Deadwood’s Dora DuFran

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Did She or Didn’t She?Deadwood’s Dora DuFran is credited with coining the word “cathouse.”

madam dora dufran cathouse deadwood joanie stubbs true west magazine
Madam Dora DuFran, who is widely credited with coining the term “cathouse” for a house of prostitution, is considered to be the model for the character Joanie Stubbs in the HBO series and film, Deadwood.
— Photos Courtesy True West Archives —

The people who knew her, and the historians who love her, consider Madam Dora DuFran one of the most lucrative businesswomen in South Dakota. Her legendary brothels in Deadwood, Belle Fourche and Rapid City made the lady famous. But was the enigmatic madam really the first painted lady to utter the word “cathouse,” known today as a reference to a brothel?

Let’s start with Dora’s humble beginnings as Amy Bolshaw, born in England in 1868 and brought to America as an infant. Original documents verify that she was still living near her family in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1883, when she was employed as a domestic servant. Soon after, according to historians, the 15-year-old teenager left Nebraska and arrived in Deadwood to pursue a career in the prostitution industry. It was in about 1886, according to Dora, that she met the famed Calamity Jane in Deadwood.

dora bolshaw dufran joseph dufran true west magazine
Prostitute and madam Dora Bolshaw DuFran, photographed with an unidentified man (possibly her gambler-husband Joseph DuFran), started her career in “sporting houses” at 15 years old in Deadwood in 1883. Dora opened a brothel in the mining camp, the first of a series she operated in the Black Hills region, including “Diddlin’ Dora’s” in Belle Fourche.

Therein lies part of the rub. Historians adore referencing Dora per the writings of Agnes Wright Spring in her biography about Charlie Utter. Spring stated that Charlie and his brother Steve brought “a 30-wagon wagon train of prospectors, gamblers, 180 prostitutes, and assorted hopefuls” to Deadwood in 1876. That story has often been intertwined with the tale that Charlie once brought Dora a wagonload of real, four-legged, tail-twitching felines to wage a war against the mice running amuck in her brothel, which she then nicknamed the “cathouse.” To complicate matters, one Phatty Thompson is documented as bringing a load of cats to Deadwood in 1877, with the intention of auctioning them to housewives with mice troubles.

The trouble is that Dora was not in Deadwood in 1876 or 1877. As for the origins of the word, sources are all over the board as to where it was first used. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1401 poem from somewhere deep in the United Kingdom titled “Friar Daw’s Reply” as the earliest use of the term. But  a 1670 dictionary first explained that the word “cat” is sometimes defined as “a common whore.” Dictionaries of British-American words do agree on one thing: a cathouse is defined as a brothel.

In America, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary claims “cathouse” first came into use in 1882, but declines to give further information. Another source says the word wasn’t used until 1893. Even Snopes.com, the mother of all things fact and fiction, has no idea. That leads back to the British-born Dora who, lacking any other suspects, may very well rightfully deserve credit as the first in the prostitution realm to use the word. But was Dora defining her own palace of pleasure, or simply the home of her newly acquired mouse-catchers? Alas, the West may never know.

Jan MacKell Collins enjoys writing about wild women of the past. Her newest book, Good Time Girls of Colorado: A Red-Light History of the Centennial State, will be published by Globe Pequot Press in September.

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Calamity Jane

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Calamity Jane: The Devil in Buckskins

Calamity Jane: The Devil in BuckskinsThe summer of 1876 remains the legendary wild woman of the West’s defining season.

calamity jane true west magazine
For this iconic photo Calamity Jane posed in her famous buckskins with a Stevens Buggy rifle for an unknown photographer, circa 1876-’77. Some sources report that the photograph was discovered under an old building in Deadwood.
— All Photos Courtesy True West Archives Unless Otherwise Stated —

