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Historically Speaking: ‘Shady ladies’ sparkled in Southeast New Mexico

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Governer Bottingham with friends from Roswell, sitting in a vehicle in front of the Hotel Hagerman — date unknown.

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

For those of us who worked closely with Elvis Fleming, we knew we could always be entertained by one of his spur-of-the-moment, interesting and fun stories of local history.

One of his stories was about a house of ill repute, which was located not far from the Grand Central Hotel, back in the day — the Grand Central Hotel was located about where the UFO museum is now. Following is the story that Fleming told us verbally one day when we were all working together.

“James Hinkle was elected the first mayor of Roswell and after his election was determined to make Roswell a fine and respectable place to live. One of the first things he did was to make a ruling that there would be no brothels inside the city limits. At that time the city limits going east was marked by the railroad track. So, the brothel moved to the other side of the railroad track, and called itself ‘the town of Hinkle.’ They would then send a wagon across the railroad track to the hotel with a sign on the side stating ‘Free Rides to the Town of Hinkle.’

“Not unlike any settlements of the Old West, Southeast New Mexico had its share of these places.

“Many women went west to start a new life in the days of the Old West. When a woman became an outcast from society back east, it was virtually impossible for her to redeem herself. In the wild and unstructured new environment it was easy for her to assume a new identity. However, many of these women went back to their old habits and found themselves working in parlor houses and brothels. They could make as much money in a month as teachers in those days made in a year.

“From the beginning, many of these girls worked from a tent or a wagon that followed the early mining camps, or set up in towns close to cattle drives. From the lowly crib workers to the fancy brothel houses, prostitution had its own hierarchy and, like gambling, it became a moneymaking enterprise.

“The ‘red light’ district, it is believed, got its name from railroad workers visiting these places and leaving their red glass lanterns they carried to work … hanging outside these establishments, so they could be located if needed.

“Many of these women had a story/history of their own, from being orphaned, widowed, abused, or possibly just looking to escape a life of poverty or low income with hard physical labor. Some were also hoping to meet someone to marry who could take them from these circumstances.

Parlor Houses were run by a madam, usually an older woman who was a former prostitute herself and saved enough to open her own establishment. They were usually beautifully decorated, and they offered shelter, safety, money, food and clothes to these young women. Still, many of these women fell victim to disease, they were killed or beaten, or died from alcoholism or laudanum/opium.

“These ‘ladies of the evening’ were called many names in those days, from ‘soiled doves,’ ‘shady ladies,’ ‘jeweled birds,’ ‘painted hussies,’ ‘trollops’ and ‘strumpets.’

Following is from Fleming’s “Treasures of History IV”

“Some of the local ‘parlors’ were Emma’s Place, the Cement House, Bull Pen, the Blue Goose in Vaughn, the Adobe in Carrizozo and the Hotel Artesia in Artesia. White Oaks was also said to have one called Little Casino.

“Houses of ill repute were legal and a source of revenue for the towns in the early 1900s in New Mexico.

“Frequent passersby were often greeted by beautifully clad women who sat on the porch to advertise their trade.

“J.P. Church, a prominent businessman in Roswell who was an entrepreneur, owned a house of ill repute. Prior to 1900, before purchasing the family residence on South Kentucky Avenue and the first class Hotel Pauly, Church owned a house on South Virginia Avenue that was said to be a house of ‘lady’s of the night.’

“Two young girls who were walking by noticed the beautiful and friendly women. They found the women very charming so they dressed in their Sunday best to return to have tea with the ladies. Ironically, the two girls were the children of J.P. and Amelia Church.

“When Mrs. Church found out about it she wanted a divorce. A short time later the house burned to the ground. The rumor was that Mrs. Church sent her gardener, Joe Dixon, to burn the Virginia Avenue house.”

Following is out of the book, “Legend of Madame Varnish” by Henry James, and information on Madame Varnish by Roberta Haldane.

“In 1890, former burlesque performer Belle La Mar of Saint Louis’ French Palau’s, heard of the promise of New Mexico. She had earned the nickname of Madame Varnish because of her charm, quickness and card playing skills that made her wealthy while gambling at cards.

“Belle learned of White Oaks from a newspaper ad that described a booming gold camp in the Territory. Here, according to the ad, men wanted wives with whom to share their fortune. She and her friend decided to make the trip.

“Upon arrival their vision of fortune was somewhat shattered. They found a rowdy, roaring camp made up of unpaved streets, loud saloons, assorted stores, busy dance halls and brightly lit brothels.

“Not to be outdone, Madame Varnish, who perpetually dressed in red satin, quickly became a businesswoman and partner with Jack Price. They formed their own gambling house and brothel. She hired twelve girls, a cook, and a houseboy.

“The new saloon was named Little Casino. Her first order was to decorate with lavish drapes, lamps and beautiful furniture for the girl’s rooms. Liquor for patrons was the best. She ordered Three Star Hennessey, Gordon’s gin and rum, champagne, bitters, brandy, Old Fitzgerald and Charter.

“There was little need to advertise. Men hurried to see what was offered.

Madame Varnish was also called Gold Heels, because ‘she was the most memorable dancehall lady to arrive in White Oaks and was noted for her skimpy dress and gold slippers.’

“She excelled at card playing and gambling and was said to have become a widow who was forced to do this sort of work to provide for her three daughters.

“In a weak moment the county treasurer proposed to Belle, offering to take care of her daughters as well. After a stage ride to Roswell, a late supper and many drinks the five retired for the evening.”

However, the next morning only the female members of the entourage returned to White Oaks on the morning stage. When asked about the bridegroom, La Marr stated he would rejoin the family later. After the new husband arrived, he complained that his bride had stolen $3,500 from under his pillow on the wedding night. He anticipated pressing charges. Belle’s counter was to accuse the treasurer of absconding with county funds if he intended to charge her with the theft. The case was not pursued.

Belle took this money, which helped to open the Little Casino. While her daughters found ways to coax money from the unsuspecting, Madame Varnish, as her nickname describes, dealt an expert game of faro to further her gains.

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.