Tag Archives: Prostitutes of the West

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

Molly b’Damn

She was a gregarious and sweet natured person. She often put other’s needs before her own. She nursed the sick and took care of the poor. Mother Teresa? No, a prostitute turned madam named Molly b’Damn.

Maggie Hall was born in Dublin, Ireland on December 26, 1853. Her Protestant father and Irish Catholic mother raised their beautifulmaggie_151crop[1] golden haired child to be obedient and kind-hearted. They provided her with a lovely home and a fine education. The beautiful child grew to be a stunning young woman. Tall, with a halo of golden hair, sparkling blue eyes and an elegant, shapely figure, many men sought Maggie’s hand in marriage. She always managed to discourage these proposals because she desired more from life than an 1870’s Ireland could offer.  At the age of twenty, she set sail for America.

The American dream was harder to find than Maggie expected. New York City was a hectic, crowded, bustling city and a decent living was hard to come by for Irish Immigrants. She finally found employment as a barmaid. The job suited her buoyant personality and she was instantly popular, especially with the young men. She had to constantly remind them of her strict Catholic upbringing and that she wasn’t “that kind of girl.”

Little did Maggie know, her life was about to change. She finally met a man she couldn’t reject. He was handsome, charming, well-to-do, and loved by many women. His name was Burdan. By his third visit to the bar, he proposed marriage. Maggie accepted and left her job. She wanted to be married in her beloved Catholic church, but Burdan insisted on a Justice of the Peace. Once they were married, Maggie’s husband suggested her given name was too common and she should change it. He liked “Molly” and oh, by the way, the union was to be kept secret. If his upper-crust family found out he’d married a barmaid, his endless funds would disappear. The secret couldn’t be kept forever and that is exactly what happened. The newly married Burdans were penniless.

Burdan had never worked a day in his life and didn’t know where to begin to find employment. Molly wanted to go back to her job at the bar, but Burdan wouldn’t have it. They were evicted from apartment after apartment. Life was dire and the Burdans were desperate. Molly’s husband noticed the way his friends and other men looked at his beautiful wife. Perhaps she could earn them a living. Burdan suggested that Molly start “entertaining” his friends for money. Shocked, she refused. It was bad enough she hadn’t been married in the church, but this horrid sin? Unfortunately, her love for her husband won out, and she finally agreed. During this time of “employment” Molly made visits to confession. After she confessed her sins the second time, she was excommunicated from the church.

Thoroughly heart-broken and damned to hell forever, Molly left her husband of four years and left New York for the promise of the West. She travelled to California, Oregon, Nevada and the Dakota Territory, working as a much sought after prostitute. She garnered an expensive wardrobe and lived a lavish life-style. But at thirty, Molly grew restless again. She’d heard of a prosperous gold strike in the Coeur d’ Alenes in Idaho. In 1884, she boarded a train for Montana, bought a horse, and then joined a pack-train for Murray, Idaho.

The horse-back ride was long and hard, and those on foot particularly suffered. The pack-train started through the Thompson Pass, and was instantly beset by a nasty blizzard. Molly noticed a mother and young boy, not clothed for a harsh storm, struggling more than the rest. They soon fell behind. When the travelers came upon a meager shelter, Molly tethered her horse, gathered up the woman and her son, led them to the shelter, and bundled them up in her furs. She told the pack train to move on without them. The three, wrapped in Molly’s furs, huddled for warmth.

The townspeople of Murray heard about Molly and her rescue attempt from the travelers and feared the three would not live through the night. Imagine their surprise and delight when a horse carrying two women and a child came galloping into town. People rushed to meet them and tend to their needs. Molly ordered a cabin for the young boy and his mother, to be charged on her bill. When they offered her lodgings in the hotel, she refused. She wanted occupation of Cabin Number One. The cabin reserved for the Madam of the town. A young Irishman, Phil O’Rourke, helped her down from her horse and asked her name. When she said Molly Burdan, he laughed out loud and said, “Well now, fur the life o’ me. I’d never o’ thought of it. Molly b’Damn!” The name stuck.

Molly built a successful business in Murray and was beloved by the townspeople. Her restless spirit had finally been calmed. She was good to her “girls” and provided a comfortable home for them. She fed anyone who was hungry and offered shelter to the homeless. She would often hike up the mountain in her fine clothes to tend to a sick prospector. And, she even attended Protestant church services.

One of Molly’s creative means of making money in the prosperous mining town was to have her “big cleanup bath,” when the cleanup of the mines was due. She would set up a tub in the back of her establishment, fill it with water, and encourage the miners to dig into their pockets and cover the bottom of the tub with gold. When it was sufficiently covered, she’d strip down and sink into the water. For the right price, she’d even allow one of them to scrub her back.

Witty, risqué and sometimes ribald, Molly was also a person who cared deeply for others. In 1886 a stranger walked into Murray with a raging fever and immediately died. He was carrying small pox and had exposed the entire town. It’s wasn’t long before people became ill and many died. The healthy townspeople retreated to their houses, afraid of the disease. This wouldn’t do for Molly.  She called a town meeting and rallied the healthy to help the sick. She and her girls worked tirelessly to tend the ill miners and their families. She rarely took the time to eat or change her clothes during the weeks that small pox raged through Murray.

Eventually, the disease dissipated, but Molly was forever changed. In the coming months she weakened, lost weight and was besieged with a perpetual cough. Soon she was bedridden and the good women of Murray came together and took turns watching at her bedside and taking care of their generous friend, round the clock. She was finally diagnosed with consumption and died on January 7, 1888.

On that day, the townspeople of Murray retreated to their homes. Curtains were drawn and the saloons were closed. Work ceased. The Protestant ministers made arrangements for her funeral and thousands from the area attended to say farewell to the good-hearted prostitute who had brought life and love to their town. To this day, the people of Murray and the surrounding area, celebrate their long lost friend with the Annual Molly b’Damn Gold Rush Days event. Her spirit will live in their hearts forever.

Resource: Soiled Doves, Prostitution In The Early West, Anne Seagraves

Photograph: silentowl: Irish Prostitutes in the American mining towns of the …Irish Prostitutes in the American mining towns of the 19th century.amayodruid.blogspot.com