The Painted Ladies of Deadwood Gulch

Madam Dora DuFran – The Black Hills’ Leading Madam

Dora DuFran

Dora DuFran

Though the vast majority of the many “sporting girls” who worked in Deadwood remain nameless, others were more notable, such as Madame Dora DuFran. An immediate success once she arrived in Deadwood, she continued to build her business until she soon had “branch” houses in Sturgis, Rapid City, and Belle Fourche.

Born in England, Dora eventually immigrated to Nebraska with her parents. A good-looking girl in her youth, she arrived in Rapid City going by the name of Amy Helen Dorothy Bolshow and began to work as a dancehall girl. However, by the time the gold rush was on in Deadwood, she had obviously “promoted” herself to a full-scale madam.

Sometime after moving to Deadwood, she married a man named Joseph DuFran, a personable gentleman gambler, who not only wasn’t bothered by her profession, but helped her to grow her business.

In her early days in Deadwood, she became a friend and occasional employer to Calamity Jane, who sometimes worked as a prostitute. She was also said to have had a “heart of gold,” often providing nursing services to those that needed it and helping the poverty-stricken.

One of Dora’s most popular houses called “Diddlin’ Dora’s,” was in Belle Fourche on Fifth Avenue.  However, the street was so lined with saloons, with brothels on the second stories, it was more commonly referred to as “Saloon Street” by the many cowboys who frequented its businesses.  Diddlin’ Dora’s advertised itself as “Three D’s – Dining, Drinking, and Dancing – a place where you can bring your mother.”  And though the cowboys frequented the popular place, most just wanted to “get down to business,” with at least one man remarking, “I wouldn’t want my mother to know I had ever been there.”

By the turn of the century, Dora was still going strong when a worn-out Calamity Jane returned to the Black Hills for the last time in 1903.  In the final stages of raging alcoholism and carrying her pathetically few belongings in a dilapidated old suitcase, she found refuge at Madam DuFran’s brothel in Belle Fourche.  For the next few months, Jane earned her keep by cooking and doing the laundry for Dora’s brothel girls before she died on August 2, 1903.

In 1909, Dora’s husband Joseph died at the age of 47 and was buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery. Afterward, Dora returned to Rapid City, where she set up another brothel that was wildly popular, especially during the Prohibition years, as it also served as a speakeasy.  One often-repeated story of those prosperous times was when a flood stranded a number of Rapid City businessmen at Dora’s brothel.  When their wives heard the shocking news, they reportedly confronted their husbands with a host of weaponry including rolling pins and umbrellas once the water had receded and the men were able to escape.

Dora DuFran died of heart failure at the age of 60 on August 5, 1934, she was buried at Mount Moriah next to her husband and a beloved pet parrot who had preceded her in death. Her obituary in the Black Hills Pioneer mourned the passing of “a noted social worker.”  Her grave is marked by four urns that feature grinning imps, symbolizing the four brothels that she had owned.

Mollie Johnson – Queen of the Blondes

Known as “Queen of the Blondes” in Deadwood’s early days, Mollie Johnson ran a brothel at the corner of Sherman and Lee Streets. Johnson had a knack for flaunting her profession by renting a $10 an-hour carriage and riding up and down the main streets of the camp, snubbing not only the few “proper ladies” that might be out on the streets of Deadwood, but also the other “sporting ladies” who didn’t work for her, were not as prosperous, or, in her opinion, were not as beautiful.

Her antics soon made her a popular headline item in the many newspapers of Deadwood, who would scorn her one day and tell of her every little activity the next.

Her first appearance in the local news was in February 1878 when she married “Dutch Ni**er” Lew Spencer, a black minstrel and comedian, who was playing at the Bella Union Theater. This came as a big surprise to Lew’s friends who just couldn’t picture him as a married man. However, their “marriage” was anything but typical, as Mollie continued her profession, and as the camp watched, didn’t “act” much like any other married woman.

