At age 150, Laura Bell still a madam of mystery
Some mysteries remain, but Cripple Creek historian Jan MacKell set the record straight on much of the life of Laura Bell McDaniel in a presentation Nov. 11 honoring the famous Colorado City madam's 150th birthday.
For starters, there's that spelling of “Bell,” not “Belle,” as it's often shown. MacKell cited several sources for that, including trial, probate and Fairview Cemetery records. One photocopy she displayed during her talk illustrated the time in November 1917 when “Laura Bell” was accused (but later acquitted - MacKell thinks it was a set-up) of stealing $100 of liquor from a man named Charles Baldwin.
MacKell had previously written about McDaniel as part of her 2003 book, Brothels, Bordellos, and Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado, 1860-1930.” She spoke Nov. 11 at the Old Colorado City History Center before a standing-room-only paid audience.
One major lingering mystery about the legendary “Queen of the Tenderloin” is what she looked like. No photos have endured. Nor are there contemporary descriptions of Laura Bell's personality, although MacKell has found sources indicating that she was literate, dressed “very regally,” donated money to churches, paid her brothel fines to city officials (so they would let her house stay open), made sure her “girls” behaved properly when they went out and did not encourage other females in her family (including her daughter) to follow in her footsteps (although a niece, Laura “Little Laura” Horton did later join her in managing the business).
It's evident that Laura Bell was wilder in her youth - after growing up in a rural Missouri county and seeing her father sent to a lunatic asylum when she was a young girl. In 1880, at age 19, she married a Missouri man named Sam Dale, and he evidently was the father of her only daughter (Eva Pearl Dale). But he was not with her when she showed up in Salida in 1881 or '82, MacKell reported.
Historical side note: On the trip from Missouri to Salida, Laura Bell met Billy the Kid. But MacKell did not suggest anything romantic; “she was better friends with his cousin, Dusty McCarty.” In fact, Dusty was to remain her friend for the rest of his life. He was the only survivor in the car crash in January 1918 that took the lives of Laura Bell and Little Laura, and effectively ended the era of Colorado City's ladies of the night.
In Salida, Laura Bell initially worked as a clerk, and her mother Anna Eliza even came west to join her, but in 1886 Laura Bell met Tom McDaniel, “who must have been a dashing man,” MacKell said. “He convinced her to burn her house to the ground to get the insurance money.”
McDaniel continued to influence her life, MacKell believes, as indicated by her address changing to the red light district of Salida (although there is no evidence that she was employed in that way of life yet). “Despite misgivings,” MacKell said, Laura Bell married McDaniel in April 1887.
The tale got tangled a month later, when the person rumored to have set the insurance fire (a former convict named Morgan Dunn) had a shoot-out with McDaniel. The fight may have been prompted, at least in part, by Laura Bell's accusation that Dunn had tried to kiss her. McDaniel shot Dunn five times, while Laura Bell watched, screaming. Her husband was later acquitted on self-defense.
But the event, on top of continuing rumors in Salida about the fire, may have helped doom the marriage. Laura Bell surfaced again in Colorado City in 1888, without McDaniel, and although he eventually wound up living in Colorado Springs, she divorced him in 1893 on grounds of non-support, MacKell said.
In any case, Laura Bell's career course seemed set by then. “She very soon moved to the red light district,” the author reported. “She found her calling as a madam.”
Morality aside, Laura Bell could not have been accused of running a low-rent business. Records show that the one-time charge for one of her girls was $250, in an era when many men would feel lucky to earn that much in a month. As for the women, MacKell offered the thought: “Those were times when you could make $2 a day as a laundress. If you could make $250 to $500 a night running a bordello, which would you choose?”
Laura Bell lived in Colorado City with her mother and daughter. “Her mother raised Pearl, and Laura Bell ran the business,” MacKell said. “I think that was remarkable.”
Laura Bell had several house locations from 1888 until she died, with the last being the “Tribley House,” in the 2600 block of West Cucharras Avenue. In a surprise after MacKell's talk, Westside historian Dave Hughes presented her with a framed photo of the house, taken in the 1940s and looking much like it probably had in Laura Bell's time. MacKell's research until then had not turned up a more recent photo of the house, and she thanked Hughes for the gift.
Hughes pointed out a historical note about the photo. The house's owner in the '40s was the People's Bible College, which used the building for dorm rooms - a bit of irony that Laura Bell might have found amusing.
Westside Pioneer article