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Hell's Belles, Revised Edition: Prostitution, Vice, and Crime in Early Denver, With a Biography of Sam Howe, Frontier Lawman

Hell's Belles, Revised Edition: Prostitution, Vice, and Crime in Early Denver, With a Biography of Sam Howe, Frontier Lawman

by Clark Secrest

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This updated and revised edition of Hell's Belles takes the reader on a soundly researched, well-documented, and amusing journey back to the early days of Denver. Clark Secrest details the evolution of Denver's prostitution, the gambling, the drug addicts, and the corrupt politicians and police who, palms outstretched, allowed it all to happen. Also included


This updated and revised edition of Hell's Belles takes the reader on a soundly researched, well-documented, and amusing journey back to the early days of Denver. Clark Secrest details the evolution of Denver's prostitution, the gambling, the drug addicts, and the corrupt politicians and police who, palms outstretched, allowed it all to happen. Also included in Hell's Belles is a biography of one of Denver's original police officers, Sam Howe, upon whose crime studies the book is based.

The popular veneer of Denver's present-day Market Street - its fancy bars, posh restaurants, and Coors Field - is stripped away to reveal the street's former incarnation: a mecca of loose morals entrenched in prostitution, liquor, and money. Hell's Belles examines the neglected topics of vice and crime in Denver and utilizes a unique and invaluable historic source - the scrapbooks of Detective Sam Howe.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"...loaded with spicy information...engaging, lively and informative, highly professional but written for popular consumption."
Boulder Daily Camera

"...the definitive work on prostitution in the West, not to mention one of the best-written, most enjoyable reads in Western history."
The Denver Post

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University Press of Colorado
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8.50(w) x 10.70(h) x 0.80(d)

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Helle's Belles

PROSTITUTION, VICE, AND CRIME IN EARLY DENVER With a Biography of Sam Howe, Frontier Lawman


University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2002 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87081-633-8


Meet Sam Howe

"Sam House will get you if you don't be good."

Such was the admonishment directed toward mischievous youngsters by exasperated parents during the decades when Sam Howe was one of the two most famous "coppers" in Colorado—the other being David J. Cook. Dave Cook was daring and chased crooks and then wrote a book about his adventures, titled Hands Up; or, Twenty Tears of Detective Life in the Mountains and on the Plains. Subsequently, Cook was the subject of a biography by William Ross Collier and Edwin Victor Westrate called Dave Cook of the Rockies. Sam Howe wrote no books and nobody prepared his biography, probably because he was less daring and colorful than Dave Cook. Yet Howe's long-term and lasting contribution to the history of law enforcement in the West may surpass that of Dave Cook.

Sam Howe's dedication to Denver law and order began in 1873 when there was no police department, and lawmen had to marshal the Denver streets with whatever little authority was afforded them. Colorado was still a territory and would not become a state for three more years. Howe became among the most enduring lawmen in Colorado and the West and, some said, in the nation, retiring February 1, 1921, at age eighty-one after forty-seven years on the job. Much of that was during an era when a one-year policeman was considered an old-timer—and a lucky one at that.

Within two decades Howe saw Denver grow from a mining-supply camp full of dirty-fingernailed, marauding, armed fortune seekers to a sophisticated city inhabited by the diamond-studded nouveau riche up and down the Grant Avenue "Millionaires Row."

Sam Howe was a mystery, hiding personal secrets behind his five-pointed star and copper buttons: secrets of his Civil War record, which appears blemished; secrets of a change of name; secrets of a wife he virtually never discussed publicly; and secrets of a child—probably not his own—whom he reared, only to have the lad die as a teenager. Although Sam Howe was ever eager to tell reporters about himself and his recollections as a frontier detective, he did not talk about his secrets.

Regardless of his puzzling characteristics, his shy tendencies, and what some might have judged his unpolicemanlike stature—5 feet 6 and % inches, 138 pounds (his first chief believed he would fail within a week)—Howe became one of America's premier crime statisticians. And with regard to his chief's prediction that he would soon give up the job, Howe recalled with a wink in 1908, "I lasted 'bout as long as the rest of that bunch had an idea they would last." They were all gone. He alone remained.

For at least thirty-eight of his forty-seven years as a Denver policeman, detective, and detective chief, Howe tended to his scrapbooks—carefully saving an account of every crime down to the tiniest suicide, every missing person, every thief or rascal or gambler or prostitute, every suspicious incident as the squalling city grew up. (Well, almost every incident: Sam is known to have omitted a few stories that were unflattering to himself, but he did not exclude those that were unflattering to the police department.) Stories unkind to Sam discovered elsewhere during this study are included here anyway—with apologies to the old detective.

When an out-of-town lawman required information about a person with a Denver police record—a year, five years, or ten years after the fact—he only needed to write or telegraph the Denver Police Department, and the details could probably be found in Sam Howe's Scrapbooks. Newspapermen—Sam was fond of them because they put his name in the papers—used the Howe Scrapbooks to locate background material. Citizens, too, stopped by police headquarters in the old city hall at Fourteenth and Larimer Streets to see Sam Howe's Scrapbooks and hear the genteel, aging lawman reminisce about the old days when every bad guy packed a six-shooter—and didn't care if it was pointed toward a "copper" or not.

Sam Howe was born Simeon H. Hunt in Shelbyville, Shelby County, Ohio, on October 16, 1839. He was the eldest of seven children of Ira F. Hunt, a farmer, and Rachael McVey Hunt. How Simeon Hunt spent his youth is documented sparsely: he received "some education," and at an "early age" he was apprenticed to a wheelwright. Hunt completed his apprenticeship, but he disliked making wagon wheels, believing other opportunities awaited an adventuresome lad in an expanding world.

