Deadwood Magazine

Madam Mollie Johnson, queen of the blondes

By Jerry L. Bryant

Late in the evening on a hot August night in 1879, an anonymous Black Hills Daily Times reporter walked up Sherman Street. At the corner of Sherman and Lee, near the establishment run by Madam Mollie Johnson, he found pleasant cause for pause.

On the following day this article appeared in the Times

     At the dead of night when all nature is hushed asleep,

this reporter is frequently regaled, while on his way home,

by the gentle cadence of sweet songs which floats out upon the stillness of the gulch like the silvery horns of Elfland faintly blowing. Vocal music, wherever heard or by whatever produced is entrancing to this sinner. Hence the aforesaid sounds are sure to arrest his step at the corner and compel him to lend his ear to the mellifluent melody which steals out from Molly Johnson’s Harem. But he does not draw any nearer, for he knows that where the sirens dwell you linger in XXXX, that their songs are death, but XXXX destruction please(?); and he travels on, disgusted with himself because his virtuous life possesses such a skeleton of fun, yet wonders that such a voluptuous harmony is tolerated by the divine muse of song to leave such a bad place.  

          The article seems to echo public sentiment, yet poses the question of why, if something was so bad, was it allowed to flourish and flaunt a veil of sin for everyone to see?  Mollie Johnson, known as the “Queen of the Blondes” had a knack for flaunting it. Renting a $10-an-hour carriage she would drag the main streets of Deadwood, snubbing and sneering at all the soiled doves that did not work for her.

          Deadwood seemingly had a love/hate relationship with Madam Mollie. On one hand she would be publicly scorned, yet newspapers wrote articles such as one printed on February 7, 1880:

      The largest crowd of bald headed men we ever saw assembled in Deadwood, gathered in front of the Sydney Stage Office last night upon arrival of the coach. They expected to see Madame Mollie Johnson alight with bevy of banker’s daughters, but the coach came in flying light, and a more disappointed mob would be difficult to imagine. The reception committee took the girls from the coach near Crook and brought them to the city by private conveyance.

          Concerned would be a mild word to describe how Deadwood felt about Mollie’s business affairs. When two of Mollie’s girls ran away, it made the news, but were they cheering for the girls, or wondering what Mollie would do?

Then there was the great buggy race that occurred on the prairie flats between Crook City and Deadwood. Mollie and her girls attended a baseball game at Fort Meade and consumed a little more “Rosy” than they should have. The girls, in two light buggies rented from Patton in Deadwood, decided a little race was in order.

Something in between the high velocity of the buggies, a general lack of experience on the reins, the rolling nature of the prairie, and the alcohol content of the drivers, caused the buggies to collide. In a heap of petticoats and splinters, Mollie discovered one of the racing crew was seriously injured. With help from a passing citizen, one buggy was made fit for the trail. In a total stranger’s company, the injured Miss Flora Belle was conveyed to Deadwood for medical attention, “leaving the Madam and the other golden haired sirens afoot upon the boundless prairie. In the meantime night dropped her sable curtain down and pinned it with a star, and our three heroines like Hagar were left crying in the wilderness.”

It doesn’t take long for news of this sort to travel in a female-deprived environment. Soon “three well-known young men of Deadwood, mounted on broncos, hove into sight and taking in the plight of the trio invited them to a seat behind their saddles.” The Daily Times noted that by the time the girls arrived back in town it was long after the “last heathen had bit his pipe a closing lick.” The Times also noted that Mollie, in her position behind the saddle, “did not resemble a fairy riding on a floating thistle-down. In fact she resembled anything else in the world but that.”

In addition to printing amusing tales of  Mollie and her girls, the Times also spent certain amount of time baiting the girls in hopes of creating a newsworthy catfight.

In one incident the newspaper attempted to pit three of Mollie’s competitors against her. It started with the arrest of Sis Clinton, Iva Redmond, and Edith St.Clair by Assistant Deputy U.S. Marshal Spencer for selling hooch without a license. In a brief accusation, the Times indicated Mollie had provided information that, “caused the corralling of her lascivious sisters, and it was the opinion of the average rounder that Madam Mollie is fixing up a good pounding for herself---by the trio of female sinners referred to.”

The next day Mollie sent the Times a short note stating, “I know nothing of the ladies referred to. I am the last one to do injury to these ladies, or as you say, my sisters in sin.” The Times countered by stating they were “glad that Mollie’s skirts are clean of suspicion,” but their information was obtained from “Hugh J. Campbell, United States District Attorney for Dakota Territory.”

We’ll probably never know if the Times was successful in starting a fight because nothing more was written about the incident.

