Clash of the Mad Madams

Alice Abbott vs. Etta Clark

The War Over Beautiful, Busty Bessie Colvin

Shot in the “public arch.” Illustrations by Bob Boze Bell


April 18, 1886

The beautiful Bessie Colvin is fed up. After a year of arguing over “extracurricular activities” and bad accounting, the star attraction at Alice Abbott’s bordello in El Paso, Texas, is quitting to seek better working conditions elsewhere.

Bessie’s also drunk. Sashaying through the brothel parlor, the angry “soiled dove” swears at the customers, telling them how foolish they are for shopping at “Fat Alice’s Belly Bazaar.” At the front door, Bessie informs everyone within hearing that the “prime cut will soon be found across the street.”

Storming out the front door, Bessie crosses Utah Street, heading for Etta Clark’s sporting house. Passing a trio of amused men, she mutters, “I’m not going to stay in that damned hooker shop any longer.”


Bessie Colvin, “soiled dove” extraordinaire. All images courtesy True West archives

After hearing Bessie’s tale of woe, Etta Clark readily agrees to hire the raving beauty. With gainful employment assured, Bessie marches back across Utah Street to retrieve her belongings. As Bessie packs her trunk in her room, Madam Alice Abbott comes in and demands to know what’s going on. Hearing Bessie’s avowed defection, Alice flies into a rage and tries to slap her, but Bessie ducks the blow and flees the premises.

Alice first sends two of her other girls to retrieve her errant prostitute, but when they return empty-handed, she crosses the street and climbs onto Etta’s porch. Banging on the front door, Alice demands to be let in.

Etta opens the door a crack. For protection, she is wielding a yard-long, brass gas lighter that she has been using to adjust the gas jets in her house.

“What do you want?” Etta asks.

“I want to see Bessie,” Alice barks.

“Don’t let her get me!” pleads Bessie from behind Etta. “She’ll hurt me if she gets ahold of me. She’ll beat me to death!”

“She doesn’t want to see you,” Etta tells her rival. “Get out of my house.”

“It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference whether she wants to see me or not,” bellows Alice, as she flings her hefty body against the door, sending Etta staggering backwards.

Through the open door, Alice starts for Bessie. Etta takes a swing at her rival with the gas lighter. Deflecting the blow, Alice says, “I owe you this anyhow” and punches Etta in the face, sending the madam sprawling into her bedroom.

Alice grabs the hysterical Bessie by the wrist and begins dragging her out the door. Screaming and kicking, Bessie breaks free and runs back inside.

Retrieving a bone-handled, .44 caliber Iver-Johnson “Bulldog” revolver from her dresser drawer, Etta reenters the parlor. “Miss Alice,” says Etta, aiming the piece directly at her rival, “I want you to leave my house.”

“I’ll leave your house,” jeers Alice, as she advances on her smaller foe.

“I’ll kill the damned bitch!” cries Etta, pulling the trigger.

Clutching her groin, Alice screams: “My God! I’m shot!”

Alice staggers out of the house and down the porch steps, before she collapses in the street. Etta steps onto the porch and fires again, but she misses. 

Three of Alice’s girls rush across the street to carry their employer back inside her house. The fight is over.


Dueling Madams

Alice Abbott

Alice Abbott (above) kept a photo album of her days as an El Paso madam. On the first page of the album, Alice staked the claim as the “Best House Keeper . . . U.S.A.” The fiery and hefty madam (reportedly, she tipped the scales at 230 lbs.) also put the letter “A,” surrounded by a heart, on numerous photos in the album, possibly denoting customers and girls who were extra special to her. (Some believe the “brand” suggests lesbian status.) The photo of Etta Clark (below) was crossed out by Alice, but the fact that the photo was in Alice’s album suggests they had been friends at an earlier date. Evidently, Etta was an equal opportunity madam.

Etta Clark


Aftermath Odds & Ends

The summoned Dr. A.L. Justice determined the bullet had penetrated to the right of Alice Abbott’s pubic arch and passed through her body. No vital organs were hit.

The next day’s El Paso Herald mistakenly told readers that Alice had been shot in the “public arch.” Long after she recovered, Alice was often asked, “How’s your public arch feel today?” The phrase later became a part of Western folklore.

Etta Clark turned herself in to the police and was charged with attempted first-degree murder. On May 13, a jury found Etta not guilty on grounds of self-defense.

Incredibly, after the dust had settled and the wounds healed, Alice Abbott sweet-talked Bessie Colvin into returning to work at her brothel.

Recommended: The Gentleman’s Club: The Story of Prostitution in El Paso by H. Gordon Frost, published by Mangan Books.



Etta Clark’s brother parlor


Etta’s Weapons

Etta Clark’s gas lighter (below, left) was entered as evidence at her trial (note the “Exhibit A” tag still attached). Her .44 caliber revolver (below, right) has “Exhibit B” scratched into its frame in two places.

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