The light from a full October moon filtered through the open window beside Rose Ellis’s bed. The eighty-four year old woman stared thoughtfully into the night sky then closed her eyes in a half-hearted attempt to block out the peaceful image. Tears rolled off her tormented face onto the pillow underneath her head. The evening was calm and still, but her emotions were not. The sheets and blankets that once neatly covered her bed were crumpled and some were lying on the floor. Rose was restless, troubled. “Don‘t worry,” she whispered to herself. “I know what must be done.”
The Belmont Rest Home in San Francsico where Rose had just moved was a sparsely decorated, sterile environment – a stark contrast to the parlor houses she had furnished and managed in her younger years. Rose’s eighty-two year old sister Buena was lying in a bed a few feet away from her. Buena had lived with Rose her entire life. She wasn’t any more accustomed to her homogenized surroundings than Rose, but she had managed to fall asleep. Rose was grateful for that. Buena was developmentally disabled and seemed least harassed by the challenges of life when she slept.
As Rose watched her sister’s slow, steady breathing she thought back to the promise she had made her father to take care of Buena. On November 11, 1918, news that the Ellis girls’ father had died sent Buena into shock. Doctors performed a lobotomy on the distressed woman which left her brain damaged. Rose pledged to care for her only living relative for the rest of her life.
Old age, lack of funds and limited options forced Rose to commit herself and Buena to the rest home. Although it was not an ideal situation, Rose was resigned to the living conditions. When doctors informed her that she had very little time to live she decided to reevaluate the arrangement. The alternative she arrived at was extreme but necessary. It weighed heavily on her heart.
Lifting herself out of her bed, Rose shuffled over to a large bureau and slowly opened the top drawer. She removed a .38 caliber, nickel-plated revolver hidden under a stack of camisoles. She opened the gun and loaded two bullets into the chamber.
Taking a deep breath she made her way to Buena’s bed, knelt down and kissed her on the cheek. Using all the strength in both her aged hands she pulled the hammer back and held the weapon to her sister’s ear. A shot rang out and Buena was gone.
Tears streamed down Rose’s face as she cocked the gun again and pressed it to her own temple. “See you soon, my darling sister,” she whispered to Buena’s lifeless form. The final shot was fired. Rose fell in a heap on the floor, the smoking gun still clutched in her hand.
Little is known about Rose’s early life. Much of the information on hand at the Searl’s Historical Library in Nevada City, California was acquired from one of Rose’s longtime friends. The Native historian worked for the local railroad and assisted Rose with her baggage and transportation to and from her parlor house.
Rose Aline Ellis was born in 1878. Her father was a wealthy, South Dakota miner. Her mother died when Rose and her sister were very young. The girl’s father doted on his daughters, giving them every advantage he could afford. In 1910, after learning about the business opportunities on the West Coast, he moved his family to San Francisco. He hoped to earn enough to secure a future for his daughters. Rose was forty-years old when he died.
Left with the awesome responsibility of caring for her handicapped sister, Rose decided to pursue a career in the oldest profession in the world. Prostitution was a lucrative business. Rose was aware of how well the madams in the area did and believed that was the only job that would bring in the funds needed to help Buena. Rose managed parlor houses up and down the Bay Area’s red light district from 1918 to 1929.
The economy was suffering throughout the United States in 1930. There were a few businesses that continued to revel in prosperity; one of which was prostitution. After eleven years of working for various brothel owners, Rose decided to go into the prostitution business on her own. She opened her first house in Nevada County. The area boasted the richest gold mine in the state. Nevada City, where her house was located, was the third largest city in California. Thousands of ambitious miners had descended upon the spot to extract tons of gold ore from the rich earth.
Rose called her house the Golden Gate Amusement Company. Patrons of the three-story, yellow house on Spring Street referred to the vivacious madam as Texas Tommy. In order to accommodate three shifts of men working in the mines, she kept her doors opened twenty-four hours a day.
Rose used the considerable profits from the house to purchase a grand nightclub that catered to both men and women. It was a fashionable saloon with sparkling chandeliers, red velvet drapes, a large stage and an orchestra pit complete with instruments. Champagne flowed from fountains and the finest food was served. Six weeks after the Heidelberg Club opened the building caught fire and burned to the ground. Arson was suspected, but local authorities could not find the culprit. Nevada County residents speculated that a jealous housewife torched the brothel, but no proof of that ever materialized.
Once the ashes had been swept away, Rose’s attention shifted solely to her brothel. Her house was always busy, especially on pay day; so much so she had to send for extra entertainers to come in and help. Rose charged clients $2.50 for the company of one of her girls. Many of the ladies made as much as $50 a night. Rose received twenty percent of their earnings.
Madam Tommy is reported to have been quite generous with the wealth she acquired. Not only did she shower Buena with beautiful clothes and gifts, she also contributed funds to help support poor and hungry children. Whenever a miner died from an on the job injury a wagon load of groceries and firewood would mysteriously appear on the widow’s doorstep. Although she never admitted it, townspeople agreed that Texas Tommy was the source of the supplies.
Madam Tommy always appeared in public immaculately dressed. Her auburn-strawberry colored hair was nicely styled and more often than not, adorned with a rose. She expected the girls that worked for her to follow her example in keeping a neat and orderly appearance. She believed people treated you with respect if you looked like you respected yourself. On those rare occasions when Rose was treated rudely she would scold the offender for his actions and warn them to “never let it happen again.”
A teller at the Nevada County bank refused to cash a dividend check Rose and Buena had received from one of her father’s mines in the Dakotas. The banker’s actions so enraged the madam that she stormed out the establishment vowing to never do business with them again. When she finally did get the check cashed (at an out of town bank), she used the money to throw a party in every saloon in town and persuaded all those in attendance to consider ending their association with the Nevada County bank.
Those close to Texas Tommy noted that she was an extravagant spender. It was not uncommon for her to purchase breakfast for her girls and their overnight guests, rent out entire hotels for wild celebrations, buy expensive presents for children in the neighborhood and treat railroad baggage handlers to a night on the town.
“One night in 1936 – in the line of official duties of course…. I went to collect the weekly passenger fares. Texas suggested we paint the town a little bit red. She opened a drawer in her office. I had never seen so much money in my life. $5, $10, and $20 bills to overflowing. On top of the whole pile was a small pearl handled pistol. Texas lifted her satin skirt and stuffed her voluminous bloomers with bills of every denomination and away we went to every saloon in Nevada County…”
Bob Paine – October 14, 1981
Madam Tommy’s Golden Gate Amusement Company remained in operation until 1942 when the United States Army forced her to close her doors. Off duty soldiers from a nearby Army post were frequently caught at the parlor house. They were severely reprimanded and told to stay away from the house.
Because the country was at war soldiers were required to wear their uniforms at all times. The order made secret visits to Tommy’s place difficult. To get around being spotted going into the bordello, the soldiers devised a plan to change into mechanics overalls and slip in undetected. After a sharp-eyed reporter at the local newspaper exposed the activity the military and law enforcement moved in and shut the business down.
Madam Tommy and her sister returned to the Bay area in 1943. Rose took care of Buena as long as she was able. Once her health began to decline she moved them both into a nursing home. On April 26, 1962, news of the tragic demise of the kind hearted madam and her sister made the front page of a San Francisco newspaper.
“She was driven by an undying devotion to her sister…. Even in death Texas Tommy had class and courage. So let’s close this sad story with Jesus’ admonishment in his Sermon on the Mount. ’Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’”
San Francisco Chronicle – April 28, 1962
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.