Making Men Purr: Cathouses in Silver Valley, Idaho

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Lux and Plaza calendar, 1962. Oasis Bordello Museum display; photo by Heather Branstetter.
Lux and Plaza calendar, 1962. Oasis Bordello Museum display; photo by Heather Branstetter.

Here on Crime Capsule, we don’t beat around the bush. Empires come and empires go, but if there’s one timeless truth throughout the ages, it’s this: sex sells. And in the lurid Idaho brothels of the small town of Wallace, this was especially true.

We’ve spent lot of time with murderers and bootleggers lately, but today, we wanted to bring you a taste of something a little more saucy. Today, we’re going to let you eavesdrop in on a conversation about the oldest profession in the world, which had one of its unique heydays in Wallace, Idaho, home to one of the richest silver mines ever found.

Idaho Brothels and Barkeeps

Famed for its “cathouses,” towns in the Silver Valley—just like one of the other regional capitals of vice, Butte, Montana—adopted a largely tolerant attitude towards prostitution, with brothels operating on a legal or quasi-legal basis throughout much of the twentieth century. Given Wallace’s lax approach to enforcement—and in some cases, downright endorsement of “relief” for the restive single-male miner demographic—it’s no surprise that the area has some stories to tell. Luckily for us, author Dr. Heather Branstetter collected oral histories of men and women involved in the trade in those years, in her book Selling Sex in the Silver Valley: A Business Doing Pleasure.

At 611 Cedar Street in the 1890s, the Western Bar featured beer brewed locally at Sunset Brewery. Pictured to the right is the U&I Saloon. The U&I brothel operated continuously from this time until 1991. Historic Wallace Preservation Society.

Without any further ado, then, listen in on one of her conversations with one John Posnick, who was the bartender and owner of the Silver Corner Bar and no stranger to the goings-on of Idaho brothels. (Many of her informants preferred anonymity during her research, for obvious reasons, but apparently Posnick had nothing to lose.) Posnick:

When the bars closed, everyone would say, let’s go up to the whorehouses, window-shop. Half the time you didn’t want to, you weren’t going to do anything, you just wanted to look. Look around. … They’d always try and hustle you up, “You guys got any money, wanna go into a room?” And you know, we’d say, “Oh we’re shopping. We’re looking.” You’d go up and bullshit them, you’d laugh and giggle, and your buddies would laugh and joke around, maybe, you know, one guy would have enough money so you’d go…. We’d close the bar and say, hey, let’s go up, we’re going to go up to the whorehouses. You’d go up there two to three hours, bullshit, have a drink, you know. For a while there, you couldn’t drink unless you were going to go into the rooms.

Then Mama Lee started the drinking, so there was nights she sold a lot of booze up there. Awful lot, probably more than some of the bars. I remember when they were doing some carpentry work up there [at the U&I, a brothel], couple three months job. And at the end of the job, they [the carpenters] owed them [the women] money.

Oasis price list, 1988. Oasis Bordello Museum display; photo by Heather Branstetter.

They did, they owed them money…. I had a buddy one time, and we were playing golf, and I got a hole in one at the golf course, and it was Tuesday night men’s night, so we had dinner and drank a bunch, we come back here, and he wanted to go to the whorehouses, but I said, “I’m going home. I’m going home.” I’d already put the money away. And they didn’t take checks, you know. There weren’t any debit cards back then. But since I paid rent to the place, I just gave him a check from here and signed it. So he went up there and the next day he says, “Don’t you ever leave me in a whorehouse again with a blank check.” He goes, “Because that’s like letting Colonel Sanders baby-sit your chicken.

Funny, isn’t it, how stories from the world’s oldest profession never get old? There’s more—far more, hundreds of pages more—where that came from, but for the rest, you’ll have to read Dr. Branstetter’s book. Mad? Frustrated? Oh, honey, don’t be—after all, you know us too well.

Crime Capsule: we aim to tease.