By Jan MacKell Collins

Prescott’s wild women—the harlots who worked on the line along both Whiskey Row and notorious Granite Street—were an interesting bunch.  They rolled into town beginning with Prescott’s establishment in 1864, and were making headlines shortly thereafter.  For nearly one hundred years, the wanton women of the town were subjected to the usual run-ins with the law, addictions, illnesses, bar fights, domestic disputes and killings common to any western town.

Throughout the west women of the night risked their lives daily, receiving little help from authorities who fined them, restricted them to one part of town and arrested them for their infractions.  An exception to those harsher cities was Prescott, whose lawmakers not only took it easy on the girls of the row, but actually made it legal for them to work.  The rules in Prescott were quite different from those of Arizona Territory, and their message was clear to the ladies: don’t make trouble and there won’t be any trouble.

While Prescott’s leniencies did little to quell the antics along the red light district, it was one of the best places a smart madam could make money.  These astute businesswomen made their girls behave, paid their fines, kept their blinds down and befriended officials.  Newspaper editorials often defended them in times of duress.  In their old age, officials and townspeople cared for them when they could.  Their obituaries were published more often than in other places, and fondly remembered their lives.

Prescott’s sympathy and support of their wayward women began as early as 1870 with the murders of prostitutes Mary Anschutz and Nellie “Ellen” Stackhouse.  Local papers called the killings a “dastardly outrage” against “defenseless” women, perpetrated by a “devilish monster.”  In Nellie’s case, Territorial Governor A.P.K. Safford offered a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her killer.

When another woman of the town, Mollie Sheppard, was involved in the famous Wickenburg Massacre of 1871, reports of her ordeal drifted back to Prescott.  Historically, Mollie has been exonerated for being a working girl.  Rather, she has been somewhat romanticized as a woman who knew what she wanted when she pulled her hard-worked earnings from the bank and left town.  Her subsequent involvement in the massacre and her disappearance have made her a figure of folklore.

When madam Annie Hamilton died in 1887, practically the whole town turned out for her estate sale.  Everybody knew Annie, and it was no shame for decent folks to come see the inside of her posh two-story parlor house.  Reports of her death and the ultimate sale of her belongings were treated with much eloquence by local papers.  The same went for “Diamond May” Ackerman whose death in 1896 generated a sympathetic obituary, as well as a follow up on May’s sister Lula who appeared to be the victim of arsenic poisoning.

Prescott’s respectful treatment of its shady ladies was consequential to some of the most lenient local laws in Arizona Territory.  As territorial officials created tighter laws over time, Prescott only loosely followed suit.  Following the fire of 1900 which burned down the red light district, officials politely looked the other way when the ladies ignored a newly designated district and rebuilt right on their former spot behind Whiskey Row.

The neighborhood also violated territorial laws prohibiting brothels from being in close proximity to schools and government buildings.  Authorities even made an exception for madam Lida Winchell, whose large bordello property actually extended into the middle of Goodwin Street.

In fact, when Lida died in 1939 her obituary read more like a tribute to the lady who made a fortune in diamonds and never hesitated to grubstake miners or to loan men money.  Gabriell “Dollie” Wiley was regarded in much the same manner. When “Gabe” killed her abusive lover in 1915, the Weekly Journal-Miner called her an “Italian beauty” and the story of her acquittal was joyfully splashed across the front page.  The newspapers and people of Prescott expressed similar sentiments ten years later, when Gabe sued a movie company for making a film about her without her permission.

After she died in 1962 Gabe’s neighbor in Salome, Bill Gabbard, remembered her fondly. “I think about her a lot. She sure was a fine lady,” he said. Gabbard’s statement seems to sum up Prescott’s feelings about their shady ladies of the past.

Local author and historian Jan MacKell Collins presents “Wild Women of Prescott,” a free behind-the-scenes look at the historic red-light women and the hidden harlots (prostitutes) in Prescott’s red-light district along Granite Street on Saturday, September 19 at 2 p.m. at Sharlot Hall Museum.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.