The Western frontier was a tough place for anyone to make a living, and more so for a woman on her own. Some women turned — by choice — to the most reliable source of income they could find in the world's oldest profession. These are the women profiled in Lael Morgan's "Wanton West: Madams, Money, Murder and the Wild Women of Montana's Frontier," a finalist for a High Plains Book Award in the Woman Writer category.
The story ranges from the gold boom at Last Chance Gulch, later Helena, to the diverse and wild miners working the copper strikes in Butte, to the rowdy cow town of Miles City. Morgan outlines how these towns were established — Helena and Butte around their mining claims, and Miles City in the wake of the Army at Fort Keogh. She relates the stories of a number of entrepreneurial-minded women who saw an opportunity to make money from miners, soldiers and cowboys with drinking, gambling and girls.
The truly interesting times came as the towns developed a veneer of respectability. Seeking to distance themselves from the economics of sin, city fathers and genteel wives — whose own backgrounds were not always pristine — began enacting laws to squeeze the pleasure palaces out of their neighborhoods and towns, or at least to well-defined and surprisingly long-lived red-light districts. Reformers proclaimed that these houses bred violence, alcoholism and degradation, and that was true enough for many of their inmates, but some women prospered as well. At one point, Helena madams were the real estate wheeler-dealers and venture capitalists for many men trying to start businesses of their own.
Some prominent historical figures pass through these pages. Prohibitionist Carrie Nation tried to take on one of the establishments in Butte and failed miserably. Morgan profiles the rise of Jeannette Rankin into political prominence and her election as the first woman in Congress as a contrast to the shady ladies, which seems an odd juxtaposition. More logical is the story of William Clark, the Butte copper king, who had a decided fondness for the business establishments that were euphemistically called “boarding-houses.” And it wouldn't be a true book of Montana history if Charlie Russell and Calamity Jane didn't wander by.
Morgan includes a timeline of Montana history to provide context and a number of historical photographs of madams and their girls. She also includes a long appendix of names to help readers keep the players straight; readers will need it, too, as Morgan throws into the book every madam, miner and cowboy she finds in a sometimes confusing whirl of names and places.
"Wanton West: Madams, Money, Murder and the Wild Women of Montana's Frontier" is well-researched and, despite its myriad characters, very readable. This is nonjudgmental history, not gossip or prurience, and it makes a nice addition to the literature concerning Montana boomtowns.
Dee Ann Redman is the assistant director at Parmly Billings Library.