History’s Badass Bitches, part 3

So I’ve done one of these on the Amazons, and one on a Spartan queen named Arachidamia, but they were some of the posts that were lost, so I’ll have to rewrite them. Which I’ll do at some point, when I’m feeling productive.

Today, though, since it’s the 4th of July, I figured I’d be all patriotic and shit, and talk about a woman who helped build Nevada.

I was born and raised in Nevada, and I can rattle off all kinds of names and years and useless statistics, because dear god do we love Nevada history here in Vegas schools.

And don’t get me wrong, I love it, too. This is my home. And it happens to have a really fascinating history. We’re the Silver State. The Battle Born state.

We helped the North win the Civil War. We helped build California (San Francisco is a nice place, right? You’re welcome). We carved a life out of an extreme and inhospitable climate.

And by the way, when I say “we,” I’m talking primarily about women.

Prostitutes, specifically.

Because pretty much everything you’ve been taught about the Old West is dead wrong.

We were taught that gunslingers and cowboys and shady saloon owners were the backbone of society. That shootouts happened every day, and the streets ran red.

It was a bloody and lawless place, where only the strongest, toughest men survive.

And it’s all 100% romanticized bullshit. The West was built on whores and immigrants. End of list.

But it’s important to remember that in the Old West, sex work wasn’t seen the way we see it now. Whores were respected members of the community. Even in places where women couldn’t vote (many parts of the Old West allowed women voting long before it became a law, specifically because women were usually among the wealthiest and most influential members of any given community), they were still given seats on councils, they were listened to, their words and opinions given weight.

Which is why all that bullshit about women becoming cattle if society implodes drives me nuts. Because we had that here. Utter lawlessness.

And women excelled in ways that few men did.

Turns out, even in violent, lawless, harsh environments with no established society, humans are humans. The streets never ran red, shootouts weren’t a thing (the OK Corral is one of the bloodiest battles in the Old West, and a whopping three dudes died).

No. Nothing you think you know about how this country came to be is real. You owe your existence to Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, and whores.

Cowboys were nothing. Myth has turned them into these glamorous, romanticized “Man’s Man” types, but in reality, they were almost exclusively poor immigrants. Mexicans mostly, with a few Chinese thrown in.

It’d be like if, in 200 years, we decided to romanticize undocumented field laborers. Yeah they’re around, and our economy would be fucked without them, but they’re not exactly a focal point of the culture as a whole.

No, cowboys didn’t build the West. Whores did.

Because, particularly in mining towns (for which Nevada is famous), the men would get there and build a few shacks and a post office.

Then the women would show up, looking for work. Because of the nature of prostitution, they would quickly become the wealthiest members of the community.

And they would look across these sad little tent cities and say, “yeah, you know, fuck everything about that.”

They’re the ones who built things like hospitals. When they started having kids, they built schools and permanent family homes. They built the towns and cities we’re still living in today.

Go thank a hooker.

But when speaking about Nevada, everyone knows about Las Vegas. Today, that’s Nevada’s biggest draw, the thing that puts it on the map.

But before Vegas was a thing, there was Virginia City, up north, near Reno.

And the history of Virginia City is really, really interesting, but for today, I want to talk about one specific resident.

I want to talk about Julia Bulette.

Julia Bulette was a prostitute born in England, who came to America and moved to Virginia City. She was the first woman there, so she immediately set up a brothel and became the wealthiest person in the town.

Today, there are a lot of myths about her, and many historians have romanticized her, which makes it harder to sort through fact and fiction.

Some will mention her beauty. But in all honesty, nothing written about her at the time labels her as exceptionally beautiful.

They say she was tall. Thin. She had kind eyes and a warm smile. She was charming and funny, with a quick wit and an easy, infectious laugh.

She was average-looking, but she knew how to command attention and respect.

And she was pretty much immediately universally loved.

She had a soft spot for miners, and fell in love with the gritty, rough culture of the infant mining town. She involved herself in every aspect of that culture, and quickly became the unofficial leader of the town.

When an epidemic swept through, she threw open the doors of her brothel and personally nursed ill miners back to health.

When a fire ravaged the town, she worked tirelessly, right alongside the town’s fire brigade, for hours. Even when the men around her were exhausted, she kept going.

They later held a parade in her honor, presented her with a fireman’s hat, and made her an honorary member of the fire brigade.

And today, one of the only surviving portraits of her shows her with the fireman’s hat they gave her.

But she took the wealth and influence she earned, and put it right back into the town. She funded and helped write new training guidelines and procedures to keep firefighters safe. She wrote to and recruited knowledgeable experts to make sure the town would be safer for the residents (and as it happens, Virginia City developed some significant technological advances in mining).

