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A Cripple Creek Jewel
Pearl DeVere and the Mystery Millionaire
In the early 1890s, few experts believed that the Teller County gold strike would amount to much. By 1894, however, Cripple Creek had become one of the few bright spots in Colorado's economic wasteland, producing $5 million a year and churning out millionaires by the score. Eventually, the mining district became one of the largest gold regions the world has ever seen, taking second place in production only to South Africa.
Madam Pearl DeVere blazed into Cripple Creek in 1893, shortly after the strike had turned the two tiny settlements of Hayden Placer and Fremont into a single, rowdy mining camp. Some said that she came from Denver, where the Silver Panic had severely reduced her clientele. A lady with style, Pearl quickly became a local celebrity. Strikingly beautiful with long, dark eyelashes and auburn hair, she would race through the streets in a single-seated carriage with bright red wheels, elegantly attired in a different outfit every day. Before long, the glamorous lady caught the eye of wealthy miner and mill owner C. B. Flynn, who married her despite her profession (or perhaps because of it). When the great Cripple Creek fire of 1896 ruined Flynn financially, he took off for Mexico. Since business was booming, Pearl stayed put.
Soon Madam DeVere earned enough cash to build a two-story brick parlor house on Myers Avenue, the town's infamous five-block red-light district. With a touch of cynicism, Pearl named the establishment "the Old Homestead." Desiring the most elegant bawdy house on the street, she decorated the downstairs lavishly with red velvet chairs and crystal chandeliers. To grace the banquet room, hand-painted wallpaper with traces of laurel had been shipped from France at $134 a roll. The Old Homestead even flaunted two bathrooms in a town where most folks still used an outhouse. According to a 1900 census, the staff consisted of a cook, a housekeeper, two chambermaids, two butlers, a musician, and five female "boarders." The parlor house required a letter of introduction for a visit that cost from $50 to $100.
At a time when career options were limited for women in mining towns, between 250 and 300 prostitutes plied their trade on Myers Avenue. Rather than discourage the thriving business, Cripple Creek officials collected a tax of $16 a month for each madam and $6 for each girl. Regular physical exams were required, which kept consciences relatively clear and the town's coffers full. Perhaps the Old Homestead could be considered "the best of the worst" for the young women themselves, although prostitutes often became addicted to drugs and alcohol and were frequently victims of abuse.
Pearl had a legion of admirers and always entertained in style. One June evening in 1897 she threw a special party, supposedly for a new lover. For the gala affair she had turned the parlor room into a botanical paradise with orchids, gardenias, and mimosa shipped in from Mexico. The Homestead brought in two orchestras from Denver to provide accompaniment for the latest dances. According to an article in the Cripple Creek Gold Rush, Pearl wore "an eight hundred dollar ball gown of shell pink chiffon, encrusted with sequins and seed pearls, sent direct to her from Paris." The gentleman in question may have been Winfield Scott Stratton, owner of the Independence Mine and the richest of the Cripple Creek tycoons. A former carpenter turned prospector, he reputedly hated women after suffering an unfortunate marriage. The handsome, silver-haired bachelor generally restricted his female friends to high-class prostitutes.
Pearl and her friend supposedly had a terrible quarrel that night. One story eliminates Stratton as the suitor, maintaining that the lovers fought because Pearl wanted the man to divorce his wife. Afterward, the Homestead's mistress seemed in high spirits during the party, laughing merrily and drinking several glasses of French champagne. While her guests were still celebrating, Pearl complained that she felt ill and that her nerves were "all unstrung." Refusing offers of assistance she went upstairs and took an extra dose of morphine to help her sleep. Accidentally or otherwise, she never woke up again. According to the newspaper, an unnamed wealthy patron discovered her body, then immediately left for Denver "on business."
The sheriff took possession of the Old Homestead, and preparations began for Pearl's funeral. When her sister arrived from Evanston, Illinois, the lady took one look at the dyed red hair on the corpse and left town. Apparently Pearl had written to the family that she was a designer who dressed the wives of the gold kings. Although the town of Cripple Creek was prepared to bury Pearl in style, an anonymous $1,000 donation came from Denver at the last minute to cover expenses. The sister may have regretted her hasty decision and provided the funds, or the money might have come from C. B. Flynn. The mysterious lover who fled back to Denver the night she died might also have contributed. In any event, Pearl's funeral turned into a grand affair. She journeyed to Mount Pisgah Cemetery in a lavender casket covered with red and white roses. A twenty-piece Elks Club band accompanied the entourage, including most of the lodge members, four mounted policeman, and several carriages full of "coworkers." As the casket was lowered into the ground, a lonely coronet played "Good-bye, Little Girl, Good-bye." Pearl had been thirty-six, a dangerous age for sex goddesses in the days before botox.
The Old Homestead has since been converted into a museum, perhaps the only one ever dedicated to the proprietress of a brothel. Artifacts include a ruby glass "Gone with the Wind" lamp, a corset chair, and a poker table that may have belonged to Cripple Creek gambler Johnny Nolan. Pearl's grave can still be found in the southeastern quadrant of the Mount Pisgah Cemetery. During the 1950s, a heart-shaped stone replaced the wooden grave marker, which is now in the Cripple Creek District Museum.