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Wild Women Of The West: Jennie Rogers

COWGIRL LIFE

Wild Women Of The West: Jennie Rogers Madam Rogers’s two-story, brick brothel was a popular stop for those living in or passing through the region.

Jennie Rogers Cowgirl Magazine

Jennie Rogers.

A blood orange sun shone down on the dusty, main thoroughfare in Denver, Colorado.  Miners and townspeople scurried about with their daily activities, pausing ever so often to talk with friends and acquaintances.  A sudden commotion at the end of the street drew attention away from their regular routine. An open, horse drawn coach carrying a host of overly painted girls rolled into the bustling mining camp.  The bawdy cargo drew stares and disapproving gasps from respectable women.

Jennie Rogers, a tall, attractive madam and self- proclaimed Queen of the Colorado Underworld, steered the rig slowly past the shops and saloon.  The raven-haired woman was dressed in a green velvet dress and wearing a beautiful pair of emerald earrings. The other fancy dressed ladies in the coach waved at the gathering crowd lining the streets.  Cowpunchers, miners and outlaws shouted out their approval as they carefully eyed the stunning parade of females.

The prostitutes U-shaped, low cut bodices showed enough of their youthfully solid and well-rounded neck and breasts to provoke enticement.  It was exactly the kind of response Jennie hoped to provoke. Amorous men followed the coach to a parlor house on Market Street and there, history records, “a good time was had by all.”

Denver’s red-light district in 1880 was a busy area.  Prospectors invaded the area some thirty years prior and the discovery of gold there sparked an influx of miners and their families.  By the time Jennie Rogers arrived on the scene in 1879 the gold camp had become a booming city with a network of railroads and a variety of profitable industries in place.  Madams converged on the growing Colorado territory to amass their own fortunes with a service many lonely men believed was a necessary evil.

Madam Rogers’s two-story, brick brothel was a popular stop for those living in or passing through the region.  It was furnished with enamel and brass beds, hand-carved dressers, desks and chairs, and decorated with lace curtains and imported rugs.  The house was a lavish oasis for its rough guests.

It was precisely the type of establishment Jennie envisioned owning when she entered the business in her twenties.

Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on the 4th of July in 1843, her parents named her Leeah.  Her father, James Weaver, was a poor farmer. When she was old enough, Jennie helped make ends meet by selling the family’s home grown produce in the street markets of Pittsburgh.  Her natural good looks prompted many men to propose marriage. It wasn’t until Doctor G. Friess, a prominent physician in the area, proposed that she agreed to marry.

Doctor Friess’s practice kept him away from home quite often and his very social wife was left at home alone.  In a short time Jennie tired of the solitary life and left the marriage.

Yearning for adventure, Jennie took off with a captain of a steamship and traveled the waterways between Pennsylvania and Ohio.  After several years of living on the river, the lifestyle lost its luster. She abandoned the relationship in favor of working as a housekeeper on dry land.  

Jennie took a position as a domestic at the mayor of Pittsburgh’s home in the mid-1870s.  The mayor’s constituency was outraged that he would allow a woman with such questionable morals to work in his house.  Jennie spoke openly about her affairs and when news that she had left two men reached the public at large, they were against her as a hire.  The mayor let her go, but not before advancing her a substantial amount of money to back a business she had in mind to start in St. Louis, Missouri.

Historians have no idea why Jennie chose to pursue a career as a madam.  She was an astute business woman and given that fact she must have intuitively known the money to be made in arranging company for needy men.  Whatever, the reason, her first parlor house in St. Louis was a huge success. Many laborers and business magnates flocked to her “fashionable resort”.

When news of a gold strike in Colorado reached Jennie, she decided to travel west to the Mile High City to consider opening a second parlor house.  After seeing the flood of humanity that had descended upon Denver and calculating how much money there was to be made, she decided to purchase another brothel.  Jennie paid $4,600.00 for the house and in less than a month she had made back her investment.

Jennie’s Denver business was located in a section of town known as The Row.  Similar houses stood next to hers and were run by some of the most famous madams of the time.  Mattie Silks, Laura Evans and Lizzie Preston all had successful business in the same location.

Not everyone appreciated the services Jennie and the other women had to offer.  It is rumored that an outcry of respectable citizens demanded the city council take action against the numerous “dens of inequity.”  In an effort to shame the madams into shutting their houses down, the council ordered that all “women of ill repute” wear yellow ribbons.  Undaunted by the attempt to humiliate them, Jennie and the other madams decided to dress in yellow from head to toe. Their dresses, shoes and parasols were yellow and their hats were decorated with large yellow plumes.  Their defiant display drew a lot of attention and eventually forced the council to rescind the order.