Working for Mollie were three golden-haired protégés, whom she lead about town in her many activities – Ida Clark, Ida Cheplan, and Jennie Duchesneau.  1878 was a busy year for her and “the girls” as Mollie hosted a number of dances and “balls” in the firehouse, and in various warehouses in the camp. Though the newspapers reported these events as “parties” and “grand dances,” they were, no doubt, marketing opportunities for the “business.”

On another occasion, the tabloids of Deadwood told of a buggy race between her girls that occurred on the flat prairie between Crook City and Deadwood.  Evidently, when Mollie and the rest of the women attended a baseball game at Fort Meade, they abundantly imbibed of the “hooch” and the next thing you know, they had rented two light buggies and decided to race. However, with the women’s lack of driving experience and in their drunken state, the two buggies soon collided in a heap of petticoats and splinters.

The papers were also quick to note any incident between Mollie and the rival “houses” in the camp, often attempting to create a “catfight” between them by printing material that was seemingly inaccurate or exaggerated.  On one occasion, when the Times reported the arrest of three of Mollie’s competitors for selling liquor without a license, they accused Mollie of providing the information that got them arrested. The article read, in part:

“[Mollie] 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 very next day an incensed Mollie sent a note to the Times 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.”

Soiled Dove

Soiled Dove

As Mollie and her “ladies” went on about their business in Deadwood, the minstrel, “Dutch Ni**er” Lew Spencer, traveled to Denver, Colorado. Imagine Mollie’s surprise when the newspapers reported in 1879 that her husband, Lew Spencer, had fatally shot his “wife” in Denver. Spencer was sent to prison for the offense, but would later be released and go on to record the earliest known version of A Hot Time in the Old Town in 1896.

Obviously undaunted, Mollie went on about throwing her raucous parties for her admiring and paying friends. Though scorned by many in Deadwood and arrested several times for selling liquor without a license, Mollie’s business continued to thrive up until that November day in 1879, when much of Deadwood would burn to the ground.

As the fire was spreading, Mollie had ample time to remove her furniture and possessions from the “house” on the corner of Sherman and Lee Streets. However, she refused to move anything until one of her “girls” named Jennie Phillips was “safe.”  While this might not sound unusual at first glance, poor “Jennie” was already dead, having passed away the day before and resting in a coffin in Mollie’s parlor. As the roof of Mollie’s house burst into flames, Jennie’s coffin was safely brought out and Mollie lost everything.

Wasting no time, Mollie started up once again, but within the next year would be plagued by two more fires – one in the chimney, and another, in an upstairs bedroom. But these mishaps failed to shut her down, as the 1880 territorial census reports that Mollie Johnson was running a boarding house, where she and five other young ladies resided. The also reported that she was born in Alabama, was a widow, and was 27 years old at the time.

The newspapers continued to report her antics and grand balls for the next two years, until a final headline tells that Mollie Johnson left Deadwood in January 1883.  Of what happened to Ms. Johnson beyond Deadwood, is seemingly lost in history.

Inez Sexton – Escaping the Trade

Another woman who made herself notable for not joining the ranks of the soiled doves was Inez Sexton. In the early 1880s, Sexton made the dire mistake of falling for Al Swearengen’s ruse to attract women to the Gem Theatre. The scoundrel Swearengen was notorious for advertising in the east for “stage performers,” offering high wages and paying to bring them west.  However, when they arrived, they would find that the real duties were something altogether different.  Virtually enslaving the often penniless women who arrived in the camp with no way home, Sexton, when she figured out that Al’s real intent was to turn him into a prostitute, gave him a piece of her mind, screaming, “Although my voice is for sale, nothing else is!”  She then stomped out of the saloon. Without money to return home, the respectable ladies of Deadwood soon arranged a benefit to earn the fare.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

Also See:

Rough and Tumble Deadwood

HBO’s Deadwood Series – Fact & Fiction

Painted Ladies of the Old West

Saloons of the Old West

Pearl de Vere – Soiled Dove of Cripple Creek

Women in American History

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