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The Painted Ladies of the West

The lives and legacies of the Valley’s first ‘working girls’

By Karen Crowson

In the West, mining camps could be lonely worlds, abundant with harsh conditions and scarce with females. The dearth brought men to hand over their hard-earned money for just a view or touch of a woman’s undergarment, even if the undergarment was alone without a woman. Social mores were tenuous for married men on the frontier—it was considered rude if a man didn’t bring his wife to social functions so that other men could dance with her.

This Western terrain wasn’t appealing to the ladies back East, but as mining towns popped up in the West, so did brothels. Economics often drives morality, so houses of ill fame took root. Primitive and unregulated, they ranged anywhere from a tent, a shed, or a shanty, to a building, rooms above a saloon, and homes.

The women surrounding the industry of sex were known, by dictionary definitions, as prostitutes or whores, but other titles included: Nymphs of the Prairie, Soiled Doves, Frail Sisters, Painted Ladies, Filles de Joie, and Fallen Angels.

Epidemic OG Style

By 1865, a hospital report out of Idaho City revealed that one out of every seven people (both men and women) were contracting sexually transmitted diseases and by 1869 a prostitution tax was enforced as a means of combatting prostitition. By 1873, Native Americans were complaining about “worthless white men associated with bad Indian women, prostituting them, and leaving such women and their children a burden upon the Indians.”

Just a year later it was estimated that one out of 17 people in the United States suffered with syphilis. And by 1875, Congress passed the first federal restrictive immigration statute, the Page Law. It banned the immigration of women who had entered into contracts for “lewd and immoral purposes” and made it a felony to import women into the United States for purposes of prostitution. It included enforcement mechanisms specifically targeting women of Chinese origin and descent.

Some of the wealthiest women in the United States were prostitutes during the 19th century but wages that led to wealth were determined by the prostitute’s race and appearance. Women with red hair, as well as Native American women, were believed to be exotic or amorous and were priced higher than their blonde and brunette counterparts. These working women could be as young as 15 (coined Fallen Angels), with the oldest being in their 50s. The majority of the Chinese females were abused by their madams and masters and were not allowed to reject drunk, abusive, or venereal-disease-ridden men, and because of this, many of these women committed suicide during the terms of their contracts. A Chinese prostitute had an average career and life expectancy of no more than five years.

Pregnancy posed many problems for these women, who were given the name Soiled Doves, as it could also put them out of work for months at a time. Complicating matters was ignorance about ovulation and that any books pertaining to the subject of birth control were considered obscene. Toward the end of the 19th century, a physician could be subject to arrest if found writing on the subject of ovulation and birth control. And, although some things we consider contraceptives (like condoms) today were used back then, other methods of contraception included:

Spitting three times into a frog’s mouth

Taking something to initiate sneezing

Wearing special necklaces or amulets that could control the power of conception

Jumping backwards seven times after intercourse

There Goes the Neighborhood

The first established community in the Wood River Valley was Galena, and in 1879 it had a population of 800. Two of the 800 were women known only as Enid and Emma, who were known for “entertaining the miners” but eventually were asked to leave town.

Wendolyn Spence Holland, author of “Sun Valley: An Extraordinary History,” wrote that the pair supposedly retreated up nearby gulches that were later named after them. In the book, “For Wood River or Bust: Idaho’s Silver Boom of the 1880s,” author Clark C. Spence writes, “Every town had its thriving ‘sporting district’ conveniently located on a live-and-let-live basis, like that of Hailey on River Street. The girls were beyond the pale of respectability and legally or implicitly limited to specific areas. Some worked in fancy houses, some out of rooms in the dance halls, and some in squalid cribs just off the sidewalks.”

Located on Main Street in Hailey was the J.C. Fox store. This store sold lotions, jewelry, and dresses, and owner Fox would open his back door to the prostitutes after hours for them to shop, since these women were not exactly honorable patrons in the eyes of the public. Painted Ladies would also receive gifts from their customers, and the majority of garters worn were gifts from their most loyal customers.

By the mid 1880s, Bellevue had three brothels. In “Bellevue Bustled in the 1880s,” an article by John Kelley, he wrote that one man fell so hard for a Bellevue belle that he shot himself in the heart in Hailey’s old Mint Saloon, unable to bear the thought that she was in the company of other men. In Ketchum, brothels and houses of ill repute were located on the west side of Washington Avenue between Third and Fourth streets as well as the southeast corner of Main and Fifth streets. In one of the bordellos, Jenny Hardy would hang red curtains from her window as a means of covert advertisement.

In Hailey, brothels, parlors, cribs, and the like lined River Street between Bullion and Galena streets. Among the like was the Palace of Sin, allegedly owned by Madam Peggy Palmer, who allegedly was in a relationship with the sheriff. Many brothel madams during this time would give a portion of their earnings to local law enforcement as a means of law enforcement turning their heads to the establishments.

By 1941, Palmer’s bordello, still standing today at 19 West Bullion Street and originally built by Palmer and bootlegger Jack Turner, sold the two-story house to David and Epi Inchausti for around $2,000. The Inchausti family owned and operated the Gem Bar across the street just south of the home.  Customers flocked to the Gem for Epi’s cooking, including Gary Cooper, Colonel Sanders, Ernest Hemingway, Bing Crosby, and Janet Leigh, to note a few.

The following year, in 1942, Sun Valley received a naval hospital and any remaining Painted Ladies were asked to leave by the community. An unknown local merchant was quoted to have allegedly said, “There goes the mainstay of Hailey’s business. They always paid in cash.”

It was in 1972 that the State of Idaho deemed cities were no longer allowed to legalize prostitition. In 2001, Jann Wenner won the right to keep coins found on his property by former handyman Greg Corliss while digging a driveway at Wenner’s Sun Valley ranch. Estimates of the coins’ value ranged from $30,000 to $1 million.

The Painted Ladies of the West may be no more, but these women have left their mark on the canvas of local history.

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