Four years after opening the Denver parlor house, Jennie had earned enough money to build a new brothel.  In order to handle her increased business, she built an opulent three story, fifteen room home. The spacious house which contained three parlors, a ballroom, dining room, large kitchen, wine cellar and servant’s quarters, were lavishly decorated.  The numerous clients that frequented the spectacular residence proclaimed Jennie to be the Queen of the Row.

Law enforcement officers visited Jennie’s new place on a regular basis.  She was fined several times for keeping a “noisy and disorderly house.” Patrons were arrested for morphine use and a handful of Jennie’s girls were apprehended for stealing property from the men who hired them.  The constant trouble the parlor houses and its residences caused prompted a second public outcry against the bordellos on the Row in 1886. Politicians and townspeople were again demanding the houses be shut down.  For a period of six months officials raided the brothels, issuing fines and arresting uncooperative prostitutes.

“The last few nights the police have been busily occupied among the houses of infamy, “pulling” those institutions, and the result has been quite an increase in the sum paid over by the police court to the city treasury.”

The Denver Times – August 12, 1886

Jennie Rogers and fourteen other prominent madams were arrested for “keeping lewd houses.”  All were found guilty and fined $75.00. Undeterred by the incident, Jennie and her competition were back in operation days after the raids.

Madam Rogers’s insatiable appetite for the finer things drove her to some unsavory actions.  With the help of one of her many lovers she concocted drunken, murderous scandal in order to blackmail a parlor house regular and politician.  

Jennie threatened to go public with the information she’d put together.  The man was so convinced he might be guilty; he agreed to pay her $17,000.00 to keep her quiet.  

Jennie used the ill-gotten gain to build a magnificent brick and stone house.  The grand brothel, which opened for business in 1889, was the talk of the West.  The ceiling to floor mirrors that covered the walls in the reception hall was the topic of conversation from Denver to San Francisco.  The unique bordello was nicknamed “the house of mirrors.” Crystal chandeliers, oriental rugs, marble tables, and grand pianos were a few of the other luxurious features.  

The women Madam Rogers hired to work at her place were well groomed, had the most current hair styles and possessed a level of sophistication and manner not found in the average parlor house.  They were also adorned in the finest fashions. Dress makers would bring samples of their work for Jennie to see. She would select the garments each of her employees was to wear and the cost came out of their pay.  The care Jennie took to present a high class product assured a cliental of the same refinement. Senators and legislatures held meetings in the general proximity of the “house of mirrors” so they could stop by Jennie’s place for a visit after work.  

When Jennie wasn’t laboring at her trade she was spending time with her stable of horses.  She was an expert rider and could handle a coach better than most professional drivers. During one of her many weekend shopping sprees and subsequent trips to the Tabor Grand Opera House, she noticed a gruff, young, hack-driver watching her every move.  John A. Wood was a twenty-three year old man who had worked around horses all his life. He was moved by Jennie’s kind treatment of the animals and her ability to manage a coach. He introduced himself to her and they became fast friends.

Jack was a poor man, lacking in pretension and Jennie found that aspect of his personality irresistible.  She offered to better his circumstances by purchasing a saloon for him to manage. Her sincere concern for his well-being made him fall in love with her.  In a short time, Jennie had fallen in love with him as well.

In the spring of 1887, Jennie opened a saloon in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Researchers at the Denver Historical Society speculate the location was chosen in an attempt to keep Jennie’s professional life as a madam and private life with her lover as separate as possible.  

The Utah saloon was a huge success almost from the moment the doors swung open.  Jennie was pleased with the way Jack handled the tavern and made frequent trips to oversee the operation and spend time with him.  Most of her trips were planned well in advance, but on one occasion she decided to surprise her lover with an unscheduled visit. When Jennie entered Jack’s living quarters she found him with another woman.  Enraged by the betrayal, Jennie pulled a pistol from a pocket in the folds of her gown and shot him. Jack’s wounds were not fatal. The Sheriff arrived on the scene and Jennie was promptly arrested. When Jack was able he told the authorities that Jennie’s actions were justifiable and she was released.

Jennie returned to Denver with a renewed commitment to bettering her already flourishing parlor houses and adding to her holdings.  Using the profits made from her brothels, Madam Rogers purchased several acres of premium land in the northern portion of town. She also purchased several shares in an irrigation and reservoir project.  The investment eventually yielded a tidy sum.

