By Lisa Phillips and Reyna Martinez with contributions by Amanda Mond and Giesel Toyosima
Wife. Cook. Nurse. Laundress. Madam. And good at all four professions. Sarah Bowman, who went by as many last names as she had careers, became known throughout the Southwest in the mid 1800s. She was the first known prostitute to ply her wares in El Paso.
Little is known about Sarah's early years. Sarah Knight was born in 1812, 1813, or perhaps 1817, but her maiden name and first married name are speculative. She herself used the name "Sarah Bourjette" in the 1850 census, but throughout her life she was known by other last names such as Borginnis, Bourget, Bourdette, Davis and Bowman.
Better documented was her nickname, "The Great Western," after the world's largest steamship. Six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, Sarah was dark eyed with enormous breasts and an hourglass figure. She has been described variously as having long black, red and even blonde hair.
Her imposing physical features reflected her fearless nature. Married to a soldier, she traveled with Zachary Taylor's army during the Mexican-American War. She washed clothes and cooked for soldiers, attended to their wounds and cared for them even during battle. Although reports say the bullets hit her bread tray and bonnet, Sarah remained cool and courageous during a seven-day siege at Fort Brown. For her bravery, she was dubbed "The Heroine of Fort Brown."
Following the soldiers, Sarah opened "hotels" in Monterrey and Saltillo called the American House that provided the men with food, drink and women. Brian Sandwich in his biography of Sarah says "business was good." In addition, Sarah continued to nurse the wounded in war, lifting and carrying them off the field. She carried a pistol, could shoot a rifle and knock down any man who tried to bother her. She sometimes was called Dr. Mary and received a government pension for life.
After the war ended, Sarah joined a detachment of soldiers bound for California. El Paso was the midpoint between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean, and during the gold rush it became a popular stopover. Among the adventurers, outlaws and assorted characters who stopped for a while en El Paso was Sarah Bowman.
The first female to run a business in El Paso, Sarah opened a hotel on the site of Ponce de León's rancho, owned by Benjamin Franklin Coons. Catering to gold diggers on their way to California and the newly arrived army in town, Sarah offered board and room and entertainment in her hotel. She continued to use her medical skills in treating the sick and injured.
H. Gordon Frost says she also became the first recorded madam in El Paso. Sandwich notes that her hotel later became the Central Hotel. The diaries of travelers staying at her hotel had nothing but kind words for the Great Western, a prototype for the "whore with a heart of gold."
Though Sarah could not have children, she had a motherly touch, leading her to adopt several orphaned children. This, along with her care of the wounded and dying during the war, solidified her reputation as a tender, compassionate woman.
Sarah left El Paso in the early 1850s and married her last husband, Albert J. Bowman. The two ended up at Fort Yuma where she operated a boarding house and brothel. Sarah Bowman died there in 1866 of a spider bite. The Army gave her a full military funeral and buried her in the Fort Yuma Cemetery. Several years later, her body was exhumed and reburied at the Presidio at San Francisco.
Forty years after the Great Western left El Paso, Mathilde Weiler, better known as Tillie Howard, opened her parlor house. An orphan, Tillie was abused by neighbors who cared for her. At twelve, Tillie ran away form her native Pennsylvania with plans to drown herself, but a train crew saved her and convinced her to live with them. In exchange for food, she cleaned the caboose. Her protectors soon seduced her, and she became the Caboose Girl, a prostitute who journeyed with freight trains.
At fifteen, she began traveling with a circus. After several years, she found herself alone in San Antonio. Tillie heard of "Big" Alice Abbott giving up her brothel in El Paso. This was a great opportunity to start her own business as a madam, and she bought the house at 307 Utah Street, now Mesa Street.
Tillie Howard became legendary throughout the Southwest for her exceptionally elegant parlor house and for her kindnesses to her girls and others. Howard spared no money to adorn her brothel. Frost says her parlor house decor included velvet drapes, the finest oil paintings, carved mahogany furniture and Oriental rugs. Each bedroom had a brass bed, dresser, full-length mirror, an armoire, and a washstand and basin. Her ballroom included mirrors and a large chandelier. A butler and maid served drinks from silver trays.
Tillie was famous for taking good care of her girls, whom she seems to have regarded as extended family. Prostitutes from other towns would even leave their jobs to go work for her. C. L. Sonnichsen says Tillie saw to it that her girls traveled first class. She provided them with elegant funerals if they died while in her service. Howard reportedly kept her only living relatives, an aunt and uncle, from losing their home. Frost says she paid off their mortgage and the couple never knew of her kindness.
Some reports seem to indicate that prostitutes like Sarah Bowman and Tillie Howard lived glamorous lives. But Sonnichsen says when a Texas Ranger once asked Howard whether she thought she would be punished for being a madam, she replied "Punished? I know Hell. " Tillie might have found some happiness, however. She maintained a close relationship with a saloonkeeper named George Ogden and she kept many pictures of him in a scrapbook.
Although Sarah Bowman operated the first brothel in El Paso in 1850, it was not until 1881 with the arrival of the railroad that prostitution became a thriving business. Many innocent immigrant and farm girls found themselves pressured into the business when they arrived in the city.
El Paso soon became a bustling town with prostitution and gambling, acquiring the reputation and name of "Sin City." Businessmen who managed stores near brothels or saloons profited. Leon Metz says for a time the "Big Five" madams ran the business in El Paso: Etta Clark, Alice Abbott, Gypsie Davenport, Tillie Howard and May Palmer.
Prostitution continued unchecked for some time until city leaders began enforcing laws against it. A monthly $5 fine effectively served as a license. The money went toward paying police and fire department salaries. In 1886, the "fine" doubled to $10, much to the displeasure of working girls and their madams.
Petitions to keep prostitutes off the streets resulted in the prohibition of the business within a six-block wedge of El Paso Street in late 1885. When the number of prostitutes jumped to over 600 in the 1890s, they were further restricted to a "reservation" bordered by east Overland, Oregon, Third and Utah (Mesa) Streets. Legally barred from working outside that area, the prostitutes did so by bribing police to look the other way for months until the entire force was fired.
Besides being prohibited from mixing with other El Pasoans on the streets and public places, prostitutes were also subject to physical violence from their pimps and johns and from diseases, suicides and drug addictions and overdoses. Politicians used them for their own advancement, decent citizens despised them, newspapers berated them. Leon Metz says that when they aged, they were relegated to 25 cent cribs, crude shacks serving as brothels.
The movement to reform El Paso went on for years. The reservation or "tenderloin" was abolished, reopened and finally moved to Juárez. During the first three decades of the 20th century, prostitution cropped up all over El Paso as the city grew. It exists today, but in much different forms than it did in its heyday in downtown El Paso.