Wild Women of the West: Lillie Lee

Lillie Lee’s story is vintage soap opera

March 19, 2019

In the book Incidents of Land and Water, written by Mrs. D. B. Bates in 1857, Bates related the story of a woman named Lillie Lee, whose widowed mother brought her to California to seek a home for both of them.  Mrs. Bates shuddered to report that Lillie’s thoughtless mother brought a young, lovely girl to “a country where virtue was regarded by the masses only as a name.” Lillie Lee was far too captivating to remain long in obscurity, so in spite of her mother’s vigilance, she succumbed to the oily wiles of a gambler and fled with him to one of the gold camps.  After a day or so of soul searching, the mother armed herself with a Colt revolver and started in angry pursuit. When she arrived at the gold-field town, she wandered from one house of sin to the next where, Mrs. Bates writes, “elegantly attired women within whose natures long since had expired the last flickering spark of feminine modestly, were seated, dealing cards at a game of faro or Lansquenet, and by their winning smile and enticing manner, inducing hundreds of men to stake their all upon their tables.”

At last, the mother found the place where Lillie and the gambler were living, and when the villain answered her knock the mother leveled the revolver at his breast.  But love-struck little Lillie pushed between them, and the gambler promised a speedy marriage. The rest of Lillie Lee’s story is vintage soap opera, for the man was already married to another, a woman soon to arrive on a ship from back east.  Was Lillie taught a bitter lesson by her misfortune? Did she reform and repent of her sins? No, she rushed recklessly into a life of abandon.

At this point in Incidents of Land and Water, Mrs. Bates makes Lillie’s career so attractive that one can only wonder what the sheltered young ladies who read the book a century ago thought about this paragraph.

“Lillie Lee would appear in a splendid Turkish costume which admirably displayed her tiny little foot encased in richly embroidered satin slippers.  Thus, she would promenade the thronged thoroughfares of the city, the observed of all observers…on the other days she would mount her glossy, lithe-limbed race horse, habited in a closely fitting riding-dress of black velvet, ornamented with a hundred and fifty gold buttons, a hat from which depended magnificent sable plumes, and over her face, a short white lace veil of the richest texture… The fire of passion flashing from the depths of her dark, lustrous eyes…she took all men captive…Gold and diamonds were showered upon her.”

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