Pioneer Profiles: Laura Bell McDaniel

Laura Bell McDaniel, known as the “Queen of the Colorado City Tenderloin,” was a pioneer not just because she was an early resident of Colorado City, but because, as the city’s premier madam, she was an anomaly among the soiled doves. She used her given name, she kept in close contact with her family, and she conducted business with some of the most respected people in Colorado Springs.

Born in Missouri in 1861 to farmers, Laura Bell later married and moved to Salida, Colorado, where she made a living as a laundress. Her daughter, Eva Pearl, was born there. Somewhat later Pearl’s father left the picture, and Laura Bell met John Thomas “Tom” McDaniel, who may have introduced her to the seedier side of life. It was only after meeting him that she became involved in insurance fraud and prostitution.

While she was in Leadville with Tom, her heavily-insured house burned down. She got a large insurance settlement. It was determined that a boarder at the house, Morgan Dunn, set the fire. Later, Laura Bell accused Dunn of kissing her, which led to an argument between him and Tom. Tom shot him five times, but was found innocent of murder, claiming self-defense. Many conflicting stories were reported, so it’s hard to tell what really happened. Laura Bell and Tom divorced in 1893.

Laura Bell moved to Colorado City, living near the jail on Cucharras Street, just one block away from Colorado Avenue. She was rumored to have had affairs with many prominent businessmen in town, including Charles Tutt, Spencer Penrose’s real estate business partner. She opened her “business” as Bell McDaniel, and her mother moved nearby so Laura Bell could visit her sister and daughter. This was a favorable arrangement, since Laura Bell contributed significantly to the upkeep of both households.

Laura Bell started seeing a man named John “Prairie Dog” O’Byrne, so named because he kept a prairie dog in a cage in his wagon. When not transporting people or goods between Cripple Creek, Colorado Springs, Colorado City and occasionally Denver, O’Byrne would take the prairie dog out of its cage and pet it. Perhaps the most unusual thing about O’Byrne was that instead of horses pulling his wagon, he trained two fully-antlered elks, named Thunder and Buttons, to pull it. He bragged that he could get people between Colorado Springs and Colorado City faster than any other hack service. In the winter, he replaced the hack’s wheels with runners, and drove people up and down Colorado Avenue. It must have been quite a sight.

In the winter of 1909, two fires swept through the Red Light District of Colorado City; known as the “Crimson Fire,” it started in the minority section of the brothels and quickly moved to nearby buildings because it was very windy that night. An interesting story of this fire is related by Carrie Hunt Beard in Colorado Gold Rush Days, in which she quotes from an article called, “It Happened on a Windy Night,” written by her cousin, Clarion Taylor, who was a witness to the fire:

“[I] had opportunity to observe the deeds of Jack Diamond [a firefighter] and his worthy neighbors so intent on saving life and property. During the midst of the fire, when all looked hopeless, [I] glanced at the preacher to see his reaction and heard him proclaim, ‘Thank God for this fire and the destruction of the red light district.’ The girls were shivering and scantily attired; some with blankets around them watching what little they possessed going up in flames. That, my friend, was too much, much too much for valiant Jack Diamond. In one fast pass, he turned the full force of the hose on Mr. Preacher and let him have it with fervency and power, if not with prayer. You can imagine what happened to the Reverend Mr. B—-. Within a matter of seconds he was a sheet of ice—a la ice statue. It might have been a cruel thing to do; I’ll leave that surmise to you, especially on a below zero night—but I confess that in spite of the night’s tragedy, here and there among my neighbors I could discern a spark of enjoyment. Needless to say, the Reverend Mr. B—- hastily retreated to his cloistered sanctuary—possibly to pray, possibly to thaw out.”

It was unseemly for a man to be seen crossing Colorado Avenue from the legitimate businesses on the north side of the street to the seedier gambling dens, brothels, and saloons on the south side of the street, so an elaborate tunnel system was constructed so that a gentleman could go into a business on the north side, go through the tunnel, and enter his business of choice on the other side. Laura Bell had just such a tunnel that led from a local saloon right into her parlor house. Although the fire of 1909 burned it down, she got an insurance settlement and rebuilt it in brick this time, to the tune of $10,000. The building is now a care center.

As a madam, Laura Bell was subjected to periodic fines, and she was watched constantly by law enforcement. To combat this, she married Herbert Berg, the financial editor for The Gazette, and hired William Lombard, a prominent lawyer, to represent her. It didn’t help. In 1917 Colorado City was annexed to Colorado Springs, and shortly after this she was accused of accepting stolen liquor that had supposedly been stolen from Charles Baldwin, owner of Claremont (now the Colorado Springs School) in the Broadmoor. It was later proven to have been stolen and stashed at her home without her knowledge.

A few days later, she and her niece, also named Laura, drove to Denver with a (supposedly) blind man, taking him there for medical treatment. On the way home, the car left the road at 40 miles per hour (a breakneck speed), and rolled three times. Laura the younger was killed on impact, and Laura Bell was brought to Colorado Springs where she died in the hospital of internal injuries. Historians still speculate about the cause of the accident. Since the only witnesses to the accident were the law enforcement team that had recently been with her in court, could they have been chasing her, or run her off the road? We may never know.

Both Lauras were interred at Fairview Cemetery; in 1921 the graves were moved to just near the entrance to the cemetery, perhaps as a reminder of how generous and benevolent Laura Bell McDaniel was during her life as Colorado City’s most prominent madam. People still leave flowers on her grave.

Photo By: PPLD Digital Collection: A brothel in Cripple Creek