A parade of horse-drawn carriages deposited fashionably dressed San Francisco citizens at the entrance of the Tivoli Theatre. A handsome couple, holding hands and cooing as young lovers do, emerged from one of the vehicles. A figure across the street, hidden in the shadows of an alleyway, eyed the pair intently. Once the couple entered the building, Tessie Wall stepped out of the darkness into the subdued light of a row of gas lamps lining the busy thoroughfare. Tears streamed down the svelte blonde’s face. The pain of seeing the man she loved with another woman was unbearable.
Several hours before, Tessie and her ex-husband, Frank Daroux, entertained passersby with a robust argument over the other woman in his life. After accusing the man of being a liar and a thief, Tessie begged him for another chance and promised to make him forget anyone else with whom he was involved. Frank angrily warned Tessie that if she started anything he would put her “so far away that no one would find her.”
The words he had said to her played over and over again in her head. “You’ve got my husband,” she mumbled to herself. “And you’ll get yours someday. It’s not right.” She choked back a torrent of tears, reached into her handbag, and removed a silver-plated revolver. Hiding the weapon in the folds of her dress, she stepped back into the dark alleyway and waited.
It wasn’t long until Frank walked out of the theatre, alone. Standing on the steps of the building, he lit up a cigar and cast a glance into the night sky. Preoccupied with the view of the stars, Frank did not see Tessie hurry across the street and race over to him. Before he realized what was happening, Tessie pointed the gun at his chest and fired. As Frank fell backwards, he grabbed hold of the rim of a nearby stage. Tessie unloaded two more shots into his upper body. Frank collapsed in a bloody heap.
Tessie stood over his near lifeless frame, sobbing. When the police arrived, she was kneeling beside Frank, the gun still clutched in her hand. When asked why she opened fire on him, she wailed, “I shot him ‘cause I love him, God damn him!”
Tessie Wall was one of the Barbary Coast’s most popular madams. Since entering the business in 1898, her life had been mired in controversy. Born on May 26, 1869, she was one of ten children. Her mother, who died at the age of forty-four, named her chubby, ash-blond daughter Teresa Susan Donahue. Her father, Eugene, was a dock worker and spent a considerable amount of time away from home. Teresa and her brothers and sisters took care of themselves. By the time she turned thirteen, Teresa, or Tessie as she was referred to by friends and family, had developed into a beautiful, curvaceous young woman. She turned heads everywhere she went in the Mission District where she lived.
In 1884, Tessie accepted a marriage proposal from Edward M. Wall, a handsome fireman twice her age. Edward was a heavy drinker and was often out of work because of his “weakness.” Tessie supported them with her job as a housekeeper. Two years after the pair married, they had a son. Joseph Lawrence Wall’s life was short. He died four months after his birth from respiratory complications. Tessie was devastated and, following her husband’s example, started drinking to dull the pain.
Joseph’s death had an adverse effect on Edward and Tessie’s relationship. Both blamed the other for their loss. The Wall’s marriage ended in bitter divorce. Historians believe heartbreak over her child’s death and the subsequent demise of her marriage contributed to Tessie’s decision to enter into a life of prostitution.
Before venturing out on her own, Tessie continued to keep house for some of San Francisco’s most prominent citizens. While in their employ, Tessie learned about the unconventional desires and habits many of the elite society members possessed. After learning how much money they were willing to pay for their debauchery, she decided to go into business for herself. In 1898, she purchased a brothel and hired a stable of beautiful young ladies to work for her.
In two years, Tessie’s “lodging house” had become so successful that she was able to open a second brothel.
Tessie Wall’s bordello was visited by some of the wealthiest businessmen and politicians in the state. Upon entering her business clients were greeted by elegantly dressed women offering them wine and champagne. The home itself was equally inviting and posh. It was furnished with antiques, plush red-velvet sofas and armchairs and a large gold fireplace. The draperies and bedroom furniture were just as ornate. She had a giant, gold Napoleon bed decorated with swans and cupids. The dresser and matching mirror were gilded gold.
Madam Wall’s parlor house was recognized as one of the best in the city. Tessie herself would spend time with her guests before they left with a lady of their choosing. She listened intently to their stories about life and work and would laugh uproariously at their jokes. Patrons were so captivated by the charms of their host that they often admitted that when they sat down in the parlor and started talking to Tessie, they often forgot what they came for.
Tessie Wall knew the importance of advertisement. The method she used to promote her house was unconventional but effective. She would clothe her girls in the latest garments from Paris and New York and send them out on the street for all to admire. Every Saturday afternoon, Tessie’s girls would hold a parade on Market Street. Everyone in the neighborhood would come out to see the new fashions being worn by the demimonde.
