Madam Laura Bell McDaniel’s broken body lay in a ditch beside a snowy thoroughfare conjoined with the twisted rubble of what was once her pristine Mitchell sedan. It was late January 1918 when the notorious soiled dove’s car crashed just outside Castle Rock, Colorado. Laura’s twenty-seven-year-old niece, Laura Pierson, had been driving the vehicle; she was thrown from the sedan when it overturned. A blind family friend, Dusty McCarty, was in the car with the women. He survived the accident but sustained several bruises and cuts.
By the time Laura Bell McDaniel was transferred to Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, news of the plight of the woman known as “the Queen of the Colorado City Tenderloin” had already reached clients and citizens where she lived and worked. Many were saddened by the news, and some believed Laura’s car might have been forced off the road by those who wanted her house of ill repute shut down.
Laura was born near Buffalo Lick, Missouri, on November 27, 1861. Her parents, James and Anna Horton, were farmers who made sure their children were well educated. At the age of nineteen Laura married Samuel Dale from nearby Brunswick, Missouri. The two had become acquainted when Laura’s father took the family buckboard to Samuel’s father, a wagon maker, to be repaired. The couple left the Midwest shortly after they were married, traveled to Colorado, and settled in a newly established railroad town called Salida. Sam and Laura welcomed a baby girl into their lives in 1884 and named her Eva Pearl Dale. Marriage and fatherhood did not sit well with Samuel, and he left a few months after his daughter was born.
Faced with the challenge of raising a child on her own and with no viable employment opportunities, Laura ventured into the business of prostitution. She purchased a home close to the house where her mother lived. Her mother, Anna, had relocated to Colorado when Laura and James began having marital problems. Anna opened a boarding house, which she ran with Laura’s two younger sisters.
One of Laura’s regular callers was John Thomas “Tom” McDaniel. The two spent a considerable amount of time together and traveled to Leadville on occasion in the winter. It was during one of those trips that Laura’s home caught fire and burned to the ground. Foul play was immediately suspected, and one of Anna’s boarders was accused of setting the blaze. Morgan Dunn was considered to be a man of questionable character by most Salida residents, and he was quite enamored with Laura. He was extremely jealous of the relationship she had with Tom.
Laura had insurance to cover the home in case of a fire. While waiting for the insurance check to arrive, she moved to a house near the red-light district of town. She and Tom continued to see a lot of one another and eventually became engaged. They were married on April 7, 1887. Less than a week later, the duo were involved in a scandal that threatened to end their lives together.
On April 13, 1887, the day before the newlyweds were scheduled to go on their honeymoon, Laura confided in Tom that Morgan had tried to kiss her. Tom was furious to hear that someone had tried to take advantage of his wife. “Why didn’t you kill the son of a bitch?” he shouted at Laura. Tom decided to confront Morgan about his actions, and Laura was unable to reason with him. The pair arrived at Anna’s home and charged inside, Tom ready to fight the forward boarder and Laura trying to intercede. Morgan, who was eating dinner when Tom approached him, was initially Nonplussed about the incident. When Tom continued to press him on the issue, he became belligerent. A yelling match ensued, and before it became physical, Laura managed to talk her husband into leaving and going home.
Tom didn’t stay home, however. He returned to have it out with Morgan. The two got into another battle of words, and Morgan suggested they settle their differences in another way. When Morgan placed his hand on his hip pocket, Tom pulled out a gun and shot him five times. Morgan collapsed at Tom’s feet, dead.
The sound of the gun firing drew the attention of the next-door neighbors, and they hurried to the scene. According to the May 20, 1887, edition of the Salida Semi-Weekly Mail, they found Tom standing inside the front door. His wife and mother-in-law were holding on to him and crying, “Oh, Tom!” The neighbors told police that Anna screamed, “Why did you do that?” Tom was arrested and tried for his actions, but the court found him not guilty. He claimed that he had acted in self-defense.
The residents in and around Salida doubted not only Tom’s version of the story but also the motive Laura offered for why he went to see Morgan. Not everyone believed he was driven by jealousy alone. It was suspected that Tom killed Morgan to keep him from ever talking about setting fire to Laura’s home. Citizens were convinced Tom and Laura hired Morgan to burn the home in exchange for a sizable insurance check. The Salida Semi-Weekly Mail reported that Morgan was unarmed the night he was shot. The article also noted that he had been recovering from a broken arm and collarbone, injuries he had sustained in a bar fight.
When Morgan’s wife, who was living in New York at the time of his demise, eventually learned about her husband’s death, she wrote the judge that presided over Tom’s case to ask him specifics about the killing. She learned that Morgan had run afoul of the law on occasion and had been laid to rest in a pauper’s grave without a service or friend to see him off.
Tired of the idle gossip that surrounded the case, Laura and Tom decided to give an interview to the editor of the Salida Semi-Weekly Mail and correct the issues that were being talked about. Far from clearing up matters, the interview prompted more questions. The McDaniels told the paper that Morgan had removed his coat and placed it on the bed prior to the shooting. Actually, police found the victim in his coat. As for Morgan placing his hand on his hip pocket, Laura’s mother claimed that never happened. The McDaniels told the newspaper editor that Anna was wrong.
Not long after the trial, Tom and Laura left Salida and somewhere along the way parted company. By 1888 Laura was living in Colorado City alone. She purchased a home to use for business and began referring to herself as Mrs. Bell McDaniel.