The year 1876 proved the turning point in Calamity Jane Canary’s career. It began with two quick trips to the Black Hills with Gen. George Crook and his army in the winter and spring of that year. Calamity may have served informally as a scout (so a good source claims), but primarily she was a camp follower, hitching rides with soldiers and sneaking in among the teamsters and bullwhackers until she was discovered, chased out and sent back south. Several travelers on these trips and other observers reported her with Crook—and not always traditionally dressed or sober. One teamster described her as “dressed in buckskin suit with two Colts six shooters on a belt.” To him, she was one of the roughest persons he had ever seen. Calamity’s travel itinerary in the late spring and early summer of 1876 was chockablock, and more. In March she was with Crook to the north, in May back in Cheyenne, where she was arrested for stealing clothes, but was declared “Not. Guilty” [sic]. In early June she zipped back north for a second jaunt with Crook. Heading out of Cheyenne, “greatly” rejoicing “over her release from durance vile” [jail], she “borrowed” a horse and buggy. After overindulging in “frequent and liberal potations” of “bug juice,” she headed for Fort Laramie, 90 miles up from Cheyenne. By mid-June, Calamity was celebrating with soldiers from Fort Laramie. The rhythm of her life, already in uncertain high gear, whirled into overdrive in the coming months.

At the end of June, an encounter took place that would forever change Calamity’s story. In spring 1876, Wild Bill Hickok, newly married to circus owner Agnes Lake, and his partner Charlie (also Charley) Utter were in Cheyenne, making plans to ride north. Hickok would try his hand at mining, he promised his new wife, who stayed in Cincinnati. Charlie hoped to establish a stage line into the Black Hills. Soon after mid-June they were on their way. When the Hickok-Utter train stopped just north of Fort Laramie, the officer of the day at the fort asked them to take along several prostitutes, to keep them away from the soldiers. Calamity may have been among these prostitutes. One credible source describes her as drunk and “near naked.” Here in late June, in northeast Wyoming, Calamity met Wild Bill for the first time. They would know one another as acquaintances, and no more, for about the next five weeks. Members of the train gave Calamity a suit of buckskins for their trip into the Hills.

wild bill hickok calamity jane true west magazine
While it’s part of the legend of Calamity Jane in Deadwood, no facts exist to confirm her supposed love affair with Wild Bill Hickok.

Contemporaries made much of the dramatic entrance of Wild Bill, Calamity and other members of the train into Deadwood in early July, picturing them as prancing along the entire main street, greeting friends. But in the weeks to come Wild Bill and Calamity were rarely together. Then tragedy struck on August 2, when Jack McCall, a drifting ne’er-do-well, sneaked up behind Hickok while he was playing poker and shot him in the back of the head.

From 1876 to 1881 Calamity was in and out of Deadwood. In man-deluged, female-starved Deadwood, Calamity became an in-demand worker, hostess and dancer in the boomtown saloons and lively theaters. But a transformation was necessary. “Boys,” she told the men camped with Wild Bill and Charlie Utter, “I wish you would loan me twenty dollars. I can’t do business in these old buckskins.” The men dished out the money, and the redressing worked. A few days later, Calamity returned to the men’s camp dressed attractively as a woman. “She pulled up her dress,” one eyewitness recalled, “rolled down her stocking and took out a roll of greenbacks and gave us the twenty she had borrowed.” Saloons and all-night dance halls, theaters and the ubiquitous, indefinable “hurdy-gurdies” offered positions to the very small group of women as hostesses, entertainers and “dance hall girls.” Calamity worked in several of these establishments but mostly in the Gem, ruled over by the unsavory manager Al Swearingen, who turned the theater into a “notorious den of iniquity.”

deadwood south dakota true west magazine
Historians estimate that between five and ten thousand people were living in and around Deadwood when Charlie Utter’s wagon train with Hickok and Calamity Jane arrived at the gold camp in July 1876.
— Courtesy Library of Congress —

One observer claims that it was “generally well-established that Jane was a prostitute.” Perhaps, but unproven. No irrefutable evidence exists that Calamity sold sex in Deadwood. That she worked in houses of prostitution and hog ranches, where the main occupation was selling sex, and that she had several “husbands” without benefit of clergy is established. Still, no patron of the “joy palaces” nor any madam or worker therein ever testified to Calamity’s being an out-and-out prostitute.

