Ladies of the evening, fallen women, soiled doves and Jezebels are polite terms for prostitutes, women of the world’s oldest profession. Though, the profession typically carries a negative image, the ladies of Jibboom Street helped define Truckee’s historic character. Researching this slice of women’s history and its red-light aspects has its challenges because they were never looked at highly by the respected community.
On Aug. 10, you can learn more about this infamous part of town and the women who worked there:
- On a short walk along Jibboom Street. Meet at the Old Truckee Jail. Time TBD.
- For a historical discussion. Meet at Art Truckee from 6 to 8 p.m. | truckeehistory.org
Historically, Truckee’s red-light district was an asset to the town; it dates as early as 1867 when female companionship was brought to the predominantly male-dominated town. Less than six months after its establishment, the town’s first newspaper, the Truckee Tribune, reported the first hurdy-gurdy houses where crimson lights lit the windows. Besides this old-fashioned name, most Truckee locals called these buildings jerker houses.
Second Street was first referenced as Jibboom Street as early as April 17, 1869; it was aligned behind Front Street, also known as Commercial Row or Donner Pass Road, which runs through downtown Truckee. Back doors to Front Street saloons paired nicely to Jibboom Street, allowing transactions privately to take place between the ladies and their customers. These saloons were reputed as wild places because Jibboom Street was full of cheap dance halls, opium dens, bad whiskey and female companionship. To this day, these same businesses’ back doors are accessible to Jibboom Street.
The 1870 federal census cited 12 white prostitutes, such as Nellie Colley, Maggie Smith, Pauline Johnson and Belle Whitney, in addition to 22 Chinese prostitutes, who lived in nearby Chinatown and were the only women among the 400 Chinese men.
Between January 1874 and October 1875, the town organized to build a one-story, stone jail at the corner of Jibboom Street and Spring Street. It was located only a few buildings away from the houses of ill repute and it was hoped to bring a little law and order to the street. The Truckee Republican reported on the red-light district’s color every month. On June 26, 1875, one article described it: “Times on the back street are getting quite lively, if noise at night can be considered a fair criterion to judge from; but that is a natural consequence of the influx of our idle element, for SATAN always finds something for them to do, if only to holler.”
Besides the noise, the houses worked six nights a week including Sundays, which offended respectable families living in the area. The Truckee Republican on Aug. 24, 1881, posted: “A great many complaints have come to this office about this house being kept open on Sunday night, and we call attention of the proprietors and frequenters to the fact that the protection of the law will be invoked if the practice is not discontinued, and if this is not sufficient there is a 601[Truckee vigilante group] which may be organized on short notice.”
In addition, competition among the ladies was fierce and nasty. Irish-born Mollie Forshay was notorious for trouble in the district. Mollie worked aside Mabel Gray and Epimena Anaya and other ladies with more colorful aliases, such as Hoodlum Em and Bodie Jake. Mollie fought regularly with Carrie “Spring Chicken” Pryor Smith and the two went on trial for petty larceny; Jibboom Street’s dirty laundry and personalities were outed in a public forum. Miriam Hall, a dancehall owner, turned Mollie in for selling booze without a license, which set both women at odds in the district. Other incidents involved Mollie, her boyfriend Billy, and a whiskey bottle that was used as a weapon and involved a run throughout the town and saloons between Jibboom and Front streets.
By 1901, the little jail at the end of the street outgrew itself and a brick, second story was added. The sisters of Jibboom that fell out of line would be housed on the new story and, rumor has it, would perform lewd acts to pedestrians below.
A 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance map displays the plethora of dance halls and female boarding houses adjacent to the town jail and firehouse. Beside the 12 red-light establishments, there were 18 saloons on Front Street and many rooms were set aside in the back for gambling, as well as other illicit transactions.
In 1914, a devastating fire destroyed most of the buildings in Truckee, as well as two dance halls, The Red Light and The Truckee.
Resident Ethel Marzen McBride recalled that among its 1,380 residents, 48 ladies lived in six moderately small houses on Jibboom Street in the 1920s. By 1928, 30 Magdalene’s working three houses of ill repute and two new dance halls were added.
Dot’s Place, located on the north side of Jibboom, was owned by Dorothy E. Lane who managed the building between 1928 and 1936. Her boyfriend, Jack Noonan, was a bartender in the Past Time.
Old-timer Frank Titus Jr. recalled three houses of ill repute in operation in the 1940s and one madam named Penny who bought disinfectants in the Loynd’s Drug Store where he worked. He also recalled most of these houses were speakeasies during Prohibition. Sierra Sun reporter Doug Barrett recalled one house in operation in 1953 on Jibboom Street, which was significantly cleaned before the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Today, the colorful personalities of Truckee history are currently buried in unmarked graves in the Truckee Jibboom Street Ladies Garden in the town’s cemetery.
By Corri Jimenez
Corri Jimenez is an architectural historian and historic preservation professional working in the Tahoe area.