The Legend of the Fair But Frail

The position of the madame in the nineteenth century American West might well be the subject of learned monograph or doctoral thesis were the tastes of scholarship in universities more robust and realistic. As much of a personage in any frontier community as the sheriff, the town banker, the Wells Fargo route agent or the parson, her personal character was as various as the personal character of humanity everywhere. Her archetype would be a completely worldly wise woman, far gone to be sure in moral obloquy and a shuddering and detestation to the respectable female element of the community, but proverbially generous, usually witty and the object of an affection among the menfolk that was about equally compounded of familiarity and chivalry. The rougher the frontier and the newer the outpost of civilization, the more exalted the estate of the pioneer madame. As urban civilization advanced and women of a “respectable” nature became more frequent to the scene, the lower became the madame’s station in the social scale. But in the beginning she was half procuress and half amiable heroine to the frontier mind.

The Comstock’s first and greatest madame, Julia Bulette, was the sublimation of all these things. One of the first two women to brave the rigors of Sun Mountain’s shanty-town in 1860 – Eilley Orrum was there before her – she lived briefly and breathlessly to find herself the toast of the richest mining community on earth, the pride of the fire companies, a humane and compassionate strumpet who was tolerated by Father Manogue, and a Nevada notable who lived and died to become one of the imperishable legends of the Comstock Lode.

There are no extant photographs to tell posterity what Julia looked like, although a contemporary oil painting of a woman of undoubtedly voluptuous charms bears her name in a C Street saloon to this day, but she was undoubtedly Creole and there were visitors to the Comstock who seemed to remember seeing her in various mirrored establishments in New Orlean’s Rampart Street in other years. A lone practitioner of the oldest of all the professions in the Comstock’s early days, she rose to occupy the exciting position of D Street’s ranking madame with a rococo premises that was locally known, because of its comparative splendor I the midst of a growing mining community, as “Julia’s Palace.”

During the rough first years when women in Virginia City were numbered on the fingers of a single hand, Julia was noted for her domestic qualities as well as for her personal charms. When epidemics of what would today be known as influenza swept the camp she was a ministering angel among the stricken miners. Passing from tent to shack with what medicines the primitive resources of the community afforded she restored, among the ailing and even the dying, that hope which the mere presence of womanhood seemed capable of inspiring in the manly bosom of the frontier. When attack threatened by the hostile Piutes, it was for the protection of Julia that the men of Virginia rallied in arms and she was at all times the inspiration of their rough but undoubted chivalry.

Later when the mines began producing their fantastic riches and life became easier on the Comstock, Julia’s Palace was the cultural center of the community. Only at her table were rough manners banished amidst the service of fine wines instead of whiskey and skillfully prepared French dishes instead of the beef and biscuits of the town’s beaneries. She brought airs and graces where comparative barbarism had reigned and the miners accorded her an homage that elsewhere would have been the prerogative of a great lady. The final accolade within their social gift was hers for the asking and she became an honorary member of Virginia Engine Company No. 1.

Now Julia set about expanding. Half a dozen of the most delectable articles in trade of the leading wholesale merchants of San Francisco were in constant rotation aboard Wells Fargo’s stages over the King’s Canyon grade. Their arrival and departure in frequent and provocative shifts and in fountains of ribbons and bonnets were viewed with unabashed approval be the masculine element of the community, but the ever-growing element of respectable women held up mitted hands in horror and daintily closed their ears with outraged forefingers at mention of Julia’s name.

Julia, too, was becoming prosperous. When she took the air in the afternoon it was behind a matched pair of bays in a Brewster carriage imported across the Isthmus of Panama at great expense by one of her generous admirers. Another generous admirer had provided her with a sable scarf and muff in the latest fashion, by far the richest furs ever yet seen on the Comstock. When she occupied a special loge in Maguire’s, screened from the general view but an object of universal interest, diamonds sparkled at her throat and ears. Wells Fargo brought vintage French champagne for her table and cut flowers, the rarest of all articles of grande lux on the Comstock, were delivered to her door every day. The wives of the Comstock were not only morally outraged; they were consumed with embittered jealousy.

