Mere mention of wild women, or bad girls, causes many to assume some sort of deviate behavior. Our modern sensibilities seem unwilling to grasp that there was a time when the fairer sex in this country was treated much the same as those in today’s third-world nations.
Like children and livestock, a good one tended to be seen and not heard, and any conduct outside the rigid conventions of Victorian society was viewed with jaundiced eyes.
As the nation expanded west, adventure-seeking folk of the hairy-legged variety dragged their reluctant wives away from their homes into dark and violent uncertainty beyond the Mississippi River, to raw and wild places such as Texas. An unmarried woman was afforded a limited range of professions. Schoolteacher, cook, laundress, seamstress, housekeeper-maid, breeding stock or “woman of questionable virtue” made up an appallingly short list of choices available to those unattached ladies who wanted the extravagancies of something to eat and a roof over their heads. It’s a revelation, therefore, when women such as Sally Jane Newman Robinson Skull popped up to dispel these asinine beliefs held mostly by dunderheaded men who knew as much about their women-folk as a pig does about feathers.
In 1823 at age six or seven, Sally, daughter of Joseph and Rachael Newman, arrived in Tejas as a member of the original Old Three Hundred. These adventurous souls were the first settlers brought west by Stephen F. Austin. (Descendents of these intrepid pioneers view their ancestors with the same respect and awe their Eastern cousins accord those who held an all-inclusive ticket on the Mayflower.)
Back then Texas was rougher than a petrified corncob. Because Comanche, Waco and Tawakoni Indians took umbrage at white devils invading their sacred lands, the Newman family and their pioneer neighbors spent a good deal of every waking moment trying to stay alive in their newly established Fayette County homes.
Feisty little Sally took to such rough-and-ready social activities like a horned toad to an ant hill. On several occasions she and her mother fiercely defended their homestead, dispatching Indian raiders with everything from firearms to a double-bit ax. Eventually, the continual assaults forced Sally’s father to move the Newman clan to Egypt (Texas), a tiny hamlet nearer civilization.
In 1831 Joseph Newman suddenly died. Two years later his rambunctious daughter married Jesse Robinson, 17 years her senior. Three years into the marriage, Sally and her young daughter were caught up in the tidal wave of people running from Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s invading army, a retreat later referred to as the “Great Runaway Scrape.”
Things went as well as could be expected for the couple until 1843, when they ended their marriage in a bitter divorce amidst accusations of Sally’s adultery with a hired man identified only as “Brown.” The ink had barely dried on the official decree when Sally married a gunsmith from Austin named George H. Scull or Skull, a surname she kept for the rest of her life. Sally disappeared for five years, popping up in a Wharton County Court in 1849 and declaring that her sweet-natured hubby, Mr. Skull, was dead. Rumors of foul play still abound.
About two years later, she bought a small ranch near the town of Banquet, a bit west of Corpus Christi, and married John Doyle. From this base, she and a group of tough vaqueros herded cattle along the coast from south Texas to New Orleans. Other than with her Mexican help, she traveled alone, but was known to go heavily armed. Ranchers along her route did not cut Mrs. Skull’s herds looking for strays. Such actions could get a man killed deader than Davy Crockett. (Witnesses saw her fight several pistol duels with men . . . and win.) Sometime in the mid 1850s hubby Doyle vanished, perhaps, so claimed the local gossip, as a result of some well-placed slugs from Sally’s six-shooters.
During the Civil War, our Indian-fighting, cattle-herding, pistol-toting heroine ran cotton to Mexico and smuggled back guns for the Confederacy. The danger of such enterprises for a woman cannot be over-exaggerated. When the war ended, Sally seemed to drop off the face of the earth. She had married a man named Horsdorff during the war of Yankee aggression, and reports persist that he carried her into the wilderness and snuffed her lamp after one of their disagreements about his well-known lack of ambition and unwillingness to work—typical girly grievances.
Hell, life was hard for everybody. While Sally ran guns for the Confederacy, Señora Chipita Rodriguez eked out a living selling tacos from a lean-to hut located between Corpus Christi and Banquet. In 1863 John Savage, a Confederate horse buyer who dragged a big sack of gold everywhere he went, stopped at Chipita’s taqueria for some chips and dip. A week later, a burlap bag containing his ax-murdered body floated to the surface of the Aransas River near Señora Rodriguez’s rustic cafe.
Described as being between 65 and 90 years of age, the pitiful woman was arrested, tried and hanged faster than gossip moves through a Baptist prayer meeting. The hasty execution resulted in tales that the old lady was still alive when they put her in the ground. For almost a hundred years, Chipita was believed the only female legally executed in Texas. Legends persist that her weeping spirit appears any time another incarcerated woman is about to be executed by the state.
Tejas has also had an abundance of women-folk in the old slap and tickle business. Lonely cowboys fresh off the trail always knew where to find “Hell’s Half Acre” or the “Tenderloin.” Fannie Porter ran an amazingly unthrifty parlor of joy in San Antonio that catered to the likes of Butch Cassidy and his “Train-Robbing Syndicate.” Beauties such as Annie Rogers supplied hurdy-gurdy sex for any dusty waddie or infamous bank robber with enough color in his poke. Claims still exist that wistfully beautiful Etta Place met the Sundance Kid while employed at Fannie’s.
