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Borderlands: History Reveals Rivalry of Madams Etta Clark and Alice Abbott 20 (2001-2002)

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

History Reveals Rivalry of Madams Etta Clark and Alice Abbott

Article first published in Vol. 20 (2001-2002)

By Sunshine Mendez and Olga Joann Valles

Foul-mouthed, vindictive, and mean-spirited, yet intelligent and attractive. Madam Etta Clark was a woman with a fire that burned inside her: a flame as red as her hair and a fury that few could tolerate.

Though not much was known about her past, it is evident that her family name was Mercier and she may have grown up in Atlanta, GA. Prostitution may have been her trade, but she was also a crafty businesswoman. In the 1880s, she took on El Paso with her fighting spirit and her vulgar manner.

""Image caption:  Members of Six Guns and Shady Ladies participated in a reenactment of the "Public Arch Shooting." From left to right top: Mary Alice Shashy as Etta Clark; Kelli Rice as "Chippy"; Melissa Sargent as Alice Abbott. Bottom left, Lidia Flynn as Bessie Colvin .  Photo by Joann Valles.

With the arrival of the railroad in 1881, the population of El Paso boomed. Gordon H. Frost, says in his book "The Gentlemen's Club: The Story of Prostitution in El Paso," that the train brought to El Paso "honest" people but along with them a "plethora of sinners," including prostitutes in need of money and a fresh life. The vice zones, home to gamblers and prostitutes, were collectively known as the Tenderloin District and included East Overland, Oregon, Third and Utah Streets. Because married women often stayed in the East while their husbands explored the wild West and few "decent" women made the long trip west by themselves, the sex trade rapidly flourished in the Sun City.

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Etta Clark was one woman who came to El Paso by train. She was remembered as being a petite five feet tall with a mean temper, and as historian C. L. Sonnichsen writes, "a way with some of El Paso's better-heeled businessmen."

El Paso had several types of prostitutes, from streetwalkers and crib girls, who advertised their wares from the front window of their one-room apartment or "crib" to saloon girls, who plied their trade above the bars and in dance halls. Madams like Etta Clark presided over brothels or parlor houses, which catered to wealthier clientele. El Paso's parlor houses lined Utah Street, now Mesa Street, and housed beautiful women in fancy dresses. The men of El Paso had quite a choice depending on what they were willing to pay. Crib girls received fifty-cents to a dollar for their time, while the girls of the parlor house charged $3 to $5.

Madams knew how to make money off their girls. Frost writes that madams "charged their girls for the use of the brothel rooms, meals and laundry" and since the girls were unable to save much money, the madams permitted the girls to use their charge accounts. This created more problems for the girls when they were not able to pay their debts.

It was not uncommon for madams to punish their girls for owing them money. When a girl became too much in debt, her madam could confiscate her belongings until repayment. This was an efficient way of getting a debt paid back, unless the girls happened to sue their madams. From April until December 1892, Etta Clark's ex-girls, claiming she "wrongly appropriated their belongings," filed eight suits. Clark lost the suits against her and paid back the girls who had sued her.

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Madams advertised their businesses using many approaches. In the 1901 Worley's Directory of the City of El Paso, Clark recorded her occupation as the owner of furnished rooms. She entered her name as Madam Etta Clark. Most men who looked in the city directory could see what the listing signified, but if they did not, the street (Utah) would have given it away.

Leather-printed cards and ads in souvenir booklets for large city events were some of the other ways madams advertised their services. They were cunning businesswomen and were often successful at building their clientele.

Though Clark was a great businesswoman, her weakness was that she had a terrible temper. Some men found her to be beautiful while others found her to be vicious. She ran off customers with her foul mouth, which helped her gain more enemies than friends.

Clark's rival was Madam Alice Abbott, also known as "Fat Alice," whose parlor house was just across from Clark's. Abbott, who had arrived in El Paso in 1880, was the first madam to build her brothel on Utah Street. She was six feet tall and weighed two hundred pounds.