During the Deadwood years, strong evidence suggests Calamity often served as a nursemaid for the sick or a helper for the needy. Granted, sometimes these stories of Calamity as Ministering Angel seemed attempts to balance harsh criticism of her unwomanly and socially aberrant acts. Illustrating this ambivalence are the stories of Jesse Brown and A. M. Willard, two early arrivals in Deadwood. At first they labeled Calamity as “nothing more than a common prostitute, drunken, [and] disorderly.” They quickly countered that negativity by praising her efforts as a nurse, particularly during a devastating invasion of smallpox. Other sources were more certain of Calamity’s positive actions. One memoirist remembered her as “the heroine of the Deadwood smallpox epidemic.” Another recalled her as “a perfect angel sent from heaven when any of the boys was sick.”

Editor’s Note:

“Calamity Jane: Devil in Buckskin” is excerpted from Richard W. Etulain’s Calamity Jane: A Reader’s Guide (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015). He is also the author of The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), which True West’s editors plan to excerpt as a full-feature cover story in the near future.

Knuckleheads!

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The Knuckleheads: The amazing story of how the adventurous Kolb brothers helped inspire the creation of Grand Canyon National Park.

emery and ellsworth kolb with their boats defiance and edith true west magazine
Ellsworth and Emery are shown with Defiance and Edith, the boats that saw them through their months on the Green and Colorado rivers from September 8, 1911 to January 18, 1912. Emery christened his boat Edith, after his daughter, and Ellsworth named his Defiance, because “nobody loves me.”
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

Long before Grand Canyon was a national park, it attracted some colorful characters. Men dug for ore and built trails and camps. Later they guided tourists and were noted for their storytelling prowess.

And then there were the knuckleheads.

a leap in the interest of art emery kolb true west magazine
A Leap in the Interest of Art typifies the adventurous spirit and drama that the Kolb brothers always liked in their photos. The person in the image remains unidentified, but several scholars think it is Emery, based on the hat and his known fearlessness in pursuit of the most dramatic photograph.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

That’s the word I used to describe groundbreaking photographers, Ellsworth and Emery Kolb, in my book The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon. I thought it best summed up their full-tilt, damn the torpedoes, you-think-that-was-crazy-here-hold-my-beer lifestyle. But my publisher thought it could be misconstrued by their family and asked me to remove it. No problem. I still call them knuckleheads at talks and book signings, and in my blog posts. Emery’s great-grandson gets a big kick out if it.

The point is the Kolbs went way beyond colorful. They were the real deal, genuine explorers who probed every corner of Grand Canyon, on foot, in the saddle, by boat and even from the air. In 1922, when aviation experts declared it impossible to land a plane in the abyss because of treacherous updrafts, Ellsworth hired a stunt pilot, climbed aboard as cameraman, and proved them wrong when they set down in the inner canyon at Plateau Point.

Yet it was the Kolbs’ astonishing journey down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1911-’12 that made them famous. John Wesley Powell first rafted those unknown waters in 1869. In the ensuing four decades only a handful of men had succeeded, and plenty had perished in the attempt. With virtually no boating experience, the Kolb brothers spent nearly four months in deep river canyons, traveling 1,100 miles, navigating 365 large rapids and numerous smaller ones. They became just the 26th and 27th men to accomplish the feat. Ellsworth would go on the next year to complete the journey, following the Colorado River all the way to the sea, just the fourth expedition to do so.

The Kolbs not only survived their river trip but shot a moving picture of it. That little film would become the longest running movie of all time, playing at their studio from 1915 until 1976. When the Kolbs weren’t filming history, they were making it.

The biggest beneficiary of the Kolbs’ work was the Grand Canyon itself. President Theodore Roosevelt, a Kolb friend and occasional houseguest, had used the Antiquities Act to designate Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Even that level of protection was fought tooth and nail by some Arizona politicians (primarily Ralph Cameron) who wanted to continue to profit off the Big Ditch. The Kolb photos, motion picture and lectures sparked a more widespread interest in the canyon. The August 1914 issue of National Geographic was commandeered by the Kolbs. The entire issue is filled with their words and photos detailing their life at Grand Canyon and river trip. Increased attention and growing tourism numbers shifted the political landscape. Grand Canyon National Park was finally established by an act of Congress and signed into law by Woodrow Wilson on February 26, 1919.

