The soiled dove with the heart of gold is a stock character in thousands of stories about the Old West, and Idaho had such a character. “Diamond-tooth Lil” was her name, and she was more famous for her tooth of gold than for her heart of gold. Like most characters in western lore, Lil devoted her lifetime to perfecting her own legend and image. Her gold tooth, prominent in the middle of her smile, was set with a large diamond to gain Lil instant recognition in any company. And Lil loved it. From childhood she had thirsted for fame.
All we know about Lil’s colorful life comes from her own stories, recounted through the years to just about anyone who would listen. Whether her stories were true or not does not seem too important, for they make good telling. Mae West’s characterization of “Diamond Lil” was based on the life of Idaho’s Lil, and in all accounts of her life, the stress lay on Diamond-tooth Lil’s beauty and glamor. Words like “fabulous and exciting” are regularly used to describe her, although it was not Lil’s looks but her vitality and sense of showmanship which evoked such adjectives.
Evelyn Hildegarde was born Katie Prado near Vienna, Austrian, about 1880. It appears that she and her parents-an Austrian father and a Bohemian mother-came to America when Katie was six-years-old. When Katie ran away from home, she was only thirteen, but she was quite mature for her age and looked sixteen. She had eloped with nineteen-year-old Percy Hildegarde and used his last name the rest of her life.
By her own account, Lil had a total of eight husbands, never worrying about ridding herself of a husband, but just taking another when the mood struck her.
Among the men in her life were some pretty colorful characters: prizefighter Kid McCoy, Spider Kelly, Diamond-field Jack Davis, Tex Rickard, and Tom Sharkey. Diamond-tooth Lil’s friendship with Diamond-field Jack was a natural. The swaggering Jack had plenty of color all his own; although notorious as a gunman, his chief claim to fame was that he was almost hung for a murder he did not commit. Perhaps Jack was the inspiration for Lil’s famous tooth, for she did not have one when they met in 1907 in the boomtown of Goldenfield, Nevada.
Lil had been singing and dancing in music halls and gambling palaces for several years before she ran up against Jack. She was the “toast of the Barbary Coast,” and a star at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, singing at the Anheuser-Busch Pavilion. But somewhere along the way she got in on the gold rush to Alaska, then came back south to Silver City, Idaho. Boise was her home from 1909 until 1943, during which time she ran rooming houses and opened the Depot Inn in 1933. Diamond-tooth Lil’s experience as a “business woman” began years before, for she claimed she was a madam from the time she was thirteen, and ran large houses in Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and Seattle.
One of her “’bosses” in Chicago was said to be Al Capone, and it is no surprise that Lil was not repelled by the violence of the gangster era. Lil herself had had a taste of violence years before, when she was shot at by an ex-husband in El Paso, Texas. Charitable and generous, Lil felt a special sympathy for orphans, and when she left Boise for the warmer climate of California, she promised to will her famous tooth to the Boise Children’s Home. But she died in California in 1967 at age eighty-nine, and the tooth which made her famous, was buried with her.