The “Devil’s Ad-dition” in El Paso attracted “Fat Alice” Abbot, a 300-pound, six-foot tall madam with a temper. The feud between Alice and a competitor named Etta Clark pimpled up on a lightning-spiked night when Etta used a .44-caliber pistol to drill Alice in the pubic arch. A misprint in a local newspaper reported that “Fat Alice” had been hit in “the public arch.” Alice took offense and threatened to kill the editor, who left town like a turpentined cat.
Most famous of the Pass City’s madams was handsome Tillie Howard. In 1896, after four years of providing aid and comfort to lonely Texas males, Tillie headed for South Africa. She returned some years later lugging a big bag of diamonds and opened the Marlborough Club, a copper-roofed brothel that she operated until her death in 1915.
Mary Porter, “Queen of the Fort Worth Madams” and no relation to Fannie, weathered more than 100 arrests while working at her profession. She was tried, fined, shot at and beaten during her colorful career, but died quietly in 1906 after decades of providing the finest in female company for her long list of grateful customers.
Perhaps the most famous madam of all was Edna Milton, the biggest hen at the “Chicken Ranch.” For much of the 1950s, ’60s, and some of the ’70s, she ran the oldest, continually functioning whorehouse in the country. A Broadway musical and motion picture earned her a spot in America’s artistic Heaven. Hell, portrayal by Dolly Parton can assure anyone’s place in the combined dreamland of real or imagined history.
The chronicle of Lone Star wild women also includes Lottie Deno, a stunning lady of blue blood and blue grass. Miss Lottie was a professional gambler, who sat at the green felt tables of an area near Fort Griffin called “The Flat,” where she took the money of Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and hundreds of lesser-known rubes who misjudged her skill. She served as the archetype for Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty and Laura Denbo in the 1957 blockbuster Western, Gun Fight at the O.K. Corral.
East Texas actress and writer Adah Isaacs Menken made it to Broadway in the 1860s and joined a show called Mazeppa, a melodrama based on a Lord Byron poem. In a scene normally played in Tartar costume, Adah appeared on stage in a skin-tight, flesh-colored number that made her appear completely nekkid! The male world went nuts. Overnight she became the Madonna of her day. Unfortunately, her life spiraled out of control during her next seven years, and she died from unknown causes at the age of 33 while performing in Paris on August 10, 1868.
Modern Texas bad girls tend to be less compelling than their 19th-century counterparts. Their ranks consist of run-of-the-mill murderers and tragedy-prone entertainers. This group includes Bonnie Parker, who accompanied the two-bit hood Clyde Barrow into the yawning maw of death amid blazing machine-gun bullets. The Barrow gang’s two-year depression-era assault on law enforcement led to a string of dead policemen throughout Texas and the Southwest. Simply put, the Barrow bunch made its reputation by killing people, and most of the dead were cops. Clyde had vowed not to be taken back to prison, a vow that he kept. On May 23, 1934, famed Texas Ranger Frank Hamer finally caught up with the fugitives, and Hamer’s posse put 167 bullet holes in Clyde’s stolen Ford Deluxe V-8. During the ambush, Bonnie Parker was hit more than 50 times.
Janis Joplin’s meteoric and, ultimately, tragic life started in the gulf coast town of Port Arthur. A sweet Southern girl in the beginning, she allowed her career as a rock singer to lead her into drugs, alcohol, sexual experimentation and death. Coroner to the stars Thomas Noguchi, listed the cause as “acute heroin-morphine intoxication.”
Not long ago, Karia Faye Tucker pushed everyone else off the front pages by becoming the first woman to be executed in Texas in more than 100 years. She freely admitted to a life of violence, drug addiction and prostitution, capped by a bizarre, double pickax murder committed during the robbery of a friend. Her passing on February 3, 1998, was followed a year later with the capital punishment of a frumpy grandmother named Betty Lou Beets. Betty’s dead husbands kept popping up under fake wishing wells and storage sheds near her trailer house in Gun Barrel City. More recently, a plague of child killers has surfaced. Belle Starr may have been an ugly nymphomaniac who liked to ride her horse into Dallas saloons, but she never murdered any kids.
However you slice it, the Lone Star state occupies a unique place in our nation’s history. It should come as no great surprise, therefore, that Texas’ wild women were as big, bold, brash and untamed as any of Texas’ most ornery men.
Next time out, maybe we can get around to ladies like Nance Hill, Sarah Bowman, Beulah Morose, Emily Morgan, Ma Ferguson, Diamond Bessie and a score of others. ’Til then, buckaroos and buckarettes, the eyes of Tejas are upon you.
Jimmy Butts is a former high school teacher and IBM customer relations rep. Now a full time writer, he is the author of Texas’ Baddest Boys and Lawdog.