Painted ladies, soiled doves and prairie nymphs
Actors and stand-ins move about on the main street set of HBO's popular "Deadwood" series during filming Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005, in Santa Clarita, Calif. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

One of the more enduring images from the Old West was that of the painted lady, the soiled dove or the lost sister. Whatever name is attached, she was quite simply a prostitute.

Her mythical portrait has been painted in many ways, with many colors and with imaginative words and phrases by writers of many stripes. Often she was portrayed as a fallen woman with a heart of gold who was always ready to do good for those in need. At other times she was the lady with a heart of ice who would lie, cheat and steal. She was considered capable of murder if it served her own purposes.

Another slant was that of the innocent and naïve young woman who had been enticed by false claims to venture west in search of employment … only to forced into a life of degradation by circumstances beyond her control. In reality she was probably a blend of this mixture of fact, fiction, fantasy and history.

The city of Deadwood was established in 1876 during the Black Hills gold rush. In 1875, a miner named John B. Pearson had discovered gold in the Northern Black Hills in a narrow canyon. Because of the many dead trees that lined the canyon walls at the time, the canyon became known as “Deadwood Gulch.” That was the name that stuck.

Shortly after the first big gold strike in the northern Black Hills, some “girls” arrived in Deadwood with Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter’s wagon train, accompanied by those notorious madams of the west, “Madam Mustachio” and “Dirty Em,” who were seasoned veterans of Nevada and California gold mining camps. The lonely miners of the lusty, brawling mining camp enthusiastically received the newest female citizens of the gulch in an area aptly called the “Badlands.”

To begin with the “ladies” performed their entertainments in tents and crude lean-tos. Later these women did their deeds in “houses of ill repute” or a “crib” near to or next to the “house.” In a “house,” each girl greeted her customer in a sitting room parlor and had either her own room or a shared room in which she entertained her client. The room provided a degree of privacy and was sparsely furnished with a bed, small table and a lamp or candleholder.

The women were usually known by their “sporting names” such as Lovey, Dixie, Lily or Babe. Some had been in the trade for years and others for only a few days. Some of the older ones had been or were married. Younger ones in their 20s were often experienced beyond their years.

It has been said that for soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Meade, it was considered a necessary service for maintaining morale and discipline. The women found that alcohol and drugs (cocaine and opium), which had found their way into the “cribs,” dulled the edges of their dreary lives and made it easier to cope with the “men off the street.”

After the gold rush was over, the “ladies of the evening” remained to ply their trade. The upstairs cathouses on Main Street’s “Badlands” became as much of an integral part of Deadwood history as the legends of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. No city ordinance was ever passed to outlaw the practice, despite state laws forbidding prostitution.

As Deadwood settled into the 20th century, the gambling and prostitution establishments were still considered legitimate businesses. The new era spawned new thinking and ideas. At the end of the 19th century, when the mining camps and frontier were becoming more civilized, prostitution came under closer scrutiny by reformist institutions and moralistic individuals. It even became a struggle between abolitionists who wanted to eradicate prostitution, which they considered to be the root of all evil, and the sanitarians who wanted to regulate the health of the fallen women in order to put an end to the spread of social diseases.

Deadwood’s reformers strongly supported the temperance movement that was sweeping the country. Deadwood’s prostitution and gambling soon came under fire from the zealous reformers who believed that the two were responsible for causing most of Deadwood’s social problems, such as lawlessness, drunkenness and poverty.

 The U.S. government passed the Prohibition Act in 1919, banning the sale and distribution of alcohol. In the “Roaring 20s,” gaming was made illegal but in Deadwood its gambling establishments continued to operate behind closed doors. After the repeal of the Prohibition Act in 1933, Deadwood’s gaming industry once again flourished until 1947, when it was officially closed.

Prostitution remained a viable business enterprise until the 1950s when the state’s attorney closed many of the brothels. The brothels were located on second floors of buildings at 610, 612, 614 and 616 Main St., and were named in court papers as the Shasta, Pine, Cozy and Frontier Rooms. They had operated in plain sight as “rooming houses” and were listed that way in telephone directories.

Patrons were usually able to easily identify the “rooming houses” by their gaudy street-level entrances: colorful purple, green, white and tan painted doors.

The infamous houses had been closed only once before for any length of time, in 1952. A young ambitious attorney, a newcomer to Deadwood, was elected state’s attorney and was considered to have a bright political future until he raided the houses. They were re-opened six months later. A lower court ruling to permanently close them went to the Supreme Court where it was thrown out on a technicality. The young attorney had to run for re-election soon after his failed attempt to eliminate Deadwood’s prostitution. He lost.

After many years of looking the other way, why was legal action finally taken against Deadwood brothels?

On Aug. 5, 1979, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader put Deadwood’s age-old “tradition” in the merciless glare of statewide publicity. Headlines boldly declared “Sex for hire as the law looks away” and “A chat with the madam of the house.”

Two investigative reporters described in frank detail their experiences in visiting the four houses under the guise of “shopping around.”

Many of Deadwood’s local residents hoped the l980 closing of the last of the brothels would end in a similar defeat for this state’s attorney.

Their support of the brothel’s girls went beyond blind tolerance. The ladies were charitable citizens, good spenders and paid their bills on time. Downtown merchants and business owners were well aware how much the “houses” added to the area’s local economy. Their loss was lamented by a broad spectrum of the citizenry.

The very last one to close was Pam’s Purple Door in 1980. Several months before the l980 raid, the police chief defended non-enforcement of state law. He said, “On my level I haven’t any budget. The judge knows there are whorehouses there and the state’s attorney knows there are whorehouses there, but when you go to court, you have to have proof.”

 The contents of Pam’s Purple Door, otherwise known as the Frontier Rooms, went on the auction block in July 1980, after a May raid permanently closed Deadwood houses of prostitution. The industrious madam, Pam Holliday of the Purple Door, wasn’t deterred by her new status of unemployment. She auctioned off many of her brothel’s “souvenirs” - including kitchen timers and vibrating pillows.

A smiling Pam Holiday mingled with the crowd and signed autographs for bidders on the contents of Pam’s Purple Door in Deadwood.

After the l980 raid, most of the out-of-work girls faded into obscurity, although Holliday continued to make national and local news for many months.

She briefly cashed in on her celebrity status by loaning her name to a small lounge on Rapid City’s tourist corridor, Mount Rushmore Road. As manager of “Pam’s Other Door,” Holliday said she sometimes had to discourage a few bar patrons seeking to purchase more than a beer. However her tenure as a legitimate businesswoman ended with a conviction and subsequent prison sentence for tax evasion.


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