Minnie Henderson, a prostitute working at Madam Annie Woods’ brothel in Lead, South Dakota, crawled to a corner of her room, sobbing loudly and writhing in pain. Her face was a fountain of blood. The sporting girls who worked across the hall from her were on either side of the distressed woman trying to help. They covered the deep cuts across Minnie’s cheeks, nose, and forehead with thick towels and bed sheets. Curious inmates in the house raced to the room to find out the reason for the commotion. Some stood frozen, their eyes wide with terror; others hurried off to find the police and a doctor. Minnie wept and cried; her hands cupped over her bleeding ears.
Thelma Campbell, a frantic courtesan with unruly hair and desperately pale skin, ran as fast as she could down the dusty road out of Lead on her way to Deadwood. She was wearing a kimono that barely covered her undergarments and carrying a cloth bag, bulging with whatever she could stuff in it at a moment’s notice. Carving up Minnie’s face had been unexpected. After the deed was done, Thelma wanted to get away as quickly as possible. She’d had no time to dress or pack properly. She planned to hop on a stage leaving Deadwood and make her way to Pierre where she would board a train heading out of South Dakota.
Thelma was apprehended before she made it to the stage, but the arrest didn’t come easy. She fought the sheriff’s deputies and cursed them all the way to jail. The date she was placed into custody was September 3, 1908.
The Daily Deadwood Pioneer Times gave a full report of the attack the day after it occurred. “As a result of a jealous quarrel…one woman is in the hospital suffering injuries which may prove fatal, and another is in jail in this city. Thelma Campbell and Minnie Henderson came from Kansas City together a few months ago and have, since going to Lead, been at dance halls there. They roomed together, and this caused the altercation with serious results. Each girl wanted the other to give her possession of the room, and, after a quarrel, Thelma seized a razor and proceeded to carve some fancy designs on the anatomy of her roommate.
“One slash started on the forehead, passing over the cheek and to the neck, missing the jugular vein by a fraction. This wound will disfigure the girl for life. Another thrust extended from under the left arm around the abdomen, requiring fifty stiches to close. Her clothing offered slight protection, and the wound is deep and dangerous.”
Minnie survived the ordeal and, although she was left permanently scarred by the attack, refused to pursue charges against her assailant. The state was bound to take action against Thelma, however, and the judge overseeing the case scheduled the woman’s hearing for September 9, 1908. Thelma’s bond was set at $500. Minnie’s recovery was slow; she had stitches on her face, chest, and neck, and that prompted the court to postpone the matter several times. The prosecution wanted Minnie to be well enough to appear at the trial.
Both the victim and accused met in the courtroom on October 2, 1908. The proceedings didn’t last long. Minnie explained to the judge that she’d forgiven Thelma and wanted to move on. That act of mercy kept Thelma from being sent to the penitentiary. The sentence she received was thirty days in the county jail, and it was time she had already served.
Minnie and Thelma were back at work at the bawdy house shortly after the case was closed. Less than two weeks later, the pair found themselves in another life-threatening situation when the brothel caught fire. The blaze started on the second floor of the house on Friday, October 14, 1908, by a lit cigarette placed too close to the curtains. Minnie and Thelma escaped without injury, but two courtesans died in the fire, and six others suffered burns or broken bones trying to get out of the building. A customer named Frank Askine also lost his life in the fire.
The brothel was rebuilt by the end of the year, and Thelma and Minnie returned to the job. Minnie eventually tired of the business and decided to leave the area. She was with several other passengers onboard a streetcar in Des Moines, Iowa, when the vehicle was struck by a passenger train. She was seriously hurt in the accident.
Thelma’s career as a courtesan in the Black Hills thrived. The publicity surrounding the incident that occurred with Minnie and her subsequent arrest and trial had made her somewhat of a novelty. Curious men sought her out, and one of them captured her heart. When it became clear he did not want a future with Thelma, she became enraged and threatened the woman she believed was the reason for the trouble in their relationship.
On November 22, 1911, Thelma made her way to a local restaurant for dinner. She’d been drinking heavily just before that and, when she arrived at the eatery, decided to kill herself rather than order a meal. She found a butcher knife at the restaurant and started cutting herself. She sliced open her arms in several places before customers intervened and the police were called. She was arrested and bailed out by her employer.
Thelma was in deep despair when she was escorted back to her room at the brothel. Determined to end her life, she took a dose of carbolic acid. It wasn’t enough to get the job done, and, after a doctor was called to exam her, the police took her into custody for attempted suicide. She pled not guilty at her hearing in February 1912. The court fined her $25 and warned her to stay out of trouble. She didn’t listen.
On Saturday, April 6, 1912, a fight broke out in one of the saloons in Deadwood between Thelma and another prostitute in town. During the altercation, Thelma smashed a beer bottle over the woman’s head, knocking her out and cutting a gash in her scalp. Thelma was immediately arrested and spent the night in jail. The following morning, she was released after a $100 bond was paid. At the trial that followed, Thelma was sentenced to eighty days hard labor at a penitentiary in Illinois and, as a condition of parole she might receive, the judge strongly suggested she never return to the Black Hills. It was another directive she chose to ignore. By the fall of 1912, she was back in Deadwood and causing trouble.
Working as a prostitute and flitting in and out of jail, news that a law had been passed prohibiting the transportation of a person with the intent to engage them in prostitution must have missed Thelma. She learned about the Mann Act on October 29, 1912, when she was arrested in Lead. A special agent with the United States Department of Justice charged Thelma with white slavery after discovering she brought five women into the Black Hills from Missouri for the purposes of working in the prostitution trade.
“The charge is a most serious one,” the October 30, 1912, edition of the Lead Daily Call reported, “and should the Campbell women be found guilty she will be sentenced to one of the federal prisons for a long term of years. The girls in question were brought from Kansas City and entered and became inmates of one of the gilded palaces of sin in Deadwood.
“In order that they would be available as witnesses in the hearing before the commissioner this morning, the women in question were taken into custody last evening. This is the first time that the charge of white slavery has been brought against anyone in the Black Hills, and it is the intention of the federal authorities to push the matter to the limit.
“At a hearing before Commissioner Moore, the evidence was so conclusive that the defendant, Thelma Campbell, was held to appear for trial before the next term of the federal court and her bail placed at the sum of $5,000. Unable to give the bond required, the Campbell woman was delivered into the custody of the United States marshal.
“Bessie Meyers and Jessie Graham, two of the victims of the bondage of white slavery, who were important witnesses for the prosecution in the case against the Campbell woman, were placed under $500 bonds each and being unable to furnish them were delivered into the custody of the United States marshal to ensure appearance at the trial.”
Thelma was taken back to Missouri to stand trial in Kansas City. Her hearing was scheduled for late spring 1913, and authorities estimated she could be sentenced to more than ten years in a penitentiary if found guilty. In April, she accepted a plea of six months in jail if she turned state’s evidence. She did so and implicated her former employer, Anna Woods. Woods fled to Canada before she could be taken into custody.
Thelma Campbell served her time and was never seen in the Black Hills again.