Tag Archives: History of the Southwest

The Mysteries of Perle de Vere – Madam of the Southwest

What possessed a young girl in the mid-1800’s to leave her well-to-do, “good” family in the mid-west and move clear across the country to Denver, Colorado to take up a life of prostitution? Little is known about the early years of Perle de Vere—a woman who did just that–and later became Colorado’s most famous madam.

Supposed photo of Madam Perle de Vere
Photo thought to be of Perle de Vere – although reportedly no photos of her exist (WikiTree)

“Mrs. Martin,” as she was known in Denver, arrived there at the age of 14 or 15. There is no record of her being married at the time, so one has to wonder why she would leave a comfortable life in Illinois (or Indiana) to travel to the west and sell her body for survival. Perhaps she had family troubles. Maybe she took up with someone her family didn’t approve of, and hopped a train with him in the hopes of a life of wedded bliss. Or maybe she had a lust for adventure and wanted to pave her own way. The possibilities are endless and fun to think about.

Shortly after her arrival in Denver, “Miss Martin” became known as Perle de Vere, a beautiful woman with red-hair, a strong will, and good business sense. Her family believed she worked as a dress designer (or milliner), and catered to Denver’s wealthiest women. But, in fact, she catered to the wealthiest men, and began a life of business in prostitution. What could have happened to set off this chain of events? Did she intend to start her career as a dressmaker and then couldn’t find work? Did she anger her employer? Did she hate her job? Or did she see an opportunity to make some fast cash?

When business crashed in Denver due to the Silver Panic of 1893, Miss de Vere, then at 30 years of age, packed her bags and moved to a booming gold camp called Cripple Creek. She invested her savings and bought a house on Myers street. She hired several beautiful girls and started her own brothel. Her business proved to be an instant success, affording Perle fine clothing and an extravagant lifestyle. She also knew how to protect her investment and demanded her girls practice good hygiene, dress well, and have monthly medical examinations.

Perle, a discerning business woman and the most successful madam of the town, didn’t cater to just anyone. Patrons of her establishment had to apply for a visit. Once their application was approved and their wealth determined, Perle allowed them access to a viewing room where they could choose their girl. Evenings at Perle’s house often consisted of live entertainment, socializing, cards, and dancing before the girls and their clients retired upstairs. Perle often hosted lavish parties with imported foods and plenty of champagne and other spirits.

One of Madam Perle's girls
One of Perle’s girls
(Legends of America)

Ever popular with the men of Cripple Creek, Perle did not make many friends among the women. It didn’t help that she drove her beautiful black horses and carriage through the camp, dressed in expensive and showy clothing—flaunting her success. She and her girls shopped at the best shops on Bennett Avenue, further angering the “good” women of the town. To keep the peace, the town’s Marshal stipulated that the girls could only shop during off hours. They also paid a tax of $6 per month. Madams of the town paid $16 dollars per month, a fraction of what Perle brought in on a weekly basis.

In 1895 Perle married a wealthy mill owner named C.B. Flynn. Shortly after the nuptials, tragedy struck. A fire raged through Cripple Creek destroying many of the town’s businesses, including Flynn’s mill and Perle’s brothel. Unable to recover financially, Flynn had to leave in order to find work. He found a job in Monterrey, Mexico as a steel and iron smelter. Perle stayed behind to rebuild her business. Putting everything she had into her new venture, Perle paid for the construction a two-story brick building and decorated it with lavish, imported furnishings, electric chandeliers, and leather topped gaming tables. She named her new establishment “The Old Homestead.”

Just as the history of Perle’s early life is shrouded in mystery, so is her death. In the summer of 1897, Perle hosted an extravagant party sponsored by one of her wealthiest clients and ardent admirerers—a millionaire from either Poverty Gulch or Denver. Imported champagne, liquor, and caviar, as well as two orchestras from Denver graced The Old Homestead for the wildest party the town would ever see. Perle’s admirer even brought her a beaded and sequined gown imported from Paris to wear to the event.

Is this Madam Perle de Vere?
Another photo thought to be of Perle (Pinterest)

During the evening, after much drinking and revelry, Perle and the gentleman got into an argument. He stormed out of the house and Perle retired to her bedroom. Later that night, one of the girls checked in on Perle. She found her lying on the bed, still in her gown, her breathing labored. Unable to rouse the madam, the girl called for a doctor, but it was too late. In the early hours of the morning, Perle de Vere, at age 37, died. The coroner stated her death was due to an accidental overdose of morphine, a drug she sometimes used for insomnia. Most of the newspapers reported the same, but one reported the death as suicide. Historians dispute this claim because Perle was at the height of her success.

But, could it have been murder? And if so, who would do such a thing? The gentleman who sponsored the party? A jealous wife? One of the girls? Perhaps her husband who potentially grew envious of his wife’s success and numerous lovers? It is known that the admirer who purchased the gown and paid for the party also sent a $1000 check for Perle’s funeral expenses, an amount that today is valued at $36,000. But, does that make him innocent?

Most likely, Perle died of an accidental overdose, as the coroner stated. But, with a story as rich as hers, and with a cast of the intriguing characters she possibly entertained, it’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened to Colorado’s most famous “soiled dove.”

Feature photo found on Google from Bonanza Boomers

Young Mabel

Empowered Women of Southwest History – Mabel Dodge Luhan

Some people find empowerment through their passion. Other people find empowerment through what they do for mankind. Still others find empowerment through their search of self and belonging. Such is the case for Mabel Dodge Luhan, self-proclaimed Muse of the Arts.

