Monday, August 8, 2011

The Room

After the family scattered, I turned the farmhouse at the ranch into a Bed and Breakfast. Each bedroom had a name of an unsung hero of the Helena area. One room was named, "Chicago Joe."

Who Sez Lust Don't Pay?

Chicago Joe could have more accurately had the nickname, "Irish Mary." At least this name would have given a hint to her gender and a reason for the thick Irish brogue. But "Chicago Joe" it was, a nickname that needed no explanation in early Helena history.

Mary Josephine Airey left Ireland when when she was 14 and found her way to the seamy side of Chicago. The Civil War was raging to the East and South but in Chicago, it was "business as usual" for the prostitutes, the soiled doves, the ladies of the evening. Mary Josephine took the name "Joe" and soon learned the subtle manners of the oldest profession of women.

With youth, good looks and and indomitable will to survive, Joe learned her trade in the big city, then took her satchel of money and headed to the Western mining camps. Helena, one of the bawdiest, fastest-growing mining camp in the West was a mecca of opportunity for Chicago Joe.

She invested in real estate, hurdy gurdy houses, saloons, brothels and variety theaters. Joe ruled as queen of the underworld for more than 30 years, at a time when prostitutes owned the greater percentage of main street real estate. She held politicians and bankers in her pocket ...... all the time never having learned to read or write her name.

No woman had ever been arrested for prostitution before 1886. Prostitution WAS respectability. Money hold power. A bank clerk earned $125 a month while a "lady of the evening" earned an average $233 a month.

As the railroads increased and brought families, Helena bowed to tighter legislation and soon the Madam establishments were pushed off Main Street. Cornered into obscurity with "pimps" for protection, prostitution descended from it's "glory days" into it's present state of degradation .............. BUT the memory of Chicago Joe lives on.
The memory especially lived on in the cheerful name-sake room, up in the mountains, of Birdseye Bed and Breakfast. After breakfast, the guests (usually history buffs) asked me to sit with them over coffee and tell stories of the room names. It kept me from doing my work but I loved being a "story teller."


  1. oh, what a great piece of history, and a make-her-own-success woman. :)

  2. You are a wonderful woman. having the cheek to name a room after a prostitute is admirable. i bet your guests enjoyed your tales.

  3. Hooozah for Chicago Joe!!! What a fabulous woman! Yay!

    Your B&B sounds like such a great place to stay in!!!

    Take care

  4. I love history, with stories of the wild west being favorites. What a fascinating glimpse into another time this is! If I ever stay in Chicago, I am definitely going to want to stay at your bed and breakfast and listen to you tell stories!

  5. It's too bad we spend so much time, energy and money still legislating morals.

    I'm glad you honored this woman in this way.

  6. I am going to amend my previous comment :) I guess Chicago Joe was from Chicago, but the bed and breakfast is in Montana, where she moved. I hope I can visit your bed and breakfast someday. You are a great story teller :)

  7. Manzi--What a fascinating story! Did you know I was once a prostitute? JUST KIDDING!!!!!!!!
    Do you still run the bed & breakfast? What a wonderful way to meet people--but what a lot of work!

  8. Texwisgirl : Yeah, I always kinda felt close to her spirit. hummmm, wonder what that says about me???

    Friko : But the guests loved it. I had little blurbs about each room on the ads and people fought over the Chicago Joe room.

    Kitty : She must have been fabulous. I sometimes walked the old sidewalks where she walked, just to feel her spirit when I was writing about her.

    Patti : Thank you for writing and yes, Chicago Joe took her money she accumulated in Chicago and moved to Helena, Montana when it was a bawdy new mining town. I still own the ranch but I'm not running it anymore. My Granddaughter just removed some furniture from the house for her new place.

    Teresa : Thank you. She's always been a favorite of my "unsung hero's"

    Fishducky : WOW and then un-WOW. I believe anything at first.
    No, the house is rented at the moment. You can say the word "work" again. Lots. But I had a friend who loved to work there because we had such fascinating guests. Since it wasn't exactly location, location, location, we got all the guests off the internet and I wrote blurps about the history and we were very close to Gates of the Mountains on the Missouri River and Lewis and Clark history so most of the guests were looking for history. Yes it was a fun time of my life.

  9. What a fascinating story! You know if you still owned this place and blogged about the stories and history, people would flock to your B & B. I know I would. Wish it were still there, with you holding court in the dining room telling stories. That would be the place to visit!

  10. Fascinating that prostitution was considered respectable but, given the time and circumstances, it makes sense. It is very cool that you named a room for her. Thanks for sharing a bit of the old West. Loved it!

  11. You are a story teller! I would have loved staying at your B&B, sitting around the breakfast table listening to your
    history lessons!

  12. The tingle in my fingers tells me you have a LOT more stories to tell us about this.

  13. Karen : I did have a website and that's where we got guests. Maybe 70% were from countries other than the U.S. They didn't want to be in a city but they were usually following the history, mainly Lewis and Clark.

    Elizabeth : It was at a time in the mining towns before wives and children came and there were no churches yet.

    Shawn : Thanks. We got such neat and interesting guests. As I told someone, they were usually following history, Lewis and Clark.

    Delores : You must be a tingly-fingered psychic. LOL Maybe I will..Ha

  14. Hi there. I love history as well, and this was a great story. Amazing to think that, back then, prostitutes owned all the real estate and held such power. Strangely enough, I'm reading a book about Nell Gwynn at the moment, the mistress of King Charles the 2nd of England, and it was the same back then. The money they could earn!! Very interesting story. Thank you.