Once other madams saw how popular the parades were, they launched their own exhibitions. It wasn’t uncommon on weekends to see numerous women marching on opposite sides of the thoroughfare modeling the latest styles. Parlor houses with the best showing reaped the benefits in the evening. Due in large part to Tessie’s welcoming personality and the voluptuous ladies that worked for her, Tessie’s brothel was usually the one that did the most business.
Madam Wall’s parlor house yielded a sizeable profit, but the opportunities the income afforded her and the conversation she enjoyed with an array of customers couldn’t keep her from thinking about her son. During those melancholy moments she would once again turn to alcohol. By this point in her life Tessie was able to consume enormous quantities of wine and drink most men under the table. Often, she challenged beer drinkers to champagne drinking contests. The famous boxer John L. Sullivan was one such participant. Sullivan was unaccustomed to the effects of champagne and after twenty-one drinks he passed out. Still standing after twenty-two drinks, Tessie won the contest and was forever referred to as “the woman who licked John L. Sullivan.”
The life and business Madam Wall had built was almost destroyed by the great fire of 1906. A massive earthquake rocked San Francisco on August 1, causing electric lights to fall, spark, and set fire to buildings and homes along Market Street. The blaze spread throughout the city, reducing multiple structures to ash.
Despite her best efforts, Tessie’s parlor house did not survive the inferno. The only item she managed to save was the gold fireplace. When she rebuilt the brothel a year later the resilient item was put back in place. It became the focal point of the house and the subject of much conversation for years to come.
The new parlor house was just as popular as before, but competition from new rival houses had heightened. Jessie Hayman, the madam from a high-class establishment near Tessie’s, had attracted many clients, and her business continued to grow daily. Madam Wall was forced to come up with fresh ways to promote her house.
In addition to the weekly parades of her employees dressed in their finest, Tessie decided to show off her staff at music halls and theatres. Every Sunday evening Tessie and her ladies would attend a vaudeville performance at the Orpheum Theatre. She purposely arrived late so all eyes would be focused on her beauties as they made their way to their seats.
The stunt drastically increased nightly business. When Jessie Hayman learned what Tessie was doing, she began taking her ladies to the theatre, too. On Sunday nights the two madams would try to best each other with grand entrances that seemed to upstage the performers. Determined not to be outdone, Tessie decided to keep her girls from attending a couple of shows. The spectacle of their arrival always generated a lot of attention, and she hoped their absence would do the same.
The empty seats did pique the public’s interest, and just as the conversation about where they were died down, Tessie and her ladies returned. As the lights dimmed, the curtain went up, the music started, and Madam Wall and her girls made their way down the aisle. As though on cue, the show suddenly stopped, the house lights were turned up again and all eyes were on Tessie and her ladies.
For every public attempt to increase business there were private deals being made to do the same. It was not uncommon for hotel clerks, bell boys, head waiters, chefs at restaurants, and cabbies to be paid handsome sums to direct wealthy men to the finer parlor houses. Such help was generally worth ten percent of the amount earned from that customer.
Over her lengthy career, Tessie made friends with several well-known figures. One such man was politician Milton Latham, who would later become the governor of the state. At the time of their meeting, he was a struggling architect. Tessie was struggling herself. A public outcry against houses like hers from moral citizens prompted city officials to place restrictions on a madam’s ability to add more rooms to their business. Construction on a new house of ill repute was also restricted.
Despite the limitations, Latham wanted to build Tessie a new bordello. Madam Wall laughed at the thought and reminded him of the police blockade on houses like hers. “It’s so strict right now,” she told Latham, “That I can’t even put out red lights or hang red shades.” After Latham managed to convince Tessie that it was doable and his offer was sincere, she agreed to try to acquire a building permit. To her surprise, she was granted one.
Latham built an exquisite home in the city’s Tenderloin district. The three-story terra-cotta structure had twelve suites, a large kitchen and dining room, a saloon, three parlors, and a ballroom. An average of fourteen women lived and worked at the house. Some came to the ornate business from as far away as France. The majority of Madam Wall’s highly sought-after employees were young and blonde. A thirty- something brunette known as Black Gladys garnered the most attention at the home.
Madam Wall’s parlor house on 337 O’Farrell Street was a popular stop for college men and young entrepreneurs. Tessie’s clients could pay for the services of her ladies by cash or credit and did not normally spend the night. If gentlemen did stay overnight, however, they were sent on their way only after their clothes were pressed, and they were served a full breakfast.