Young Men Going West

r v thomas and ellsworth kolb with a plane by the grand canyon true west magazine
On August 8, 1922, World War I veteran pilot and barnstormer R.V. Thomas and passenger and cameraman Ellsworth (left, standing with camera) did what many thought impossible by landing the first airplane in the Grand Canyon at Plateau Point near Indian Garden. They took off from the small Williams airstrip and landed on a makeshift strip scraped out by the park rangers near the canyon oasis.
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

It all began with Ellsworth Kolb’s restless feet.

Ellsworth, who never saw a horizon that didn’t seduce him, left his Pittsburgh home in 1900, with $2 in his pocket. He rambled westward, working as he went. He manned a snowplow at Pikes Peak, swung a pick and shovel on the roads of Yellowstone and Yosemite and served as a carpenter’s helper in San Francisco. He signed on with a freighter bound for China but before shipping out decided to take a peek at a savage hole in the ground somewhere in the Arizona Territory.

Ellsworth hired on with the Santa Fe Railroad so he could travel east to Williams, a town that lay 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon amid a forest of ponderosa pines. From there, nearly broke, he walked the tracks of the spur line to the canyon for 50 miles then finally flagged down a train. He paid the reduced fare and rode the cushions the rest of the way.

The Santa Fe ran the first train to the South Rim on September 19, 1901. Ellsworth Kolb got there just a few weeks later. Both arrivals would significantly impact Grand Canyon history.

kolb brothers grand canyon south rim tanner trail true west magazine
During the Kolb brothers’ first years at the South Rim, they explored numerous new and old trails. In 1909, they decided to treat themselves to a vacation, so they traveled to the far eastern edge of the canyon where they located the abandoned Tanner Trail, a steep, long-neglected sketchy route that leads northeast towards the river.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

Ellsworth fell in love and forgot all about China. He quickly landed a job chopping wood at the Bright Angel Hotel. When he wrote home, he regaled his younger brother with tales of the spectacular canyon. It intrigued Emery, who had begun pursuing photography as a hobby.

Five years separated the two Kolb boys as well as a difference in personalities. Emery was more practical, more cautious and he tended to be more intense than the easygoing Ellsworth. Still, they were inseparable as kids, wading into a fair share of adventure and mischief.

Now with Ellsworth living on the edge of one of the world’s greatest photo ops, it seemed only natural to pursue this artistic calling. In 1902, Emery traveled west to join his brother.

Running with the Mules

theodore roosevelt john hance on horseback in the grand canyon kolb brothers true west magazine
The Kolb brothers’ primary source of income was from taking photographs of mule riders, including Theodore Roosevelt (front) and famed Grand Canyon pioneer, explorer and storyteller John Hance (on white horse), near the top of the Bright Angel Trail.
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

The bulk of the Kolb brothers’ business was photographing mule riders as they clip-clopped into the canyon. The Kolbs would go on to photograph more than 50,000 mule strings descending the trail. They built a darkroom at Indian Garden, halfway down the canyon where there was fresh water, and created a business plan that would make hardened athletes weep.

The mule trains would pause for a photo to be taken at the rim and then start down the trail, only to quickly be passed by the photographer himself. After snapping the photos, Emery or Ellsworth loaded the glass plates into their pack and sprinted into the abyss.

They hurtled down the switchbacks, 4.6 miles to the clear spring at Indian Garden, where each plate had to be hand-washed once, twice, three times. Repacking the plates, they turned and charged back toward the rim. This time every step pointed uphill, always up, often in a snarling heat, passing the mules again, glass plates clattering as they ran, sweat stinging their eyes, regaining over 3,200 vertical feet—9.2 miles round trip. They would reach the studio in time to sell prints to the returning riders. This mini-marathon was often repeated twice, and occasionally, three times a day.

There are mules and then there are simply the mule-headed.

The View Stalkers

view hunters grand canyon ellsworth and emery kolb true west magazine
Ellsworth and Emery Kolb made themselves and the Grand Canyon famous through daredevil photography of the natural wonder in northern Arizona, including their famous series of images they named View Hunters.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

That was part of the Kolbs’ enduring legacy. They captured not just a landscape but a spirit. At the dawn of the 20th century, when technological advancements seemed to be shrinking the country, the Kolbs showed America that the frontier still existed— and they were living right on its raggedy edge. Wild places could be reached but it took daring and nerve, and they were just the camera-slingers to pull it off. Their mule photos were mementos, but their canyon portraits were lusty dreamscapes.

