Tombstone businesswomen had to deal with seedier side
PRESCOTT - Historians sometimes paint verbal pictures of Old West women crossing the street to avoid saloons and red light districts.
But as her meticulous research into Territorial Tombstone businesswomen starts to take form, historian Heidi Osselaer is finding that women running businesses had no choice but to interact with the seedier side of Tombstone such as the north side of Allen Street.
"As you start peeling away these layers, you see that women were in public when they ran businesses," Osselaer said. They had to deal with drunken and unruly customers.
"It's subsequent generations that try to put on this badge of decent and bad women," Osselaer said.
Osselaer will speak at 7:15 p.m. Saturday during the free Western History Symposium at the Hassayampa Inn in Prescott. Her presentation is called "The Wrong Side of Allen Street: Businesswomen in Tombstone, 1879-1884."
Osselaer has a doctorate in U.S. History and serves on the Scholars' Committee of the Arizona Women's Heritage Trail. She has written extensively about women in Territorial Arizona and authored a book called "Winning Their Place: Arizona Women in Politics."
Osselaer has been poring over Census records, business directories, credit bureau reports and other primary sources to develop a picture of busi-
nesswomen operating during Tombstone's mining boom.
"I thought it might be interesting to juxtapose them with the rough and tumble town," she said.
She's already counted more than 144 women who ran Tombstone businesses during those five years of her research, and she's not done searching. Most of them ran businesses on their own, while some played significant roles in their husbands' businesses. She's not even including professions such as doctors and attorneys.
Some of the women were well known, such as Molly Fly, who ran her husband C.S. Fly's photography business while he was out in the field. She also ran a boarding house and millinery (designing and manufacturing hats).
Others were unknown and harder to trace, especially since they might have divorced and remarried. They were dressmakers and hat makers. They ran restaurants, stores and boarding houses.
They came out West for the same reasons as men, for the opportunity to make a living, especially if they were on their own. The country didn't have social nets back then.
Some had been abandoned by their husbands and had to find a way to feed their kids. Some came from another mining boomtown that was starting to play out.
Knowing that they had a huge shortage of women, leaders in western states encouraged the women to come West by enacting divorce laws as well as business and property ownership laws that didn't discriminate, Osselaer said.
Some of the community leaders even loaned money to businesswomen, including Tombstone's founder Ed Schieffelin and San Francisco bankers.
Helene Yonge is just one of the Tombstone businesswomen that Osselaer has researched.
Yonge turned one of the rooms in her home into a dressmaking establishment. Her business thrived, despite the fact that there weren't a whole lot of women in town outside of the prostitutes and dance hall girls.
Osselaer has much more research to do, but she wonders if the local prostitutes and dance hall girls kept Yonge's business thriving, and if so, how did they interact with a respectable mother such as Yonge?
"Did these ladies of the evening come to her home for fittings?" Osselaer pondered out loud. "Or did she go to the red light district?"