Mollie was not afraid of Deadwood’s legal system; on several occasions she had unruly customers arrested. She always tried to follow up by pressing charges and sending the erring males to court. The cost of roughing up a prostitute was evident when William Ward appeared in front of Judge Colman for assault and battery on one of Mollie’s girls. Ward was fined five dollars and costs. The Times noted he was seen that evening “rustling around to raise that amount in order to keep out of the cooler.”

When the Times was unable to find enough fodder to enflame a ruckus between the girls, they tried to work up other newspapers with accusations about them. The Black Hills Pioneer ran an article received from the Cheyenne Leader about an incident occurring on the Number 3 Train from Omaha to Sidney and the Times pointed a righteous finger.

A summary of the Pioneer article related the following story:

When the train left Omaha Station on February 8, 1880, a young man and a young lady, seated at opposite ends of the car, met for the first time and proceeded to scandalize the rest of the passengers. For much of the day the young lady and the gent played cards, laughed and whispered to each other. Prior to meeting the young man, the lady told a fellow passenger she was on her way to Deadwood to marry an old beau who had come west several years before and had struck it rich.

Passengers who made it their business to watch over the young girl were amazed when the young man abruptly got up and went to his seat at the other end of the car. The girl requested the porter make up her bunk. A short time later the train pulled into the station, the young man got off and was not seen getting back on the train. The young lady went off to her bed. Several passengers that had spoke to the young man before he met the girl were informed he had property in Nevada and was on his way there.

The passengers began to talk, then decided the young man must have sneaked back onto the train and was in the bunk with the betrothed young lady. The conductor and porter were notified. They proceeded to her bunk, threw open the curtain and watched the young man tumble out in his red flannel underwear.

Comments by the Pioneer concerned the brashness of the young man , but  condemned the girl, whose exact arrival time on the Sidney stage was noted, with a statement about what action should be taken by the girl’s intended.

The next day the Times produced an article chastising the Pioneer for dedicating a third of its Sunday social page to the exploits of one of Mollie Johnson’s girls. Calling it “demoralizing Sunday reading for the family” the Times said it was obvious why the paper hadn’t “raised its editorial hands in horror.”

The Times habitually published articles concerning plights of some of the gulch’s citizenry. Right above this article would be a list of locals who contributed to charity, a list called “By the fruits of their etc.” and “Bread Cast upon the Waters.” Mollie’s name was always on the list and she was a known supporter of Irish Famine Relief.

The 1880 Territorial Census reveals something of her past. Mollie was born in Alabama. She declared herself a widow and told the enumerator she was 27 years old. The document also showed she was living with five young ladies, aged 19 to 27, from all over North America: Massachusetts, New York, Missouri, Michigan, and Canada.   

Local newspapers followed Madam Mollie’s activities with what seemed like stern concern, as she hosted dances and “Balls” in the Firehouse, or in this warehouse or that. While everyone seemed to agree she was a bad person, they watched the show and always stated that her get-togethers were ideally suited for the stranger in town.

Mollie’s first appearance in local news was in February 1878, as she was marrying Lew Spencer, a singing comedian at the Bella Union Theater. The Rev. Mr. Norcross performed the service, much to the amazement of Lew’s friends who somehow just could not picture him as a married man.

There’s no way to tell how the marriage went, or its duration, but whoever was Lew’s wife in 1879 was fatally shot in Denver and Lew went to prison for the offense. Local newspapers provide ample evidence that Mollie was very much alive and well into the 1880s, living in the Deadwood area and throwing raucous parties for her admiring and paying friends.

As for wife shooter Lew, Colorado did not hang him. After his release from prison, he recorded the earliest known version of A Hot Time in the Old Town in 1896. The song became so popular it was later used by Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders as a theme song.

It was a sad day in November 1879 when the greater part of Deadwood burned to the ground. Folks who were able to save some things packed them in trunks and carried them uphill to safety, only to have them stolen by thieves.

Mollie’s house on the corner of Sherman and Lee Streets received ample warning. She might have saved the chairs, the china, or perhaps the silver and glassware, but would not move a thing until she was sure that Jennie Phillips was safe, even though Jenny was entirely beyond saving. Jennie had died the day before, and was resting in her coffin in Mollie’s parlor. As the roof of the madam’s house burst into flame, Jennie was loaded into a hearse and taken a safe distance up City Creek where she remained until she could be buried the next day.

Who was Miss Jennie Phillips to receive such attention from the madam? She was not Jennie at all, she was actually Josephine -- Josephine Willard, the only child of a Chicago family whose father ran a successful business in saddlery hardware. By all accounts she had cast off a life of luxury to end up as one of Madam Mollie’s girls.

The description the newspaper published of the atmosphere in Mollie’s house on the day before the great fire is a snapshot of Victorian mourning:

   Upon calling at the house yesterday morning, we found the pictures on the wall all turned inward, the girls with grief stricken faces standing around like frightened children, and the Madam, who referred to the dead as “my little girl” bowed in sorrow that was evidently genuine.

