Our Newsletter to your inbox every week!

Cowgirl Hotlist

Julia Bulette, The Siren of the Silver Town

During the late nineteenth century, while men were settling the new frontier and rushing off to the latest boom towns, women of easy virtue found wicked lives west of the Mississippi when they followed fortune hunters seeking gold and land in an unsettled territory.  Prostitutes and female gamblers hoped to capitalize on the vices of the intrepid pioneers.  Julia Bulette, known as the Siren of the Silver Town, was one such soiled dove.

The cold, grey January sky above Virginia City, Nevada, in 1867 unleashed a torrent of sleet on a slow moving funeral procession traveling along the main thoroughfare of town.  Several members of the volunteer fire department, Virginia Engine Company Number One, were first in a long line of mourners following after a horse drawn carriage transporting the body of soiled dove Julia Bulette.  The Nevada militia band shuffled behind the hearse playing “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”  Black wreaths and streamers hung from the balconies of the buildings along the route which the remains of the beloved thirty-five-year-old woman was escorted.  Miners who knew Julia wept openly.  Out of respect for the deceased woman all the saloons were closed.  Plummeting temperatures and icy winds eventually drove the majority of funeral-goers inside their homes and businesses before Julia was lowered into the ground.

Julia Bulette was murdered on January 19, 1867 at 11:30 in the evening in her home on North D Street in Virginia City.   The fair but frail prostitute told her neighbor and best friend Gertrude Holmes she was expecting company, but did not specify who the company might be.  Twelve hours later Gertrude discovered Julia’s lifeless body in bed.  She had been beaten and strangled.  Gertrude told authorities that Julia was lying in the center of the bed with the blankets pulled over her head and that the sheets under her frame were smooth.  She told police that it appeared as though no one had ever been in the bed with Julia.

The authorities believed the scene had been staged.  Marks on Julia’s body and tears on the pillow used to smother her indicated she struggled with her attacker.  The murderer then set the room to look as though nothing was out of the ordinary.  He covered Julia’s body in such a way that at a passing glance she would merely appear to be asleep.  It had fooled the handyman she had employed to come in and build a fire for her each day.  When the gentleman entered Julia’s home at eleven in the morning he believed she was sleeping.  He explained to law enforcement officers that he was quiet as he went about his work and left when the job was done.  A search of the modest home Julia rented revealed that many of her possessions were missing.  The citizens of Virginia City were outraged by the crime.

Julia Bulette was born in London, England, in 1832.  She arrived in Virginia City, Nevada in 1863.  Men in the bustling, silver mining community supported a number of sporting women, and Julia was no exception.  She was an independent contractor.  She did not work as a madam of a house of ill repute managing other women in the trade.  She had a number of regular customers including Thomas Peasley.  Peasley owned a local saloon and was known to be Julia’s favorite paramour.  In addition to running a business, Peasley was a volunteer firefighter.  Julia’s interest in the Virginia Engine Company Number One began with him.  She supported them monetarily when she could and cheered them on whenever they were called to a job.  In recognition of her service she was presented with a handsome feminine rendition of a fireman’s uniform.  It consisted of a fireman’s shield, front shirt, belt and helmet embossed with the insignia of Virginia Engine Company Number One.  Julia was the only woman who was an honorary member of the volunteer force.

The murder of the well-liked courtesan baffled many.  She owned a few beautiful gowns but did not have an extensive wardrobe; nor did she have any jewelry of great worth.  The home where she lived was furnished with items of good quality but was not overly opulent.  Julia’s estate was worth $875.43.  She owed more than $790 in unpaid bills including $291 in legal fees and an outstanding balance for alcohol she kept on hand for her customers.   She generally served whiskey and brandy but had bottles of ale, port, claret, and rum available as well.

An auction of Julia’s belongings was held on March 28, 1868.  Her friend, Mary J. Minnivie was the administrator of her estate and provided a list of the deceased personal property.  It consisted of the following:  one blue, plaid, silk dress; one red, meire antique dress and bodice; a black silk, dress, one purple dress, one silk cap rimmed with fur, one blue flannel shirt, one silver cup marked J.C.B., one pair red silk stockings, three chemises, one white silk chord, four handkerchiefs, one pair of gloves, one brown silk necktie, one fur cape, one fur collar, four fur muffs, one purple hood, one porte-monnaie (a small pocket book or purse), one gold hunting watch, gold chain and charms, one watch case, one jet-set breast pin, earrings and cross, and one silver brick marked Julia.

