Deadwood Magazine

Girls of the Gulch

Ol’ Mother Featherlegs

Originally published in the March/April 1997 edition of Deadwood Magazine.

            Historians disagree about the color of her underwear. Some say red; some say white. Whatever the color, there’s no dispute about the fact she acquired her nickname from her lace-trimmed drawers.

While genteel ladies of that era daintily rode sidesaddle, the red-haired strumpet tucked her skirts into her pantalets and galloped across the windy Wyoming prairie “a la clothes pin.”

            Seeing her riding astride, tiers of lace ruffles fluttering in the breeze, a cowboy made the laconic remark, “Them ruffled drawers make the old girl look like a feather-legged chicken in a high wind.”

Forever after known as Ol’ Mother Featherlegs, she arrived in Wyoming in 1876 and promptly established a bawdyhouse on the Cheyenne-Black Hills trail.

            Actually, it wasn’t much of a house. Just a dugout near a stream where she supplied cheap whiskey, gambling and sex, commodities in short supply in the isolated Rawhide Buttes area south of present day Lusk.

            Her place soon became a refuge for outlaws preying on travelers along the stage route. Acting as a go-between for the road agents, Mother Featherlegs was entrusted with large sums of money and jewelry until the bandits could safely dispose of the stolen booty. 

            She had a live-in companion who claimed to be hunting and trapping for a living, but spent most of his time loafing around Mother Featherlegs’ shack. “Dangerous Dick” seemed to be well acquainted with the middle-aged madam.   

            The only other woman living in that isolated area was the wife of a Silver Springs horse rancher, Mrs. O. J. Demmon. One summer afternoon in 1879, the lonesome ranch wife gave into a yearning for conversation with another female, no matter what her social station. She hitched up a team to travel the few miles to Mother Featherlegs’ place.

         Much to her distress, Mrs. Demmon found her neighbor’s body lying beside a spring. Mother Featherlegs had apparently been dead for two or three days, murdered while filling a bucket of water. Tracks around the spring were made by moccasins like those commonly worn by Dangerous Dick, who had apparently skipped the country with the old woman’s cache of money and jewelry.

         Her identity still a mystery, Mother Featherlegs was quietly buried on the spot.

         Davis returned to his old haunts and criminal activity in the swamps of Louisiana, where he was captured and charged with murder and robbery a few years later. Before he was lynched, Davis confessed to killing Mother Featherlegs and revealed that her name was actually Mrs. Charlotte Shepard.

         According to Davis, “Ma’am” Shepard was one of a gang of cutthroats that operated in the swamps of northern Louisiana after the Civil War. Eventually all the gang members and hunted down and eliminated, except for Mrs. Shepard and Davis, known in Louisiana as “The Terrapin.” Ma’am Shepard fled north to a healthier climate after her sons, Tom and Bill, were honored guests at a vigilante necktie party.

         Two curious schoolboys added a postscript to the Mother Featherlegs saga. Russell Thorp, Jr. later described their youthful escapade.

         A school mate and myself spent a vacation in and around Rawhide and Muskrat Canyon and like the fool things kids sometimes undertake, we decided to dig up the remains of Mother Featherlegs. So we camped nearby and proceeded to do this job at night. It was a beautiful moonlight night. This was, as I recall, about the summer of 1893 – 14 years after her death. When we removed the lid of this homemade pine coffin, her features were clearly recognizable, with a great mass of red hair. We hastily nailed the lid back down. After all those years the body had more the appearance of being slightly mummified, and the coffin was not  rotted.

            The story might have ended there except for the efforts of Wyoming promoters

Jim Griffith and Bob Arrow, who concocted the idea of a monument and dedication ceremony for Mother Featherlegs, in conjunction with a 1964 reenactment of the Denver to Deadwood stage run.

            On May 17, 1964, former Deadwood Police Chief Lee Karas drove the historic stagecoach up the old Cheyenne-Black Hills trail to the gravesite in the sagebrush and cactus-covered back pastures of Rawhide. A crowd of several hundred people watched as the 3,500-pound, red granite marker was dedicated to the memory of one of the most colorful characters of the Old West.

            To cover costs of the dedication ceremony and monument, Griffith and Arrow solicited donations from the Lusk community. One of the major contributors was another madam, Del Burke, whose Yellow Hotel brothel in Lusk was still in operation at that time. (Professional courtesy, perhaps?)

            Before unveiling the monument, Russell Thorp, Jr., the same man who had disinterred the grave when a schoolboy, remarked, “I do not know what epitaph is on this stone for I was not asked to write it, but if I had written it I would have said:

Here lies dear old Charlotte,

born a virgin she died a harlot,

but for fourteen years she kept her virginity

and that’s a damn good record

for this vicinity.

              The pantalets draped across the stone during the dedication ceremonies disappeared with the stagecoach.

            In 1990, determined to retrieve the historic undergarments, a group of spirited Wyoming citizens, armed with a proclamation from the governor, descended upon Deadwood’s Saloon No. 10. In the role of Mother Featherlegs, EvaLou Paris demanded the return of her drawers, forcibly removing them from the saloon girl who was wearing them.

            The well-traveled pantalets of the notorious Mother Featherlegs – or a reasonable facsimile thereof – are now on display at the Stagecoach Museum in Lusk, Wyoming.

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