Although Etta Clark and Alice Abbott were business rivals, no one seems to know why they became enemies. Frost says that at one time they may have been friends because Abbott had a picture of Clark in her photo album. Frost writes, "Venting her anger on the picture, Alice drew an arrow-path into Etta's heart, then caustically accused the petite meretrix with being a 'Hore to Nigers,' the ultimate insult of that prejudiced period."

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On April 18, 1886, an argument between Alice Abbott and her girl Bessie Colvin, who wanted to leave and work for Etta Clark, ended in Bessie seeking refuge in Clark's parlor. Abbott followed her, repeatedly assaulting the door with her fist. When Clark finally opened the door, Alice Abbott punched her in the face. Angry and in pain, Clark mustered courage and ran to get a gun.

Gordon Frost describes the shooting this way: "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 the steps to collapse in the street." Etta Clark shot again but missed. When Abbott looked up, she caught Clark with a little smile on her face as she went back to her house.

Just the thought of tiny Etta Clark drawing a heavy handgun and shooting the giant Alice Abbott, a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier, in the most delicate of parts was enough to make any El Pasoan smile if not downright guffaw.

Alice Abbott survived the shooting, despite the risk of blood poisoning and a fifty-fifty chance of dying. This crime was called the "Pubic Arch Shooting," but the El Paso Herald misspelled the headline, calling it the "Public Arch Shooting." However, the headline caused townspeople to make fun of Abbott in the streets. Furthermore, on May 12, it took a jury only fifteen minutes to find Etta Clark not guilty on grounds of self-defense. Alice Abbott's humiliation was complete.

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On the morning of July 12, 1888, a fire broke out at Etta Clark's parlor house while the women were asleep. They all escaped unharmed, but the house destroyed. It was later determined that Fat Alice had hired some drunks to set fire to her enemy's house, but because of gaps in the evidence, Alice and her hired bunch were acquitted.

The homeless Etta Clark was now a streetwalker. Her luck changed when J.P. Dieter, one of her clearly smitten clients, built her a new place. His wife divorced him and took their children back East, but the fact that Dieter was willing to chance the loss is a testimony to Etta's appeal. Dieter and Clark lived as husband and wife although they never married.

Etta Clark's new three-story bordello had 32 rooms, two parlors, a huge dining area, a ballroom and many bedrooms, costing Dieter over $125,0000 to build and furnish. In a 1981 El Paso Times editorial, Art Leibson said the mansion was the "finest parlor house" in the entire Tenderloin. It was a showplace pointed out to tourists who arrived at the turn of the century. When the building was razed to make way for Paisano Drive in 1947, Leibson says that elderly men came to collect bricks in remembrance of their time spent at Etta's.

In February 1890, Alice Abbott leased her brothel to another young madam, Tillie Howard. Whether tired of public harassment or suffering from poor health, Abbott retired from the business, spending several lonely and unhappy years. In her early 40s, Abbott died on April 7, 1896, of a heart attack and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery. Her death went unnoticed by reporters because of a widespread interest in a boxing match and the municipal election campaign.

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In 1904, Clark began to feel ill and decided it would be easier to run her brothel on the third floor of the Myar Opera House. When the Myar Opera House burned down in 1905, she barely escaped alive and suffered complications from smoke inhalation. In 1908, on a trip with her sister to Atlanta, she died of these complications.

Because the "fines" the city levied on prostitutes paid the salaries of the police and fire departments, town fathers often turned a deaf ear to complaints about the brothels. The Women's Christian Temperance Union worked to move the prostitutes to "remote quarters of the city," but relocation did not mean the end of prostitution. Madams all over the West ran their businesses successfully and at least some observers see them as the feminists of their age.

Two of these powerful businesswomen - Etta Clark and Alice Abbott - not only made a good living in El Paso, they provided the raw material for some of the best stories to come out of the town when it was known as "Sin City."

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tags: biography

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