The Kolbs invented the selfie. They inserted themselves into many of their photographs as markers to the scope and perils of the Grand Canyon. Sometimes they are there to provide a measure of scale, a human speck perched atop a towering ledge, a living comma pausing the viewer’s eye, at the base of precipitous cliffs. But often they emerged as characters in a larger drama. They appeared in photos clinging to cliff faces, climbing hand over hand on ropes stretched from treetops and leaping across gaping chasms.

Their signature photograph is one titled View Hunters (featured on the cover of our May 2019 issue). It perfectly captured that reckless audacity that would become their trademark. Ellsworth straddles a high crevasse with a slender tree trunk stretched across the gap. Far below him Emery dangles in mid-air clutching a rope with one hand and a camera in the other. He’s angling for the impossible shot as Ellsworth holds the rope taut.

They turned the image of View Hunters into postcards and it graced the cover of the souvenir photo album they sold at the studio and through the mail. It came to define their artistic style. Hard to imagine Ansel Adams hanging from a rope in a crevasse. Or Grand Canyon painter Thomas Moran inching across a cliff face with a brush in his teeth. The Kolbs were adventurers who just happened to carry cameras.

The Last Pioneer

emery kolb ellsworth kolb hummingbird trail grand canyon true west magazine
Emery’s photo of Ellsworth clinging to the legendary Hummingbird Trail—using ropes, ladders and chiseled toeholds and plunges down a sheer cliff face to reach an abandoned mine shaft—was just the type of image that created the Kolbs’ enduring legacy of adventure.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

When Emery was born, the Apache Wars still raged across the Arizona Territory. The Earps and Doc Holiday had not yet shot it out with the Clantons and McLaurys in a vacant lot near the OK Corral in Tombstone. He lived long enough to witness every Apollo moon landing. Emery Kolb died December 11, 1976. He was 95.

Kolb Studio

kolb brothers photography studio grand canyon south rim bright angel trail true west magazine
The Kolb Brothers’ 1911–’12 Colorado River trip brought them a measure of fame, which they promoted at their studio on the South Rim near Bright Angel Trail. They became the 26th and 27th men to row the Grand Canyon and they were the first to record it in a motion picture.
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

The Kolb Studio remains. The wood frame building originally constructed by the two young novices in 1904 on an eyebrow ledge, affixed to the world’s greatest erosional masterpiece, still hangs on at the head of Bright Angel Trail. There’s a lesson in tenacity there somewhere.

The original little two-story structure grew and sprawled and now cascades down the cliff face. This wooden aerie has teetered and tottered and swayed with every breath the canyon took for over a hundred years.

Now beautifully restored by the Grand Canyon Conservancy and operated as a retail outlet and exhibition space, the Kolb Studio perches on the edge of a wilderness of towers and temples, pinnacles and promontories—a cathedral of light and stone and sky. It sits on the shore of an ocean of shadows and shapes. Clouds sweep the porch and ravens swoop past the basement door. Clusters of stars peek in the windows each night and the moon uses the roof for a footrest. And the simple rotation of the earth, the rising and setting of the sun, floods the studio with a crescendo of shimmering color, both eloquent and scandalous. Every day. The Kolb Studio is the only house still standing that has the entire Grand Canyon for a front yard.

Ellsworth and Emery may have been knuckleheads but, holy mackerel, they knew how to live!

Editor’s Note

“Knuckleheads” is an excerpt from Roger Naylor’s The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon, published by the Grand Canyon Conservancy, the nonprofit partner of Grand Canyon National Park. Thanks to Roger Naylor, Grand Canyon Conservancy, Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection and Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library, Kolb Collection for sharing the images and excerpts with True West.

Roger Naylor is a travel writer who hates to travel—at least anywhere beyond the Southwest. He spends his days rambling around Arizona and writing about what he finds. In 2018, he was inducted into the Arizona Tourism Hall of Fame. He is the author of several books, including Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers, Arizona Kicks on Route 66 and Death Valley: Hottest Place on Earth.