Laura’s brothel was one of the most spectacular in town. It featured a ballroom, chandeliers, and expensive furniture. She had servants, a bartender, and a cook. Laura entertained powerful, well-known, and wealthy individuals.
Laura and many of the other soiled doves in Colorado City conducted themselves in public with restraint, moderation, and dignity. When the women took walks and shopped, they confined themselves to the red-light district. There was no solicitation, and they were polite to everyone they met. Laura was known for being generous with her earnings. She frequently gave money to the homeless and helped them find a place to live; she also gave to charities that provided food and clothing to the needy.
Anna Horton was never too far from her daughter. She moved from Salida to Colorado City in 1890, and mother and daughter visited often with one another. Laura sent her daughter, Eva Pearl, to a boarding school. She wanted her to have an education and to choose a different path in life than she had. It is not known if either Laura or Anna visited Eva while she was away or even where exactly Eva attended school.
Many colorful characters paraded in and out of Laura’s life and business. John “Prairie Dog” O’Bryne, a hack driver and brakeman for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad; notorious female gambler Minnie Smith; and mining and real estate magnate Charles Tutt were just a few.
In June 1893 Laura filed for divorce from Tom. The marriage was officially dissolved four months later. By the turn of the century, Laura’s mother, Laura’s sister Birdie, Birdie’s husband, and their infant son were all living together in the same home down the street from Laura’s house. In 1901 Eva Pearl was also a resident in her grandmother’s home.
Laura’s reign as “Queen of the Colorado City Tenderloin” did not falter in the early 1900s. Her business did, however, suffer from the usual problems associated with running a bordello: unruly patrons, rivalries with competing houses, and desperate employees who tried to kill themselves. There was also the occasional tussle with law enforcement. According to the April 30, 1903, edition of the Colorado Springs Weekly Gazette, Laura, along with eight other women, were arrested for prostitution, and an indictment was returned to a grand jury against her for running a house of ill repute. She gave a bond in the sum of $500.
“Evidence before the grand jury is to the effect that the houses have been run under the protection of the authorities of Colorado City who have collected monthly fines from each house,” the Weekly Gazette article read. “The arrests were entirely unexpected; an unsuccessful attempt to escape was made. Other and sensational developments in regard to the morality of the county, it is rumored, will follow.”
After making a court appearance in June 1903, Laura decided to move her business to Cripple Creek. Less than two years later she returned to Colorado City. In 1905 her mother died and she relocated again to Cripple Creek, but she kept her place in Colorado City. She was now running a bawdy house in both locations.
Historians speculate that Laura changed addresses multiple times because laws against prostitution were strictly enforced in the early 1900s. Upstanding citizens did not tolerate women of ill repute, especially those who were warned to vacate their premises but chose to stay. Madams who rebelled against the law were sometimes beaten and their homes were burned to the ground. Laura had suffered through many fires, and regardless of the reasons for those fires she always rebuilt.
Laura’s most famous house of ill fame was called the Mansion. The grand brick bordello cost more than $10,000 to build. Colorado City residents were outraged that Laura dared to have another house constructed. According to the May 7, 1909, edition of the Colorado City Iris, her actions were viewed as an attempt to reinvigorate the red-light district, which most people hoped was gone for good.
In February 1911 Laura married Herbert N. Berg, the financial editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph. Her lifestyle did not change after she wed, however. She continued as a madam and even placed an ad in the Gazette Telegraph announcing that she was still open for business. She discreetly referred to herself in the ad as a “keeper of furnished rooms.” Local authorities paid several visits to Laura’s house and fined her for running a brothel. From 1909 to 1911 she paid more than $400 in fines for “keeping a disorderly house.”
Herbert died in mid-1916, and the following year law enforcement concentrated their efforts on ridding the community of Laura’s business. On November 20, 1917, the Colorado City police served Laura with a warrant to search her property. She wasn’t sure what they were looking for and was surprised when they produced thirty-four bottles of liquor reportedly stolen from the home of one of Colorado Spring’s most wealthy citizens, Charles Baldwin.
Laura was arrested for “receiving stolen liquor.” She was taken into custody and charged. Bail was set at $1,500, and her trial was scheduled for January 18, 1918. Laura retained a pair of attorneys with a substantial background in representing soiled doves. James Orr and W. D. Lombard asked the court for additional time to prepare their client’s case, and the request was granted. The court date was moved to January 24.
Witnesses for the prosecution consisted mainly of police officers and detectives. They alleged that on November 12, 1917, Laura Bell purchased several bottles of stolen liquor. Among the items she supposedly bought were Gordon’s gin, champagne, and high-grade whiskey. Charles Baldwin, the so-called victim, did not appear at the trial. He had been called out of town and did not know when he would be returning.
Laura’s longtime friend Dusty McCarty came forward to testify on her behalf. When he took the stand, he explained to the court that the liquor had been planted at her home. Dusty maintained that two men who frequented her business were the real culprits. The case against Laura was dismissed.
The day after Laura’s case was closed, she, her niece, and Dusty decided to take a drive to Denver. Laura Pierson was driving when the car jumped off the pavement at forty miles per hour and flipped over. Rumors abounded that the Colorado City police were behind the crash. Both Lauras died from injuries received in the wreck. Some believed that Laura Bell paid the ultimate price for defying the law in court.
After an elaborate funeral Laura was buried at Fairview Cemetery in Colorado City. Her niece was laid to rest beside her. Laura’s daughter was the sole heir of her estate, which amounted to more than $15,000 in cash and property.
Laura Bell was fifty-six when she passed away.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.