THE PUBLIC ARCH SHOOTING
Let’s return to El Paso, that wild town on the border of West Texas. When the train finally reached that wild and woolly place, it disgorged a variety of good honest people, along with an abundance of less savory individuals. In its march toward gentler times and more gentle civilization, we met many of its inhabitants before in these chapters. There was Dallas Stroudenmire, Doc Cummings and the Manning brothers. John Westley Harden, Elfego Baca and a host of others passed through. Along with the gamblers, con men, gunslingers and regular cowboys, there came the Ladies of the Night. This episode covers a pair of famous El Paso Madams.
Etta Clark came by train – petite, and five foot tall – she brought with her a mean temper and a fiery mouth. She must of had some charms because it was said she had a way with some of El Paso’s better heeled gentlemen.
El Paso had the usual assortment of these ladies of the night. Beginning with the streetwalkers and crib girls who advertised their wares from the windows of the one-room apartments, or cribs. Then came the saloon girls who worked in the lofts behind the saloon or upstairs. At the top of the heap were the madams.
The parlor houses in El Paso lined Utah Street (Now Mesa Street). In these establishments were employed only the most beautiful women, in the finest gowns possible. These establishments only catered to wealthiest men in town. The men of El Paso had a wide variety of gals to choose from – crib girls worked for as little as fifty-cents to a dollar. While parlor house gals charged from $3 to $5 (remember we are talking the 1880’s here).
Madams were experts at making money off their girls. The girls were charged for the use of their rooms, meals, laundry, and any clothes provided them. Since the girls often had trouble meeting their expenses the madams often permitted them to make a charge account.
Often a girl became so hopelessly in debt that she could not catch up, and quite often a madam would inflict punishment on a girl for not making up her losses. A common discipline was to confiscate a girls clothing until her arrears were caught up.
Several of Etta Clark’s girls found themselves in this state, and from December until April 1882, they sued Etta – claiming she “wrongly appropriated their belongings” – eight lawsuits in all were filed. Clark lost the case and had to pay the girls who had sued her.
Madams advertised their business in various ways. In the 1901 Worleys Directory of the City of El Paso, Clark recorded her occupation as the owner of furnished rooms, and listed her name as Madam Etta Clark. Most of the men who looked at the directory knew that meant she rented her rooms by the hour and the “furnishings” included a girl.
Leather-printed cards and advertisements in souvenir booklets for large city events were used. The ladies were indeed cunning business women.
As stated, Clark was a great business woman. Her weakness was her terrible temper, considered beautiful by some, others found her vicious. She often ran off customers with her foul mouth, creating more enemies than friends.
Known as “Fat Alice”, Alice Abbot was Etta Clark’s rival located just across the street from Clark’s establishment. Alice arrived in El Paso in 1880, at six feet tall and weighing a formidable two-hundred pounds, Alice was a force to be reckoned with. No one seems to know why the two became such bitter rivals. At one time Alice was quoted as saying that “Etta Clark was a whore to niggers” – the ultimate insult in that prejudicial time.
On April 18, 1886, an argument erupted between Abbot and one of her girls, Bessie Colvin, who wanted to leave and work for Etta Clark. Bessie sought refuge in Etta’s parlor, with Fat Alice in pursuit. Alice pounded on Etta’s door with her ham-like fists. When Etta finally opened the door, Alice punched her in the face. With great pain and anger, Etta turned and ran to grab a gun.
The incident is reported as follows, “The weapon roared its authority, sending a bullet into Alice’s pubic arch. Clutching her groin, Alice screamed: “My God, I’m shot.” She lurched from the hall and staggered down into the street.” Etta Clark shot again but missed. When Alice looked up, she caught Clark with a smile on her face as she went back in her house.
El Paso could not help but smile at the thought of the diminutive Clark drawing a heavy handgun and shooting the giant Abbot – a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier – in the most delicate of parts. They did more than smile if accounts are recorded right – they guffawed.
Alice survived the shooting, despite the risk of blood poisoning, and a fifty-fifty chance of dying. The newspapers called this the case of ” Public Arch Shooting” , hence the title of this chapter, but all who read it knew to what it actually referenced. The widely circulated story caused the public to make fun of Abbot, increasing her anger and hate. To add insult to injury, it only took the jury fifteen minutes to find Etta Clark not guilty on grounds of self defence. Alice Abbot’s humiliation was now complete.
In the early hours of July 12, 1888 Etta Clark’s parlor house caught fire while she and all the girls were asleep. They all managed to escape, but the house and all belongings were destroyed. Later it was determined that Abbot had hired a couple of drunks to start the fires, but gaps in the evidence led to both Alice’s and the mens acquittal.
Etta Clark and her girls were reduced to the level of street walkers. Etta’s luck changed with the appearance of J. P. Dieter, one of her adoring clients, who built her a new huge parlor. His wife divorced him and took their children back east. Etta and Dieter lived as husband and wife without ever becoming married.
In Februrary 1890 Alice Abbot leased her brothel to a younger woman, Tillie Howard. Alice spent several lonely and unhappy years and, in her early 40’s, she died on April 7, 1896 of a heart attack. She was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery. Her death went unreported in the papers because of widespread interest in a boxing match and municipal elections, a perfect time to have advertised in earlier days.
In 1904, Etta Clark became ill and decided to run her business from the third floor of the Mayar Opera House. The Opera House caught fire and burned down in 1905. Etta barley escaped alive and suffered complications from smoke inhalation. During a trip to her sister’s in Alanta in 1908 she died of these complications..
The first police officer killed in the line of duty was Assistant city Marshal Thomas Mode. Mode, responding to a disturbance at Abbot’s brothel along with jailer Jim wheat. During the investigation of said disturbance, Mode was shot several times and staggered out into the mud of Utah Street, where he died. No further details are provided of this July 19, 1883 incident.
The fines levied against the streetwalkers and women of the brothels paid the salaries of the police and fire department, so the town fathers turned a deaf ear to the complaints levied about the brothels. However in 1882 they began enforcing the sections 49 and 73 of the City charter, ordering the arrest of all wanton women and their employers. Of course the term arrest was a misnomer, what it ment they were fined and turned loose. This was in effect a license to practice their trade.
Madams all over the west ran their businesses successfully and some see them as the feminists of their age.
So pardners I’ve hung with these gals long enough. I gotta scoot afore my wife catches me with them.
- Ladies Of The Night in the Old West
- One Last visit to the Old Wests Prostitutes
- Two More Old West Prostitutes and their Men
- A Sad end For A Madam Of the Wild West