Among the many repeat customers at Tessie’s establishment was Frank Daroux. Frank was a gambler and politician. He held a high-ranking position within the Republican Party and had a weakness for brothels. One evening in 1909, he wandered into Tessie’s place and was instantly captivated by the flamboyant madam. She was equally charmed by him. Frank invited Tessie to dinner, and the two laughed and conversed through an elaborate meal.
The evening left a lasting impression on Frank, not merely because the company was stimulating but because Tessie drank a considerable amount of wine. In addition to the fine French food the pair was served in a private dining room, Tessie enjoyed twenty bottles of champagne and never left the table.
Tessie was attracted to Frank for a variety of reasons. He resembled Napoleon—a man she thought was devilishly handsome. And he was clever, smart, and well respected in the community. It was that kind of respectability for which Tessie longed. After a whirlwind courtship and significant persuasion on her part, the pair was married.
Frank felt his career in politics would suffer if it were widely known he married a madam, so he insisted the wedding take place out of town and then be kept a secret. Tessie reluctantly agreed to his terms but made him promise she could host a party to celebrate their commitment to one another. One hundred guests attended the grand affair. They were treated to a delicious feast and eighty cases of champagne.
The Daroux’s marriage was rocky from the start. Preoccupied with his public image, Frank demanded Tessie remove herself as madam and run the business in a more covert manner. Tessie agreed, hoping the action would also allow the two to spend more time together. Frank, however, often left his new wife alone while he oversaw the activities at various gambling houses he owned. When he was home, neighbors would overhear the pair loudly arguing in the early hours of the morning.
The difficulties between the two worsened when a new mayor and city council, bent on reform, were elected to office. The conservative public servants wanted to stamp out gambling and prostitution in San Francisco. Once the Daroux’s livelihoods were threatened they turned on one another.
In an effort to convince politicians that his business practices and personal life were respectable, Frank removed himself even further from his bride. He befriended the newly elected officials, convincing them that profits earned from his establishment could financially benefit them and the city. He attended posh social engagements and rallies unaccompanied by Madam Wall.
The more politically powerful Frank became, the more he tried to persuade Tessie to sell the parlor house. He reasoned that if she got out of the business it would ultimately make him look better once news of their marriage became common knowledge. As further enticement to give up the parlor house, Frank purchased a home for Tessie in the country. The gesture did not bring about the desired result. Tessie refused to leave the bustle of the city. “I’d rather be an electric light pole on Powell Street,” she told her husband, “Than own all the land in the sticks.”
No matter how much she might have questioned the wisdom of marrying a man who did not accept her as she was, Tessie’s dreams of being embraced socially by San Francisco’s elite never wavered. She longed to be invited to chic affairs where important and well-respected guests appeared.
By the spring of 1911, she had managed to acquire an invitation to the Greenway Cotillion, a dinner and dance held to honor the city’s founding fathers. The invitation, for Madam Wall and twelve of her girls, was procured by a politician and regular guest of the parlor house and came with a stipulation. If the ladies chose to attend, their identities had to be disguised by champagne bottle costumes they would be required to wear. Tessie agreed.
Her appearance at the cotillion, even if it was disguised, impelled an unnamed socialite to invite Madam Wall to the annual Mardi Gras ball. Wearing tails and a top hat, Frank attended the gala with his wife. Tessie’s dress was tasteful and understated. She was disappointed but not surprised that her name was not listed in the local newspaper as one of the Mardi Gras attendees. She remedied the omission by reporting the loss of an expensive diamond broach at the location of the ball. The report was followed by a lost and found article placed in the San Francisco Examiner. Everyone who read the newspaper that day knew the notorious O’Farrell Street madam had been at the Mardi Gras ball.
Having managed to get herself on the guest list for many more engagements, Tessie was able to convince Frank that she was no longer political poison and was now worthy of a church wedding. Frank consented to a public ceremony but was adamant about Tessie retiring from the business.
This time she acquiesced and transferred the management of the house to one of her employees. Given the magnitude of the sacrifice, Tessie expected Frank to do something for her. At her request he promised to make all the arrangements for the reception and agreed to her guest list, choice of music, and location.
Once a priest who would marry them was secured a wedding date was set. Nearly two years from the date Frank and Tessie were initially married, the two renewed their vows. The second ceremony was held in the rectory of St. Mary’s Cathedral on July 11, 1911.
Within hours of the nuptials the Darouxes were exchanging insults. Frank had disregarded all of Tessie’s requests for the reception, and she verbalized her irritation in a toast where she announced that she was returning to her parlor house business as quickly as she could. Toward the end of the evening, the pair had once again reconciled. Frank took that opportunity of brief calm to present his wife with a wedding gift. News of the expensive gesture of affection was published in the San Francisco Chronicle the following day, with the headline “$10,000 Pearl Necklace Wedding Gift to Bride/Frank Daroux Marries Miss Theresa Donahue.”