As wealthy as she was, she spent herself practically into debt, funneling her money and power right back into the townspeople who followed her.

She loved the town, and the town loved her.

Others took notice, too.

You may have heard of Samuel Clemens. You may know him better as Mark Twain.

We don’t know how he came up with his pen name, but a popular theory is that he came up with it while in Nevada. Virginia City, specifically.

I came across one theory that Julia Bulette is the one who gave him the idea for the name. Now, I think that’s kind of a stretch, probably one of the romanticized myths that have sprung up about her, but Clemens and Bulette were close.

She had a purity in her that everyone could see. When she walked into a room, people noticed.

In January of 1867, she was found dead, strangled and beaten, in her home. A drifter named John Millain was quickly convicted and hung for her death (though he insisted, til his dying breath, that he didn’t kill her), and literally the entire town came to see him hang.

Mark Twain, who was too far away and couldn’t make it back in time for her funeral, made sure to be there for Millain’s execution, and was seen paying his respects at Julia’s grave.

Her funeral procession was thousands strong. Her body was transported in a glass-walled hearse (similar to the glass coffins in fairy tales such as Snow White). The firemen were next, followed by the Nevada militias, and then the miners, and then all the citizens whose lives she touched. The town closed down, to allow its citizens to attend her funeral (it closed down again when Millain was executed).

And her legacy lived on. A railroad honored her memory by naming one of its nicest coaches after her. Her portrait hung in every saloon and casino, and patrons routinely toasted her.

She was immortalized as Cherry Malotte in the novel, The Spoilers. She was the subject of countless articles, stories, and tall tales. One author claimed she was written about more than any other woman of the Comstock Lode (the silver rush upon which Nevada was founded, and helped fund the North in the American Civil War).

The Virginia City chapter of E Clampus Vitus, a historical men’s society, is named after her.

There aren’t many people who did more for the Old West than she did. She built Virginia City, which went on to revitalize the dying town of San Francisco. It became the richest city in the West, and one of the most populous.

Even though politically, Nevada has historically been split pretty evenly down the middle, and Virginia City had its share of Southern sympathizers, Nevada’s Comstock Lode was the greatest ore find since the California Gold Rush, which gave the North a decided advantage in the war.

It was Virginia City that gave Nevada the population it needed to qualify for statehood. Nevada, Battle Born, burst on to the scene in the middle of the war, a new powerhouse of political clout and funding (silver was just as valuable as gold back then) that helped the North win.

Julia Bulette, an immigrant, a woman, a whore, did more for Nevada history than almost any other single person.

But we don’t learn about her because she was a whore.

She, who exuded radiance and purity so blinding, the tall tales sprang up before her body was even cold, fueled by those who loved her.

She, who cared for everyone, from the wealthiest saloon owner to the poorest miner. Who accepted everyone, regardless of origin or background or the color of their skin.

She, who built schools, who reformed firefighting training, who gave miners a place where they could feel welcome, who carried a city of thousands on her back.

She, who was the heart and soul of that city. The foundation upon which it, and later Nevada, was built.

She was a whore.

And that’s a sin that will never be forgiven. She’ll always exist in the shadows of obscurity, despite the efforts of Virginia City residents to immortalize her and pay respect to her memory.

She wasn’t just a whore to them. She wasn’t just a woman. And the effort they went through to preserve her legacy is extraordinary.

And ultimately, they succeeded.

History tried its damndest to wipe her out. The antiquated, provincial notions about women and sex that were so prevalent in the east swept westward, erasing countless women like Julia.

But Virginia City fought back. They kept her memory alive. When the American political machine came through, trying to devalue every woman who helped build their communities, Virginia City stood firm. The richest and largest city in the West, built on the back of a prostitute, would not bow to what the other side of the country said it should be.

Though to be fair, I think part of why they fought so hard was guilt.

Y’all don’t understand. The town ground to a halt when she died. Stores and saloons closed. Flags flew at half mast. Bells rang in the fire station, a mournful wail that rang out across the town.

They were devastated. Crushed. Angry. They wanted someone to pay for the death of their matriarch. They found a French drifter named John Millain, and he likely became a scapegoat.

But I don’t think Julia would have approved of that. She knew how life was in the gritty Old West, but even so, she spent her life as a voice of compassion and reason.

I think she would have been disappointed in the town’s knee-jerk emotional reaction.

And I think, once it was all said and done, and emotions subsided, the people knew that. I think that’s part of why they fought so hard for her legacy. I think they all wanted to make sure they never let her down again.

And in the end, I think they did right by her. They kept her name and her story alive, even if it’s impossible now to tell fact from fiction. I think she would be proud of what they did, and the way Virginia City, her city, changed the course of American history.

She is truly one of history’s badass bitches, and because of those people, her memory survives today.