading. Anyone who thinks the myths and legends of the Old West make for better stories than the real events is in for a surprise. The real characters of Colorado’s past who spent their days and nights in the bordellos and gambling halls of Holladay Street, or in Miss Laura’s “first-class” Salida parlor house, or in one of Leadville’s 100 bordellos will stay with you long after you put the book down. Hell’s Belles might just leave you wondering where all of the respectable people were in frontier Colorado. And, more alarmingly, it might leave you wondering whether things have really changed very much.

— Abby Quillen

Editor’s note: Laura Evans’ name was often spelled Evens, as it is on her tombstone and in Secrest’s book, but we chose the more familiar spelling that’s ordinarily used in local history books and tourist publications and for memorial bed races.