           Jennie/Josephine was sick for only a short time. The only clue of the cause of death was a short article written a few months earlier, meant to entertain the good citizens of the community.

The news article explained that the keeper of the toll road just below Fountain City kept a cat chained near the road. On a warm July day, out for a Sunday ride, Jennie and several of her lady friends were coming down the road on their way to Crook City. As they passed through the tollgate, Jennie “espied the critter.” Reaching down, she picked the cat up and attempted to give it a kiss. The cat, unused to such attention, panicked and bit poor Jennie through both lips. Could this have been the kiss of death?

Mollie’s place was a total loss. While some merchants moaned over the loss of $3,000 or $4,000 in the fire, Mollie contributed $7,000 to the flames that day. Her girls didn’t seem to learn much from the Great Deadwood Fire. Exactly a year later the Times ran an article about a fire at Mollie’s place that started in one of her upstairs chambers.

One of girls was a little chilly and thought that by stacking her firewood behind the stove, it would be dryer, burn better and hotter. The stack of nice dry firewood behind the stove caught fire, then ignited the wall.

First on the scene was the South Deadwood Hose Team. The Deadwood team was just hooking up as the Homestake crew arrived. Meanwhile the investigating party had rushed into the house and doused the fire with a few well-placed buckets of water. The Times went on to note that this was the second such fire to start at Mollie’s house recently, the first being a chimney fire.

Sometimes it is hard to comprehend the morality of early day Deadwood. All the newspapers hooted  and carried on about sinful activities of various people or women of soiled repute.

When Mollie decided she and her girls needed a finer place to live and conduct business, she sold the old house to a hard-working woman who wanted to establish a boarding house. Down came Mollie’s traditional lantern and up went the new one that advertised “lodging.”

The Times immediately ran the following news brief: “A sinful place, a resort for naughty men, on lower Sherman Street, has a lantern in front of it bearing this unique device, ‘Lodging’.”

The next day the newspaper bubbled with apologies to the new owner, Mrs. K. J. White, “an estimable lady, who, we are glad to state, is keeping neat and respectable lodging rooms there.”

The Times went on to say they had thought Madam Mollie had put up the new lantern as a ploy to catch “Tenderfeet.”

With such episodes inspiring the daily news, who would have dreamed the Times would advocate turning two young girls over to Madam Johnson. But it happened.

The unfortunate young ladies, a Miss Pettijohn and a Miss Woodall, were hell raisers of the day on the Deadwood streets. The news article related that mothers of the girls had done everything, including chaining them up, in efforts to mend their evil ways. A promiscuous ball was arranged in Central City, which the girls attended. At the time prescribed by the mothers, the young women were arrested and conducted to Mollie’s Place where she accepted them as boarders.

The Times, appearing to justify such recruitment manners, stated:

  In justice to Madam Molly, we must say that she would never be a party to the ruin of a young girl. On the contrary, it is recorded to her credit she has assisted foolish girls by money and advice to lead a pure and virtuous life, but these young dames were all beyond aid. They were bad eggs, so bad that nothing could spoil them, and she accepted them as boarders. We are not so certain but this change is a benefit all around. They are now publicly known for what they are, therefore, they cannot contaminate other girls. At Madam Mollie’s house they will have to preserve external decency in speech and action. We cannot congratulate Miss Pettijohn or Miss Woodall on their new departure, but we hope now that they are in a house they will forget the brutal indecency they learned and practiced on the streets.

          As time passed Mollie began to travel and the Times either lost interest in her or moved on to memorialize the life of some other poor soul.

One of the last articles about Mollie concerned one of her trips. Mollie was Deadwood bound on the Sidney Stage in March 1881. Because of the time of year and the nature of road construction at that period of Black Hills development, the roads were rough and treacherous, in such bad state that some of  Mollie’s trunks had to be left behind at almost every stage stop. One trunk was left at Little Cottonwood Station.

Mike Haley, who had a band of horses at Big Cottonwood, went to Little Cottonwood on a drinking spree and proceeded to break into Mollie’s trunk. For reasons known to Mike, he gathered much of Mollie’s clothing and took it back to his place. Stage messengers, believing Haley might have been the culprit, went to his place and found the goods.

According to the Times, “He felt so badly over what he had done that he said he would not survive the disgrace. He took poison – strychnine – and as the coach passed there on Tuesday last he was in spasms, and has probably gone over the range.”    

 Author’s note: The following story was gleaned in its entirety from early Deadwood newspapers and represents some 40 articles. After the story was written a check of current literature turned up very little concerning Mollie or her girls. Thus, I believe what we have here is a fairly faithful portrait of bordello life in Deadwood in the 1880s.  The Sanborn insurance map of the 1880s shows an all-girl boarding house near the corner of Sherman and Lee streets. There can be little doubt that this was Mollie’s place.                       


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