After a brief honeymoon, Frank and Tessie returned to the lives they had made for themselves. Frank kept active in politics and oversaw business at his gambling dens. Tessie focused on her brothel. Religious groups staunchly opposed to parlor houses began a crusade to drive them out of business. Madam Wall’s place was a prime target. Frank did nothing to stop the powers-that-be from threatening her livelihood. But that was the least of her problems. Unbeknownst to Tessie, her husband was betraying her in a more profound way.
The Daroux’s relationship had always been a volatile one. They never shied away from quarreling in public. Frank grew tired of the embarrassing outbursts and was frustrated with the way it was diminishing his influence on key political figures. His attention eventually turned to a less combative woman he met at a fundraiser. In 1915, the two began having an affair. Tessie found the pair and vowed to kill the woman if she came near her husband again. Frank stayed in the marriage another two years before walking out on Tessie and filing for divorce.
Like all the other disagreements Tessie and Frank had in their eight years of marriage, the fight over how their union would end was made public as well.
Tessie made it clear to all who would listen that she did not want to lose Frank, and she contested the divorce numerous times. After a long and vicious court battle, the marriage was finally dissolved.
Tessie returned to her house to nurse her wounds. Her heart was broken. She couldn’t accept that Frank was officially out of her life. In a desperate attempt to win him back she secretly followed him around, waiting for a chance to speak with him and convince him to return to her.
The evening Frank was shot, the two had quarreled over Tessie’s threat to appeal the divorce. Frank warned his ex-wife that he’d “break her” if she went through with the action. He hurled a string of obscenities at her as he turned and walked away. She heard from a friend that Frank and his mistress were going to attend the theatre that evening, and she decided to confront the two there.
“Then I didn’t know what I did,” Tessie explained to the police after the shooting. When asked about the gun, Tessie told authorities that she bought it because of the other woman. “That woman took my husband away from me,” she cried. “For three or four years she has been going with him. It made me mad.” Tessie pleaded with the police to take her to the hospital where Frank was so she could see him.
As they transported the sobbing madam to the sanitarium, she professed her undying love for her “darling husband.”
Frank was conscious when Tessie entered the emergency room. The three bullets she had emptied into his upper torso had missed his vital organs. Doctors expected him to make a full recovery. The police escorted Tessie to his bedside and asked Frank if she was the one who shot him. “Yes, she shot me,” he responded. “Take her away. I don’t want to see her.” According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Tessie Daroux lifted her handkerchief to her face in a gesture of horror and reeled back into the arms of the officer.”
Madam Wall was booked on a charge of intent to kill and held without bail for three months. Bail was finally granted when Frank was given a clean bill of health. In a move that surprised everyone, Frank announced to the authorities that he had decided not to press charges on Tessie. She took the news as a sign of his continued affection for her and filed an appeal on the divorce. Frank had hoped the incident and his willingness not to prosecute would drive Tessie away. Once he found out that she was appealing the divorce, he changed his mind about pressing charges.
The shooting, and subsequent court activity was front page news. The scandal wreaked havoc on Frank’s political future. His peers informed him that he was a liability and suggested relocating. Frank agreed and reversed his decision again about having Tessie prosecuted and made arrangements to marry his mistress.
Days before Frank was to marry the other woman, Madam Wall again took gun in hand. This time she set out to kill her rival. When she found her eating lunch at a popular restaurant, Tessie shot through the glass window at the future Mrs. Daroux. Her aim was poor, and the woman was not hit. Tessie was arrested, and, while she was being held, Frank remarried. With the stipulation that Tessie not be released until they left town, Mr. and Mrs. Daroux agreed not to press charges. Frank and his bride then moved to the East Coast.
Madam Wall went back to her parlor house, boxed up all the busts and paintings she had of Napoleon and stored them away. She never fully retired from the trade and remained a controversial figure throughout the duration of her life.
On the morning of April 28, 1932, Tessie pulled an impacted tooth that had been bothering her. That evening she died of a hemorrhage following the extraction.
Newspapers marked her passing with an obituary Tessie had preapproved.
“One more bit of ‘the San Francisco that was’ has drifted off in that uncharted Sargossa that holds the old Barbary Coast, the Poodle Dog, the Silver Dollar, the Bank Exchange, the Mason Street Tenderloin and those other gay haunts that made San Francisco famous through the Seven Seas.”
The San Francisco Chronicle, April 30, 1932
Mrs. Teresa Susan Wall Daroux was sixty-two years old.