Pioneer Profiles: Pearl DeVere

Pearl DeVere, the most famous madam of the Colorado gold rush era, was a bit of a mystery. She is said to have had red hair and milky white skin, but no picture of her exists. Born near Chicago, Illinois in a small town called Evansville, Pearl (not her real name) was raised by wealthy parents and grew up to become a Gibson Girl, learning to sew while working for the Gibson Sewing Company. When she was in her teens, she became pregnant. Knowing that babies from married couples stood a better chance of a quality adoption than those of single women, Pearl decided to make a major change in her life by getting married and leaving Evansville.

Pearl married a man named Albert Young who understood her situation and decided to help her by taking her with him to Denver. Shortly after arranging for the adoption of her baby, “Mrs. Martin,” as she became known, gave up sewing and began life as a prostitute. Over the next eight years she made quite a tidy sum of money and got used to a rather dashing lifestyle. When the silver boom played out in 1893, she was done with Denver. She followed the call of “gold in them thar hills” to Cripple Creek. She told her family she was going to make dresses and hats for the elite gentry of the new town, but in reality she had a grander plan.

Cripple Creek in the early ‘90s was moving from gold camp to boom town, earning a reputation not just for the huge gold strikes that seemed to happen every day, but for the loud and lascivious lifestyle that miners could live once they struck it rich. Eight thousand miners crawled into dusty caves and worked all day for three dollars pay—a high wage for the time. When they were done, miners might seek some female company, and they could find it right over the hill on Meyers Avenue.

Any miner could walk down Meyers Avenue, Cripple Creek’s red-light district, and starting at about Third Street would have his pick of over 300 single ladies available for his pleasure. Prostitution was legal in Cripple Creek; it was heavily taxed and generated much of the income for the fledgling city government. Working girls had to pay six dollars a month in taxes, and madams had to pay sixteen. Usually the prostitutes didn’t have a madam, instead opting for a two-room crib where they stood in the doorframe waiting for their next customer. The cribs were segregated along ethnic and national lines: at the Third Street end were the French girls, then the Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, and Black near what was known as Poverty Gulch. Names like “Kitty,” “Doe,” and “Daisy” were painted on the wooden doors, and once a deal was made, usually for about fifty cents, the lady would lead the miner into the crib for the evening’s company.

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The Old Homestead shortly after the installation of a sidewalk. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Collection)

Not so for the former Mrs. Martin. Shortly after moving to Cripple Creek and changing her name to Pearl DeVere, this up-and-coming madam opened an opulent bordello featuring the most exquisite girls to be found. Calling it the Old Homestead, this parlor house across the street from the cribs soon became known as the place for female companionship. Male guests at the Homestead had to pass a background check, provide a list of references, and pay the $100-$150 cover charge at the door. And that didn’t include the price of the lady, either—$250! That’s equivalent to about $9000 today. For this price, the gentleman got his choice of educated, clean women who were well versed in etiquette and had monthly checkups with the doctor, something Pearl insisted upon.

Pearl fell in love with a man named CB Flynn. The problem was, they were married to other people, so they conducted their romance without the bonds of matrimony. CB asked Pearl for a $2,000 loan to start a gold mill, but shortly after it was up and running, two great fires overtook Cripple Creek within four days of each other in April of 1894, taking not only CB’s gold mill, but the Old Homestead as well. CB immediately left for Mexico for another capital venture, and Pearl tried to forget CB and his debt as she rebuilt her home. Four days later, CB came back, broke as usual. Pearl gave him $500 and told him to hit the bricks.

The corner of Meyers and Third, after the fire in 1894. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Collection)

The corner of Meyers and Third, after the fire in 1894. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Collection)

After the fires, Pearl rebuilt the Old Homestead with a splendor that was previously unmatched. The new building boasted electric lights, a telephone, two bathrooms with running water, and an intercom system. Pearl had the place decorated with expensive furniture, crystal chandeliers, velvet drapes and wallpaper, and racy pictures of women. A gentleman could observe the girls in the parlor from a second-story balcony, then retire to a sitting room for final selection. Only the finest champagne and chef-inspired food was served to the guests.

Pearl really knew how to throw a party, and she had been planning a large one in celebration of another miner’s gold strike after she dumped CB. Rumors flew that the Old Homestead was to be decorated like a tropical garden with orchids, gardenias, and mimosas brought in from Mexico. The liveried servants would proffer the finest French champagne, Russian caviar, and whole cases of Wild Turkey. Two orchestras were to play the latest dance numbers, and Pearl would be wearing an $800 ball gown made of shell-pink chiffon encrusted with seed pearls that had been imported from a salon in Paris.

What happened next is still up for debate, but reportedly Pearl was feeling ill and decided to turn in early, saying she was “indisposed.” As many people did at the time, she dosed herself with morphine to fall asleep. She never woke up, and her girls found her early the next morning, June 5, 1897, dead at the age of 35. Some suspected an overdose, and some were convinced it was suicide. Knowing the addictive nature of opiates, the former explanation seems to be the more reasonable, but we will never know.

With Pearl’s wild spending habits the talk of the town, it was a surprise for respectable folks to learn that, after its time in probate, Pearl’s estate came out about even, and there was no money for her funeral. Her good friend and gambling-house owner, Jonny Nolan, offered to auction her pink ball gown to cover the cost of her burial. Just when he was about to start the process, an anonymous $1000 check arrived, with the stipulation that it was to be spent on Pearl’s funeral and she must be buried in the ball gown. I keep wondering if that check came from Winfield Scott Stratton, Cripple Creek’s mining king. He always did impulsive, anonymous things like that. Again, we will never know.

Pearl’s sister arrived to make final arrangements, but upon seeing the death certificate that listed Pearl’s occupation as “prostitute” rather than “seamstress” as she had expected, the sister abruptly turned around and hopped the next train out of town, denouncing their relationship.

Pearl’s funeral was more lavish than any other funeral in Cripple Creek’s history. A coach-and-stallions pulled a hearse that held her lavender casket, which was bedecked with red and white flowers. Thousands of people lined Bennett Avenue from the depot near First Street clear to the Mount Pisgah cemetery 2.4 miles away. Four mounted police were required to hold back the crowd. A twenty-piece band was hired to play hymns, but on the procession’s return from the cemetery, they played, “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” one of Pearl’s favorite songs. She remains the only prostitute in Mount Pisgah Cemetery to have a headstone.

At the turn of the century, Cripple Creek’s population topped 50,000, making it the fifth largest city in the state of Colorado. No other bordello even came close to the splendor of the Old Homestead, and after years of neglect, the historical society finally turned the building into a museum in the 1950s. Tours of the museum, available in the summer months, showcase the opulence that once signified the crown jewel of the seedier side of mining camp life and the “half-life” of its owner, the mysterious Pearl DeVere.