  15. What a great story! I never realized that Chicago Joe's line of work was considered respectable before the arrests in 1886! I'm with Delores, I'd love to read more of your stories! Julie

  16. Wow. Definitely a great story, what a lady! Prostitution, oldest profession in the world, apparently.

    Thanks so much for sharing this piece of history. I love hearing stories like this.

  17. Hi Manzi .. great fun - and it would be wonderful to hear more stories, and feel the country and surrounds through your words .. love this post - the logic of it makes sense .. we have so much to learn about the social mores of those times .. do tell!! cheers Hilary

  18. I almost picked up a book on the history of railroading in America, yesterday. I wonder how the oldest profession would have figured in that non-fictional account.

  19. This is me : I love the stories of the mistresses of yore. They always seemed to have it all, except the name.

    Julie : Thanks for the encouragement. I'm happy you like history too.

    Talei, Apparently it is the oldest profession and the ladies used to work their way up the ranks, like any other profession. :)

    Hilary : I do have a few more. Ahem. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Suze : Railroads did figure in getting rid of the prostitutes. The trains brought the "respectable women" and their families to Helena. The wives were the ones to instigate getting rid of prostitution. Makes perfect sense to me. :)

    Thank you, everyone for your interesting and kind comments.

  20. Great story! I can see why your guests requested your time. :) Don't you wish we had more women like that today?
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  21. What a cool story. I swear I don't why it's illegal. It's a perfect name for a room. I can only imagine the reactions when visitors find out the true origins behind "Chicago Joe."

  22. Now that is a woman and story that needs to be published, then put on the silver screen.
    I once worked for a retired call girl and dated a pimp wanna be so that story interested me.
    Your place had the three B's. Bed, Breakfast and Bawdy:))

  23. Oh Manzy, I just love you and your blogs.

    You should of been a famous writer, you have such a way with words and can make a prostitute seem interesting.

  24. Thanks for the interesting story - and what a great story it is.

  25. Loved the rich history you have shared here with us. I had no idea about some of this information on the oldest profession in the world. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for telling us about your Chicago Joe! What a lady!

  26. Oh what fabulous colorful history. I knew Wallace Idaho had the last remaining whorehouse in the state (still open when I was in High School) but I guess I never thought about where the industry came from or how truly thriving it was.

  27. To tell the truth, I never really thought of prostitution as having "glory days", but I suppose if it was the road a strong woman chose, and then followed to make her way in the world, more power to her. Thanks for the interesting peek at days gone by.

  28. Times have changed. Hookers now earn much more. However, bank clerks are still around $125.00.

  29. Jules : Yes, she was a strong determined survivor. Couldn't even read or write her name but she was respected in the business world.

    Al : The guests all knew about the names of the rooms ahead of time because it was all on my website.

    Patti " A pimp wannabe? Now I'm interested. That would make some fascinating story.

    Terry : Hey, how are you? Thanks. Chicago Joe's life really is interesting. I spent weeks gathering all the information on her life. I mean years ago when I ran the B & B.

    Gigi : Thanks. Hope your cold is gone.

    Beth : Thanks for the comment. History is just "there" and can't be erased.

    Hart : That's interesting that the last house was in Idaho. The wild West seem to have been saturated with brothels.

    Susan : I guess "Glory Days" meant they could have their houses on main street with a sign just like a shoe store.

    JJ.. Ha ..... You are right about that. But don't tell the bank clerks.

  30. Great story! I'm glad to know that she is not forgotten :), Miriam@Meatless Meals For Meat Eaters

  31. What an amazing story (you see you're still enjoying telling stories) and how funny that you named a B&B room after such a colourful character. She must have been a fantastic business woman, all that and she couldn't even sign her name.

  32. Just proves the old adage - 'well behaved women rarely make history'!!! Go, girl!!!

  33. Great post.

  34. You've done it again! Taught me something new, and in such an engaging way!

    Love you, Manzi!
    xoxoxo, clare

  35. Great post! Chicago Joe was a savvy businesswoman.

  36. Greetings from the Amish community of Lebanon,Pa. Richard from Amish Stories.

  37. What a great story! I didn't know anything about her. I bet your B&B was a huge success.

  38. Miriam : Thank you for coming by.

    Roselind : That is what I always saw in her too. Thanks.

    Red : Is zatso? Guess I better act up real soon if I want to be a part of history. LOL

    Me : Hey it's nice to hear from you again.

    Clare : I thank you but I think Ye may hold all the knowledge already. Oh ye wise woman.

    Bali Mox : Glad you stopped by for a smile.

  39. What a great story. I love history and enjoyed reading this. It reminded me of a documentary about prostitution in Honolulu during WWII.
    Thanks for the story.

  40. What wonderful stories you tell Manzanita!

    Chicago Joe appears to have been a helluva gal!

    I would be interested to learn the history of your other bedroom names.

    Anna :o]

  41. Story telling is good.

  42. Seeing as I've lived in Chicago for a long time, this was especially fun to read. What an amazing woman she was.

  43. Hi im a new follower from the blog hop
    I really enjoyed your blog and hope you will visit me over in the uk anytime

  44. Anthony : I'm always happy to hear when people like history. Wish I'd majored in History, but all you have to do it read it.

    Anna : Not too many gals have her spunk these days. She was a survivor.

    Honest Abe : Thanks, Abe. Nice to see you again.

    Kay : You lived in Chicago? That must have been a welcome change to move to Hawaii. I love Chicago but it's as cold as Minneapolis and that's where I lived most of my life.

    Jolly Jolly : Thanks for stopping and commenting. I will be over to vist you shortly.

  45. I've always liked stories of women hiding as men. During stage coach days, Charley Parkhurst was a popular driver in our area. It wasn't till he died that the world learned he was a she. But, Chicago Joe wasn't hiding her sex, was she.