Julia’s Palace might well have been called “Julia’s bank,” for her ever expanding business, which by the middle sixties showed tangibly in a neat row of white clapboard cottages with red lights over the door after dark, was making her wealthy even by Comstock standards and able in her own person to disdain the favors of any but the most agreeable and affluent customers.

Then one dark night something that the respectable married women of the Comstock were pleased to call retribution overtook Julia. Three men muffled in greatcoats against recognition knocked at Julia’s door and were admitted, a circumstance which was afterward claimed to show they were known personally to the occupant of the Julia’s Palace. When they departed some hours later their arms were loaded with furs and their pockets secreted a fortune in brooches, rings, necklaces, and gentlemen’s gold watches which, in moments of insolvency, had been left as security in trade. The next morning Julia’s French maid, prerequisite of all best pioneer madames, found her mistress strangled and quite dead in her elaborately ornamented bed.

There was hell to pay in Virginia City. The law was summoned. There was talk of vigilantes if the law was unavailing. The best saloons hung out mourning wreaths and the façade of Engine Company No. 1 was all contracted in one brow of black crepe woe.

And Julia had the finest funeral the Comstock had ever seen. Defying the domestic thunderbolts and what might prove to be the wrath of a just Heaven, the town’s fire companies to a man donned their dress uniforms and assembled to march behind the bier of the beloved fair but frail. The Brigade Nevada Militia band was recruited for the occasion. A special silver handled coffin was borne from St. Mary’s, a concession permitted by the Church because of Julia’s notable charities and good works, and reverently placed in the black plumed, glass walled hearse which is visible to this day as one of the sights of C Street. Then the cortege set out toward a hillside a mile to the east of the town where a later generation of Comstockers would see rising the massive hoists of Adolph Sutro’s tunnel. Holy Church might be tolerant in the matter of last rites for the dead, but burial within holy ground was not to be considered, so Julia was laid away on a Nevada hillside above what incalculable riches of precious metals only the future might tell.

Then the band of the Brigade Nevada Militia marched home playing “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” It was a farewell worthy of an empress.

But even more cataclysmic excitements were in store as a sort of legacy from Julia to her beloved Comstock. The murderer, or what seemed to be a reasonable facsimile thereof, was shortly apprehended. His name was John Millain and, although he denied knowledge of or implication in the crime, he was found with some of the stolen goods in his possession and, in its present temper, an accessory was as good as a principal for Virginia City. A date was set for the most stupendous hanging Nevada had ever experienced. A posse of local architects assembled in the bar of Jacob Wimmer’s Virginia Hotel to draw up plans and specifications for a scaffold of esthetic design and regal dimensions. Committees were appointed to have charge of routing the procession to the gallows and other ceremonial matters.

The respectable women of Virginia City viewed Millain’s impending taking off with mixed emotions. By and large he seemed an instrument of Providence for the ridding of the community of its lady ambassador from hell, and Millain, in chains in the sheriff’s office, was fed, flattered and sentimentalized over in the best modern Sunday supplement fashion.

The day of the great hanging was a universal holiday. Schools were let out. The mine hoists were silent. Gold Hill and Silver City, their entire population on hand for the festivities, might have burned to the ground with no hand lifted to sound the alarm or ply the pump. Even Virginia City’s saloons were closed so that barmen and swampers might attend the ceremonies, and prudent and forethoughtful citizens provided themselves with bottles beforehand.

The hanging was a huge success. Flanked by a company of National Guard and riding in an open barouche from the town’s best livery stable, the prisoner made a stylish arrival on the scene. He conferred briefly with two ghostly comforters from St. Mary’s, thanked the good ladies of Virginia “in a ringing voice” for their favors of fried chicken, cupcakes and homemade preserves, and died in a manner which everyone agreed was most genteel.

Virginia City people to this day like to point to a spot on a hillside off to the east of town as the site of Julia Bulette’s grave and at one time the Virginia & Truckee Railroad remembered her with a club car named for the queen of Comstock courtesans. The gravesite is open to dispute as there is no marker, and the V & T’s club car has long since become a property of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, but among the ancients who doze in the sun outside the first station opposite the Post Office in C Street her name is still currency and her memory, vicariously green.

“My old woman’s grandfather knew her,” they will depose. “Said that Julia Bulette was quite a girl! Quite a girl!” Which may as well be her epitaph as any other.

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