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Borderlands: Gypsie Davenport and May Palmer Ran Infamous Brothels 24 (2005-2006)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Gypsie Davenport and May Palmer Ran Infamous Brothels

Article first published in Vol.  24 (2005-2006)

By Carola Chavez and Mariela Ruiz-Angel

Frogtown.  Boggy Bayou.  Hell's Half Acre.  Happy Hollow.  The Reservation.  Such were the names of concentrated areas of gambling, drinking and prostitution in post-Civil War cities of Texas.  Railroads arrived in El Paso beginning in 1881, bringing eager newcomers dreaming of prosperity.  El Paso was a man's town and local madams sensed a market for their wares.

Brothels established on Utah Street, today's Mesa Street, soon became the epicenter of a vice district later known as the Reservation."  Gypsie Davenport and May Palmer were two of the five most successful madams (along with Alice Abbott, Etta Clark, and Tillie Howard in early El Paso history.

""Image caption: Gypsie Davenport made a fortune running brothels in the United States and Mexico.  Photo courtesy of  Mangan Books

Maria Blakely, better known as Gypsie Davenport, arrived in 1882.  Gordon Frost, whose book The Gentlemen's Club is the definitive study of prostitution in El Paso, wrote that little was known of her past, but reportedly she was born in New York and raised in Davenport, Iowa.  Leon Metz said her two-story "parlor house" was not as elegant as others but was the cleanest of all.  Her property at 42 Utah St. was worth almost $80,000 at her death. 

The madams took as much as 50 percent of their girls' earnings off the top, in addition to charging them for room and board and incidentals such as laundry.  Several madams amassed enough money to further invest their fortunes, usually in real estate and diamonds.  Unusual for the time, both Davenport and Etta Clark held property in their own names.

Frost wrote that Davenport had "few scruples" about the treatment of customers.  She was known for intoxicating them, removing the furnishings from their room and replacing them with broken pieces.  When the client awoke, he not only had to pay for services rendered but also for property damages. 

Davenport's other unethical practices would find her in court on several occasions. In 1894, Alice Abbott sued Gypsie for theft of $1,300 worth of diamonds.  Whether she had borrowed them, she and Abbot were friends) or stolen them is not known.  Although Davenport claimed to have returned them all, a Mr. Susen of Hickox and Hixson jewelers testified that $600 worth were not accounted for.  Davenport was found guilty. 

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The spring of 1882 marked the beginning of a "fine" system, in which a lawman would fine each prostitute $5 monthly in lieu of a court order.  The system proved effective, and soon fines were collected from all establishments of questionable morality.

Although these fines were used for police and firefighter salaries, some reform-minded El Pasoans protested the law's toleration of prostitution.  In 1883, Lone Star newspaper editor S. H. Newman used his position to protest the use of vulgar language, offensive pictures and nudity.  Later H. D. . "Cap" Slater, editor of the Herald took up the protest. 

On May 2, 1890, Mayor Richard Caples approved the Reservation Ordinance recommended by a police committee and ordered his chief of police to arrest any prostitute working outside the reservation.  The aim of this ordinance was to consolidate prostitution into one district; however, bribery often had made the law look the other way.  When no arrests were made for months, the police committee investigated.  City Council discharged the entire police department after finding them guilty of neglect of duty.

In late 1890, Davenport sold the contents of her brothel to Tillie Howard for $700 and left her profession for a time.  In 1900, Davenport took in a young girl who had run away from her drunken sexually abusive father, demonstrating that these women often did have the stereotypical "heart of gold".

After a doctor verified the abuse, Davenport reported the man to the police.  The girls stayed with Davenport's seamstress and friend, Anna Schlosser, with the madam paying all of the girl's expenses, including her education at Loretto Academy.  Meanwhile, the father appeared and petitioned for his daughter's return, saying that she "would become morally perverted under the influence of Gypsie Davenport."  Although the girl, Edith Millington, briefly returned to her father, the judge placed her in Davenport's care permanently.  According to Frost, Millington cared for other abused girls during her own lifetime.

Shortly after this event, Davenport left for Chihuahua City, Mexico, where she opened La Quinta, an elegant brothel.  Frost quoted ex-Texas Ranger O. C. Dowe who said "La Quinta was just about the fanciest place a man could think of...and the best meal in two hundred miles could be had there!"  Five years later, Davenport returned to El Paso and opened another brothel on East San Antonio Street.