In spite of her increased riches and thriving businesses, Jennie was not happy.  She was haunted by the image of the man she loved in the arms of another woman. The abrupt end of their relationship had not relieved her of the affection she still harbored for Jack.  Two years had passed since she had seen him. She thought of him often and wondered how he was doing. At the age of forty-five she sank into a deep depression over her lost love, deeply regretting her actions.  Visits from famous friends and architects, like William Quayle and Marshall Field of Chicago, did nothing to improve her melancholy state.

In May of 1889, Jennie received news of Jack’s whereabouts and her spirits were finally lifted.  He was operating a saloon in Omaha, Nebraska. He had never married and it was known by his many friends and acquaintances that he was still in love with Jennie. Jennie swallowed her pride and wrote Jack a letter, hoping beyond hope that he would respond.  He did and the two began a regular correspondence. By mid-summer the two were reunited and altar bound. They were married on August 13, 1889. Eight years after they exchanged vows Jack Wood died from unknown causes. Jennie was devastated. She laid his body to rest in Denver’s Fairmont Cemetery under a massive tombstone that simply reads, “He is not dead, but sleeping.”   

Jennie drowned her sorrows in her work.  An influx of new brothels was siphoning business away from the house of mirrors.  

Madams up and down the Row had taken out ads for their establishments in a publication called the Denver Red Book: A Reliable Directory of the Pleasure Resorts of Denver.  Some of the houses hoped to entice clients with their offer of fine wines and cigars, others listed the number of elegant rooms they had. Jennie’s advertisement was a simple one.  It listed a name, address and the bold statement that “everything was first class.”

Lonely, in poor health and complacent with her long career in Colorado, Jennie eventually decided to lease out her parlor houses to other madams and move to the Midwest.  Before departing her physician diagnosed her with chronic Bright’s disease, an inflammation of the filtering unit in the kidneys. She had suffered with the condition for many years but had refused to do as her doctor had recommended.  The ailment was now in an advanced state and she was strongly advised to move to a more agreeable climate.

In 1902, Jennie Rogers left the high altitude of Denver and headed to the low lands around Chicago.  Doctors ordered Jennie to stay in bed for at least seven months after she arrived, but she refused. Jennie believed the move was enough of a change for her health.  She went right to work and purchased a large parlor house in the heart of Chicago. She acquired the funds for the down payment by selling off some of her Denver property and her favorite emerald earrings.  In no time the new bordello was busy and money was coming in at a rapid pace.

Just as her health was improving and her heart was on the mend, she met a charming thirty-seven your old contractor who captivated her heart.  Archibald T. Fitzgerald was not an overly handsome man. He had dark features, a double chin and a receding hair line, but he showered Jennie with attention she was craving.  Their courtship was brief, but in that time Jennie fell deeply in love with Archibald. Archibald fell deeply in love with Jennie’s money.

Archibald abused the influence he had over Jennie, encouraging her to spend her fortune on expensive carriages and trips to Hot Springs, Arkansas.  He convinced her that the medicinal qualities in the hot springs would bring about an instant cure for Bright’s disease. Blinded by his charisma, Jennie quickly accepted his offer of marriage after he presented her with a diamond and ruby engagement ring.  A ring that was more than likely paid for with Madam Rogers’s own money. Archibald and Jennie exchanged vows at Hot Springs on April 26, 1904.

Six months after the Fitzgeralds said “I do,” Jennie learned Archibald was a bigamist.  He had two other wives besides Jennie – one in Kansas City, Missouri and the other across town in Chicago.  Jennie considered divorcing Archibald several times, but he always managed to talk her out of it. The longer she stayed with him the more money he spent.  In five years, Jennie was near bankruptcy.

Consumed with worry over her finances, preoccupied with maintaining her parlor houses in Colorado and Illinois, as well as dealing her with her fragile marriage, Jennie’s health finally gave way.  She was taken to a hospital but nothing could be done to revive her. Uremic poisoning had attacked her kidneys. Jennie Rogers died on October 17, 1909. Her funeral was attended by most of the madams from the Row and several of her employees and business associates.  Archibald Fitzgerald was conspicuous by his absence.

The Queen of the Colorado Red Light District was secretly buried next to her second husband.  The marking on her tombstone reads, “Leah J. Wood. Died October 17, 1909. She was sixty-six years old.     

Chris Enss is a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West.

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