The sale of Julia’s things did not cover all she owed when she died.  Her creditors would have to settle for whatever they were given toward the unpaid bills.

Virginia City police conducted an intense search for Julia’s murderer, but four months after her body had been discovered authorities still had no leads.  It appeared as though the unknown assailant had fled the area and any hope of ever finding the perpetrator had ended.  According to the November 9, 1955, edition of the Reno Gazette, it wasn’t until Mrs. Cazentre, wife of the owner of a small restaurant in Gold Hill, Nevada, stumbled upon a clue to the crime that turned around the police investigation.

In April 1867, Mrs. Cazentre was looking over a fine piece of silk she was going to use to make a dress when two customers came into the restaurant for breakfast, sat down at a table and began talking.  Their discussion centered on Julia Bulette’s brutal murder and the failure of the authorities to find her killer.  Mrs. Cazentre overheard the customers mention that the murderer was believed to have stolen two pieces of silk dress material from his victim.  Mrs. Cazentre was astonished.  A few months prior to this occasion she had purchased material from a drifter for an incredibly modest price.  When she bought the fabric, Mrs. Cazentre asked the salesman how he came to have such a fine piece of material, and the man told her it had once belonged to a lady whose husband had been killed in a mining accident.

After Mrs. Cazentre finished speaking with the two customers she hurried out of the restaurant to the courthouse with the material in tow.  She shared everything that had transpired with Judge Jesse S. Pitzer.  He then summoned Harry and Sam Rosner, owners of a local mercantile called Rosner and Company, who identified Mrs. Cazentre’s silk as the material sold to Julia Bulette.  Judge Pitzer then suggested that Mrs. Cazentre view all the drifters, vagabonds and thugs currently in jail for vagrancy to see if the man who sold her the silk might be among them.  It turned out the salesman was indeed incarcerated at the city jail and Mrs. Cazentre quickly identified him.

The culprit was a Frenchman named John Millian who had been employed at a bakery in town.  In March 1867, Millian had attempted to attack one of Julia Bulette’s neighbors.  He had broken into the neighbor’s home carrying a knife.  When the woman screamed he had run.  The neighbor had reported the attack to the police and led them through Virginia City in search of Millian.  He had been arrested trying to leave town.   After Mrs. Cazentre identified Milian within his jail cell, authorities examined a trunk Millian’s employer said belonged to him that was stored at the bakery.  The trunk was full of Julia Bulette’s possessions.  Once he was presented with the evidence against him, Millian confessed to the crime.  He withdrew his confession shortly after his trial began on July 2, 1867.

According to Alfred Doten, editor of the Gold Hill News, the court proceedings “created great excitement in the city.”  A myriad of witnesses were called to the stand to testify against Millian including Mrs. Cazentre who told her story about the material; the proprietors of Rosner and Company explained the fabric was purchased at their store, and Gertrude Holmes identified Julia’s belongings found in Millian’s trunk.

Charles Dlong, a Virginia City attorney and one time California State Assemblyman represented Millian.  He argued that his client did not murder Julia.  He claimed she was killed by two other men and that Millian was asked to store the possessions for them.  Millian told the court he did not know the names of the actual killers and could not produce witnesses to support his claim.  The case was handed over to the jury eight hours after opening statements had been made.  They found Millian guilty of murder and he was sentenced to be hanged.   All attempts for appeals were denied.  On April 24, 1868 Millian was taken from the jail and loaded aboard a carriage.  Surrounded by the National Guard and armed deputies, he was driven to the gallows a mile outside town and there he was hanged.   

Sagebrush and erosion have almost obscured the spot at Flower Hill Cemetery believed to be the last resting place of Julia Bulette.  An old-fashioned “cradle-type” marker, the wooden enclosure has a reddish tint due to weathering.  Nobody ever recorded where exactly Julia was buried.  The proper citizens of Virginia City preferred to forget it.   

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.