Almost 20 years after Gypsie Davenport's arrival in town, another madam who already had established lucrative brothels elsewhere -- May Palmer -- came to El Paso.  Like many prostitutes, Palmer did not work under her real name.  While C.L. Sonnichsen, author of Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande, wrote that her real last name was Eisenmend, Frost contended that her name was Mary Elizabeth Eisenmenger, as listed on her death certificate.  Researchers agree that she was born in 1867, apparently to a wealthy Chicago family.

Palmer had owned brothels in Chicago and Salt Lake City and, most recently, the Palmer House in Tucson.  She bought an empty building at 309  S. Utah St., and put $10,000 into what would be called Madame Palmer's Gentlemen's Club.  Frost quoted an early El Paso settler who remembered May's "twelve...most beautiful girls ever seen in the area."

While prostitutes who married usually chose men such as bartenders, con men or gamblers, a few found bliss with respectable citizens.  Palmer met James Harlan "Pete" Adams soon after arriving in El Paso and fell in love.  Adams came to El Paso in 1893 as an assistant to Charles Davis, a customs collector. Tall, good looking and single, Adams was in great demand as an escort for respectable girls.  Frost wrote that he fell from grace when he became a wholesale liquor dealer in 1896 and moved into the Reservation to open the Lobby Saloon.

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Image caption:  Mary Palmer (right) and a friend posed for a picture in their horse-drawn buggy.  Palmer loved large plumed hats.   Photo courtesy of Mangan Books

Adams and Palmer married in 1908, horrifying polite society.  He was expelled from the Elks Club, but Adams resigned instead.  Frost maintained that Palmer gave up prostitution in 1910, but she never gave up her trademark -- large plumed hats.  Record show that Palmer retained ownership of her property.

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In 1915, Palmer was diagnosed with pancreatic and pelvic cancer.  Palmer and Adams traveled across the country and Canada looking for a cure.  Only 51, Palmer died on March 24, 1918, in Hot Springs, Ark.  Adams buried her in El Paso's Evergreen Cemetery; however, her grave still has not been located.  Adams became sole executor of her property worth $37,000. 

In 1920, an elderly Maria Blakely returned to El Paso to pay her taxes and sell her property.  According to Maury Kemp's memoirs, Blakely was looking for her lawyer, the deceased Wyndam Kemp.  Kemp's son Maury referred her to his brother, Paige Kemp, of Kemp and Coldwell.  A few days later, she met with Maury Kemp and revealed that she was Gypsie Davenport.  Having disappeared sometime after opening her San Antonio Street brothel, Davenport had gone to live with a niece in Indiana.  She died on January 22, 1920, of morphine addiction and edema. 

Kemp and friends arranged the funeral, keeping her real identity secret.  Pallbearers included the mayor and county judge.  When the joke was revealed to the men, they took it good naturedly.  According to Kemp, the county judge remarked, "Well, somebody had to put the old girl away and it had just as well be me as anybody else."

Newspaper accounts throughout the early 20th century reflect various efforts to curb prostitution in El Paso.  In 1915, The El Paso Herald announced that Mayor Tom Lea ordered Police Chief Don Johnson to end the fine system.  The mayor said he did not want to conduct his administration with "blood money of these unfortunate women". 

During the spring of 1932, District Attorney W. S. Berkshire ordered a "cleanup" and forced prostitutes to vacate houses and hotels and move to tenements on Tenth Street.  Three years later, the El Paso Herald ran an article that called for the segregation of "all night life women" in the zone of tolerance at Ninth Street and Mesa Street, and their submission to regular mandatory health examinations.

In his epilogue, H. Gordon Frost lamented the stories surrounding these women: the prejudice, the humiliating examinations for venereal disease, the dehumanization.  He wrote: "In this age of concern for human rights, perhaps it would be best that 'human rights' begin at home and we relearn to treat our own people as humans, which they have the right to be, before attempting to foist our philosophy on other countries.  A good place to start would be with the prostitute.  All too often she is held to be an object of contempt, disgust, and ridicule:  a thing to be scorned and shunned.  By the very nature of her trade she suffers the ostracism of society and is too often the target of sanctimonious bigotry and prejudice.  But she is not an object, a thing, a target.  She is a human being."

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  Tags: biography

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