Mabel at 18 years old
Mabel at 18
(Buffaloah.com)

As an only child, Mabel Dodge Luhan grew up with wealth and privilege; two things many people strive their whole lives to achieve. But what she never had, until later in her adulthood, were things that many people take for granted; love, attention, and feeling of belonging.

Mabel’s father, Charles Ganson, inherited his wealth from his powerful banking family. Charles went to school and trained to be a lawyer, but his nervous disposition and volatile temper impeded his success. During Mabel’s growing up years, Charles spent time with his dogs, or in his study not doing much of anything. According to an article at Enclyclopedia.com, Mabel states that, to her father she “…was something that made noise sometimes in the house, and had to be told to get out of the way.”

Sara, Mabel’s mother, often the victim of Charles’ temper, grew indifferent to him and had little interest in her only child. While Sara entertained herself with the society of New York, Mabel spent most of her time in the care of a nanny, and then later school mistresses at Saint Margaret’s Episcopal School for Girls, and Miss Graham’s School in New York City. At 16, Mabel toured Europe and then attended the affluent Chevy Chase Finishing School in the Washington, D.C./Maryland area.

Educated in the arts of an upper crust domestic wife, Mabel, at 21 years old, married Karl Evans, another silver spoon youth. Her father did not approve of the match, and her mother remained indifferent.

The young couple soon had a child, a boy they named John. Perhaps because of her own upbringing, Mabel struggled with the confines of marriage and child rearing. After only two years of matrimony, Karl died in a hunting accident, adding to Mabel’s emotion duress. A single mother, now facing life alone, Mabel suffered a nervous breakdown. When she recovered, she took her young son and moved to Europe. In Paris, she met Edwin Dodge, an architect from Boston. He pressed his suit, and eager for a father for John, and security for herself, Mabel agreed to marry Dodge in 1904.

Mabel and her son John
Mabel and her son John
(mabeldodgeluhan.com)

The couple moved to Florence, Italy where they settled in a lovely villa they called Villa Curonia, a famous estate originally built for the powerful Italian Medici family. But, happiness still eluded Mabel. Trapped in a loveless marriage, and unable to escape the depression that would reoccur throughout her lifetime, Mabel needed a diversion. She embarked on her quest to become a muse of the arts, or as she states in her autobiography, Intimate Memories, “a mythological figure…in my own lifetime.”

For eight years, often dressed in Renaissance costume, Mabel entertained the famous and noteworthy of International society, including novelists, artists, photographers and art critics. Her Italian “salon” became a place of philosophical, political, and artistic enlightenment.

Still discontented with married life, Mabel left Dodge and moved back to New York where she established another salon for the artistic intelligentsia. From 1913 to 1916, she entertained those interested in unconventional attitudes of the era. Freudism, free-love, anarchy, and modern art were popular avant-guard topics discussed at Mabel’s house. Inspired by the conversation, Mabel embarked on a writing career and wrote for literary and art magazines, including Alfred Stieglitz’s publication, Camera Work. Stieglitz and his mistress at the time, Georgia O’Keeffe, frequented Mabel’s home along with mutual friends Leo and Gertrude Stein.

Between 1914 and 1916, she met and married artist Maurice Stern. Even though Mabel had created a world of her own, she still could not find happiness. In 1917 she and Stern traveled to New Mexico, a provincial and wild place she’d learned about from her friends the Steins. She arrived in Santa Fe, and was entertained by other wealthy, female east-coast transplants like Alice Corbin and Natalie Curtis Burlin, who had already established themselves in the town.

Eager to put her mark on a new and nearly undiscovered place, Mabel found Santa Fe too confining. In her book Ladies of the Canyons, Lesley Poling-Kempes asserts that “for Mabel, the real problem with Santa Fe was its population, however small, of erudite, creative, and audacious New Women who were already making their mark on the place. Mabel needed her own space to make her mark . . .”

Mabel moved to the nearby village of Taos to start her own literary society. There she met and befriended Tony Luhan, a Pueblo Indian. Mabel asserts that before arriving in Taos, she had a dream where she saw her husband Maurice’s face turn into that of an Indian. Mabel believed Tony to be that man. Tony encouraged Mabel to buy property, a 12-acre parcel of land, complete with a tiny dwelling. Tony helped the Stern’s remodel and rebuild the four-room adobe house. He set up a teepee on the Stern’s front lawn, and proceeded to woo Mabel. It worked. She sent Maurice packing and married Luhan in 1923.

Mabel and Tony
Mabel and Tony
(KUNM)

The colorful landscape and rich culture of Taos gave Mabel the life and love she craved. Finally, happy and at peace, Mabel, with her fourth and final husband, Tony Luhan, entertained some of the most famous literary and artistic minds of their time, including Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, and D.H. Lawrence. Georgia O’Keeffe, while visiting Mabel, decided that she, too, could find infinite inspiration from the enchanted landscape of New Mexico, and also settled there.

The Luhans eventually expanded their home to 17 rooms, and continued to provide literary and artistic inspiration for others, as well as forging Mabel’s own talents as a writer.

Never known for her warmth or sunny personality, Mabel, regardless, indeed made her mark on New Mexico and American history. She promoted Native American culture and art, as well as other important artists, writers, and abstract thinkers of her time. She found empowerment through her continual quest to get her life just right, and become the person she aspired to be.

Her vision, her promotion of others and herself, helped make Mabel Dodge Luhan an institution in Southwestern history.