Chicago Joe - Queen of Helena, Montana
One of the best known people in Helena,
Montana during its "Eldorado” heydays was Chicago Joe.
Born in Ireland as Mary Welch in 1844, she emigrated to New York in 1858
and changed her name to Josephine Airery. Her hard working and loving parents provided her with every need, sending her first to regular school
in New York, then to etiquette school.
But, it was not enough for the adventurous
girl. When she turned 18, she headed westward on the train, landing in
Chicago. Out of money,
she found herself in the role of a "working girl."
However, when gold
was discovered in Montana and word reached Chicago of the booming
mining camp of Helena, Hensley decided to take advantage of the
"business opportunities” that a prosperous mining camp could provide.
At the age of
23, the perky, curly-haired girl established Helena’s first
house of ill-repute in a log cabin. Providing a full orchestra as
additional entertainment for her customers, Henley’s business was an
immediate success among her customers, who soon dubbed her "Chicago
The popular madam
soon recruited a number of new girls from Chicago, who also found
themselves successful as they shared in not only the profits of their
personal services, but also in the profits of drinks sold and dancing
with the customers.
Josephine Hensley was better known as "Chicago
Joe" to her Helena,
Montana admirers. This image is available for photographic
By 1874, Hensley was
doing so well that she moved her business into a larger building and
began to invest in real estate, forming a number of partnerships with
the town’s affluent businessmen. She married James T. Hensley in 1878,
and together they built a dance hall and the "Red Light Saloon". She
soon was the largest landowner in the red light district which
flourished between Wood and Bridge Streets, owning the "Grand”
bordello, the Red Light Saloon, and the Coliseum variety theater, as
well as having her hand in a number of other businesses.
But, prosperity for
Chicago Joe would not continue at the same pace. In 1885, the Montana
legislature ordered the prohibition of "hurdy-gurdy” houses. As the
"Queen of the Red Light District,” the new law sought to prosecute
Josephine first. However, when she was hauled into court, her attorney
pointed out that she didn’t, and never had, provided musical
entertainment by means of a "hurdy-gurdy.” She was found not guilty.
Montana's attempt to "lump” all such businesses into the catch-all
term of "hurdy-gurdy” had failed.
However, the writing was on the wall for
the thriving red light district. Josephine closed up "shop” for a
while and kept a low profile. Later, she reopened her business, hiding
behind the façade of a "variety theater,” where personal services
could also be obtained.
nationwide Panic of 1893 took its toll on Hensley and she found herself
financially overextended. However, she was able to hold on to her main
establishment which continued to operate until her death in 1899. At the
age of 56, Josephine succumbed to pneumonia. Her funeral was a splendid
affair that was attended by a number of Helena’s leading citizens.
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The "Grand" bordello at State and Joliet Streets was owned by
Chicago Joe during Helena's booming mine days. The
was torn down in the 1970's. Photo, 1942 by
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