Clash of the Mad Madams Alice Abbott vs Etta Clark.

Mad Madams Alice Abbott Etta Clark True West Magazine
Shot in the “public arch.”
— Illustrated 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.”

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.

Mad Madams Alice Abbott Etta Clark Bessie Colvin True West Magazine
Bessie Colvin—soiled dove extraordinaire.
— All photos courtesy Robert G. McCubbin Collection unless otherwise noted —

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.

Mad Madams Alice Abbott Etta Clark True West Magazine
Etta Clark.

Dueling Madams

Alice Abbott kept a photo album of her days as a madam of her brothel in El Paso, Texas (see interior of her brothel at left). On the first page of the album, Alice staked the claim as the “Best Housekeeper . . . U.S.A.” The fiery and hefty madam reportedly tipped the scales at 230 pounds.

Arriving in El Paso in 1880 from Louisville, Kentucky, Abbott was the first madam to build her brothel on South Utah Street, number 19. When the petite French-Canadian Etta Clark set up shop nearby, the two madams became friends…and then enemies.

The photo above of Etta Clark was crossed out by Alice Abbott, but the fact that the photo was in Alice’s album suggests they were friends at an earlier date. Evidently, Clark was an equal opportunity madam.

When Clark appeared in court for shooting Abbott, her weapons were admitted into evidence. Her gas lighter (top inset) still has the “Exhibit A” tag attached, while her .44 caliber revolver (bottom inset) has “Exhibit B” scratched into its frame in two places.

Mad Madams Alice Abbott Etta Clark True West Magazine

Lovers All

Madam Alice Abbott also put the letter “A” surrounded by a heart on numerous photos in her album, possibly denoting customers and girls who were extra special to her (some believe the “brand” suggests lesbian status).

Mad Madams Alice Abbott Etta Clark True West Magazine

Chippa, Edna, Kate, and Rosie earned the sweet description “Lovers All” with their heart (above), while her soiled doves earned descriptions that ranged from “Loverboy Mable Jacobs” and “Bitches of the Road” to “Missouri the Wacker” and “Frankie Adams” who apparently hadn’t yet earned her nickname.

Utah Street Reservation

The arrival of the Southern Pacific, Texas and Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroads in El Paso, Texas, in 1881 created a tempting valley for settlers to ply their trade and benefit from the Mexican Free Trade zone. The border town’s “Tenderloin District” had major brothel locations by 1886 and, by 1890, more than 600 soiled doves occupied the city blocks known as the “Utah Street Reservation.”  The potential for clientele shot up from 736 residents in 1880 to 10,338 by 1890.

Mad Madams Alice Abbott Etta Clark True West Magazine
El Paso boomed with saloons, dance halls, gambling parlors and brothels lining the main streets; prostitution would flourish from the 1880s until WWI. One of the earliest views of the frontier town can be seen in F. Parker’s panoramic view of El Paso probably from the early 1880s, as the smelter built by the Mexican Ore Company in 1883 is absent.
— Courtesy Heritage Auctions, May 22, 2010 —

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.

What do you think?

Bob Boze Bell

In 1999, Bob Boze Bell and partners bought True West magazine (published since 1953) and moved the editorial offices to Cave Creek, Arizona. Bell has published and illustrated books on Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as well as Classic Gunfights, an Old West gunfight book series. His latest books are The 66 Kid and True West Moments.