Deadwood Magazine

The Girls of the Gulch


They've arrested the girls! The houses are padlocked!

The news spread up and down Deadwood streets that sunny spring morning, rapidly conveyed via phone calls, over coffee cups, across store aisles.

Rumors were rampant; facts few. And the question everyone asked was "Why?"

Why did federal and state law enforcement agents "grab the girls and dump them vans?" Why were padlocks put on brothels that for endless years occupied upstairs apartments on Main Street? Why were l3 women summoned to testify in Rapid City in a grand jury investigation?

City lawmen didn't have the answers. Deadwood's police chief replied "I haven't the foggiest," when queried about the May 21, 1980 raid. His office was given only five minutes notice before FBI and South Dakota agents raided the houses. His conjecture: "I suppose it was because we hadn't done anything about it before."

Located on second floors of buildings at 610, 612, 614 and 616 Main Street, the brothels, named in court papers as the Pine, Shasta, Cozy and Frontier Rooms, had operated openly as "rooming houses" and were listed that way in telephone directories. They were more commonly identified by colors of their street-level entrances, green, white, purple and beige doors.

Prostitution was, as Tevya sang in Fiddler on the Roof, "tradition" in Deadwood.

Just months after the first big gold strike in the northern Black Hills, the "girls" arrived in Deadwood with Charlie Utter's wagon train, accompanied by those notorious madams of the west, "Madam Mustachio" and "Dirty Em," veterans of California and Nevada mining camps. They were enthusiastically received by lonely miners of the lusty, brawling mining camp.

When the gold rush was over, the girls remained. Upstairs houses on Main Street became as much an integral part of Deadwood as legends of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane.

No city ordinance was ever passed to outlaw the practice, despite state laws forbidding prostitution. Several months before the l980 raid the police chief defended non-enforcement of state law.

On my level I haven't any budget. The judge knows there's whorehouses there and the state's attorney knows there's whorehouses there, but when you go to court, you have to have proof.

Only once before, in 1952, had the houses had been closed for any length of time. An ambitious young attorney, a newcomer in Deadwood, was elected states attorney and was considered to have a bright political future until he raided the houses. They 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 reelection soon after his abortitive attempt to eliminate prostitution. He lost.

Many, if not most, local residents hoped the l980 closing would end the same way. Support of the girls went beyond simple tolerance. A downtown restaurant owner pointed out how the houses boosted Deadwood's economy.

They contribute to the economic base of the city by the clothes they wear, by their medical expenses, by the cars they drive and by the many other items they spend money on. When deposited in the bank it has the normal turnover rate of five to seven times and that becomes a substantial factor in our economy.

"They're a public service, not a public nuisance," agreed another businessman.

A random sampling of public opinion found 42 percent of area residents interviewed were in favor of leaving Deadwood's brothels alone; 35 percent thought they should be closed for good; 23 percent were undecided. Vocal sentiment expressed at a public forum leaned toward saving Deadwood's century-old tradition.

Even a city council member couldn't find reason to close the cathouses.

"The houses do put us in a spot because we know they're morally wrong, but at the same time, they've been good for business and they've never caused any trouble. ... There are some people...good Christians...who are offended by the houses. But there are business people, also good Christians, who say 'I can't afford to lose that business.'

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

On August 5, 1979, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader put Deadwood's age-old "tradition" in the merciless glare of state- wide 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."

Federal participation in the raid caused the most speculation. Since prostitution is not a federal crime, the FBI would not have bothered the hookers unless more serious criminal offenses were suspected.

They had apparently been under legal scrutiny for at least two years. An affidavit in court records from the state Department of Criminal Investigation dated back to May 1978.

One source told the Associated Press a federal grand jury was probing organized crime links to prostitution and the 1978 murder of a Kansas City man in Pennington County. Drugs, stolen goods violations and "white slavery" were also mentioned. One prostitute claimed teenage girls, as young as l4 or 15, had been sold by outlaw biker gang members into at least one of the houses.

Many local defenders of the prostitutes may not have been totally aware of some of the more nefarious activities in those upstairs rooms.

A former Lead resident recalls visiting the houses with other underage friends and, on one memorable occasion, being abruptly turned away from the back entrance with the warning, "The boys from Chicago are in." Before the back door was closed in their faces, he clearly recognized the distinctive odor of marijuana in heavy smoke clouds that permeated the back hallway.

After the l980 raid, most of the out-of-work girls faded into obscurity, although Purple Door madam Pam 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," Ms. Holliday admitted she sometimes had to discourage bar patrons seeking to purchase more than a beer.

They ought to know I wouldn't try and do that again. I just tell them, 'Hey, I don't know where the girls are.' It's a part of my life that's over. If I was supposed to be a madam, I would still be in Deadwood.

Insisting she was just a working girl, trying to pay for mounting legal bills while awaiting trial, Pam commented, "There's not much call for a madam at the local unemployment office."

Her tenure as a legitimate businesswoman ended with a conviction and subsequent prison sentence for tax evasion.

Another "girl" moved to Nevada to continue practicing the profession she knew best. She got out of the business in 1981 and returned to Deadwood where, in the late l980s, she conducted tourists through her former place of employment.

After watching a national television production featuring Deadwood, "April" phoned the Bullock Hotel from her present East Coast home. She told the desk clerk she had worked at the Green Door in the early 70s and was amazed to see how much the town had changed in the past 20 years.

The girls of the gulch may be gone, but they are certainly not forgotten in the town where prostitution was so closely interwoven into the fabric of daily life.

Deadwood not only respects old traditions -- it celebrates them -- in parades, musical revues and stories endlessly re-told.

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Copyright 1997  Deadwood Magazine

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