Mrs. Irene McCready and her companion-lover James McCabe debarked from the ship the Oregon in April 1849. McCabe was one of the backers of the El Dorado gambling hall which opened not long after his arrival. It was money wisely invested; no miner’s pick and shovel ever earned so much gold. Young Baynard Taylor, a reporter for the New York Tribune, visited the El Dorado in San Francisco in September 1849 and said:
“The greatest crowd is about the El Dorado…. We find it difficult to affect an entrance. There are about eight tables in the room, all of which are thronged with copper-hued Kanakas, Mexicans rolled in their serapes and Peruvians thrust through their ponchos, standing [ing] shoulder to shoulder with the brown and bearded American miners… Along the end of the room is a spacious bar, supplied with all kinds of bad liquors, and on a sort of gallery, suspended under the ceiling a female violinist tasks her talent and strength to administer to the excitement of play.”
The El Dorado was doing well by the time Irene opened her brothel in the fall of ’49, in a one-story frame building not far from the El Dorado. McCabe and his partners were paying $40,000 a year rent for the land under the tent which housed their gambling den, while the rent on Irene’s house must also have been high enough to require considerable backing from McCabe. As for the girls and furnishings, neither were plush nor fancy. Irene’s may have been the city’s first parlor house, but several similar brothers sprung up at about the same time, so it is hard to say. Even the designation “parlor house” might be questioned, for it was one only by comparison to what else was around – the tents and shanties of Little Chile, the backrooms of the dives of Sydney Town and Clark’s Point, or the cribs of the French belles.
Irene’s clientele included some important men – a California governor, a senator, and at least one judge, plus several lesser politicians and gamblers. But this did not mean Irene refused the gold of the ordinary miner. Only after California became less of a boom state would parlor houses be noted for their social exclusiveness.
Irene McCready’s break with James McCabe finally occurred in the fall of 1859, and it was one of the most memorable lover’s quarrels ever. Irene had an unusually fiery temperament and was always wary in case her man stray from her bed. After making numerous loud and jealous accusations against McCabe, even in front of the customers at the El Dorado, Irene was rewarded with a sound thrashing; and they the two parted company.
Irene was a real professional when it came to handling men, so she bided her time, letting sly rumors drift back to McCabe of her mortal unhappiness at losing his love. McCabe finally weakened and, attempting a reconciliation, visited her room and apologized. Irene forgave him, at the same time handing him a glass of drugged wine. Once poor McCabe was unconscious, Irene did as Delilah did with Samson – except she did not put down her razor after shaving his head but continued her depilatory labors until McCabe was minus all his hair. If Irene’s complaints of infidelity were indeed true, she exacted a phenomenally effective revenge.