By 1860, at age twenty, Simeon Hunt was practicing his trade in Louisville, Kentucky, south of his Ohio home. Every day on his way to work, Hunt passed an army recruiting station, and he discovered himself feeling "full of ginger," as he later put it. The dream of excitement rushed through him, and on his twenty-first birthday, October 16, 1860—six months before the outbreak of the Civil War—Hunt enlisted for a four-year hitch, assigned to Captain James Oaks's Company C, Second Regiment, United States Cavalry. The regimental commander was Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, who soon switched his allegiance to the Confederacy.

The Second was a proud regiment, organized by Congress in 1836 as a dragoon (horse or foot soldiers) unit. The Second was immediately dispatched to guard the Mexican border and remained there until shortly before being redesignated the Fifth U.S. Cavalry on August 3, 1861. Then it was dispatched to Civil War duty.

The time was approaching when Simeon H. Hunt would cease to exist, becoming Samuel Howe, the name he used for the rest of his life. Why Simeon Hunt changed his identity has not been determined, but a Civil War authority consulted during preparation of this book felt, after examining documents in the author's possession, that the name change was prompted by Howe's June 1868 desertion from the army. Howe never publicly elaborated on the name change, and he never talked about being a deserter. He left no descendants who might explain the name change.

Howe concealed his original name except on rare occasions when disclosure was necessary, such as on pension applications. Late in life, in correspondence regarding his Civil War pension, he made his signature "Samuel Howe alias Simeon Hunt." During a visit to his sisters' homes in Ohio, the Piqua Daily Call on September 8, 1896, referred to him as "Sam Howe Hunt." The obituary of his favorite sister, Harriet Hunt Harris Lindsley, lists as a survivor "Sim Hunt" of Denver, strengthening the notion that his name was never formally changed.

Howe's various recollections, published many times in Denver's daily newspapers during his long service as a lawman, recount how the Fifth Cavalry served with Generals Wesley Merritt, John Buford, A.T.A. Torbert, and Phil Sheridan and with the Army of the Potomac; in battles such as Beverly Ford, Gettysburg, Boonsboro, Brandy Station, Todd's Tavern, Old Church, Trevillian Station, Deep Bottom, Berryville, Smithfield, the Shenandoah Valley; and during General U. S. Grant's final campaign ending with General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. Howe was present at the surrender.

Sam was taken prisoner at the battle of Richmond on June 13, 1862, and was confined to the Confederacy's infamous Libby Prison, being held for only three months ("long enough," he later remarked). Upon his release as part of a prisoner exchange, Howe went briefly to Washington, D.C., and then rejoined his regiment at Winchester, Virginia. In later years Howe credited his former commander, Robert E. Lee, for ensuring that Howe was a part of the exchange. When part of Libby Prison was disassembled and moved to Chicago for the 1893 World's Fair, Howe toured it and commented: "I went through Libby Prison in Chicago and had to pay 50 cents for it. The first time I went into that old prison, though, I didn't have to pay."

Sam Howe's initial four-year enlistment expired in 1864, and he signed up for a second hitch at White House Landing, Virginia, on July 11, 1864. This enlistment was for three years and ended when he was honorably discharged as a corporal on July 11, 1867, in Atlanta, Georgia. This, according to all subsequent statements given by Howe, was the end of his military career. In interviews throughout his life, Howe said that after this 1867 discharge he returned to his old home in Butler County, Ohio, and then departed for Colorado in October 1868, "tempted by the alluring siren of fortune" to seek riches as a gold miner.

Howe's military pension application records, now in the National Archives, disagree with his recollections. A handwritten report dated January 11, 1895, signed by War Department adjutant general George A. Ruggles and issued in response to Howe's application for an increased military pension, notes Howe's record as follows:

* September and October 1861: "a Private, present sick."

* May and June 1862: "a Private, missing in action since skirmish at Old Church, Va., June 13, 1862."

* September and October 1862: "a Pvt. absent sick in Hospital at St. James's College, Md., since Oct. 30/62. Joined from missing in action, Sept/62."

* January and February 1863: "a Private, present. Date of joining from 'absent, sick' not dated."

* "Appointed Corp'l, from Pvt, to date from March 6, 1864."

* July and August 1864: "Discharged July 11/64, by re-enlistment at Light House Point, Va., a Corporal. Re-enlisted in same Troop, July 11/64."

* "Roll for Nov. & Dec. '64 shows him a Private, present sick."

* "Appointed Corporal, May–June '67."

* July and August 1867: "Discharged July 11/67, by expiration of services, at Atlanta, Georgia, a Corporal."

Thus far this record agrees with the accounts Howe related all his life. There is, however, one additional entry in the official record:

Re-enlisted July 17/67, assigned to Troop M, 7th Cavalry. Rolls show him, as under: Jany & Feby '68 and March & Apr '68 a Private, present sick in Hospital. May & June '68, Deserted, June 17/68. A deserter at large [emphasis in original]. He is not reported sick on any other muster rolls of the foregoing organization than as above quoted, and whether or not sickness was contracted in line of duty is not stated in any case.

Thus it is recorded that Sam Howe, as he was now known, had a third military enlistment, into the Seventh Cavalry, made six days after his Atlanta discharge on July 11, 1867. This record says he deserted from this enlistment after eleven months of service. But as far as Howe was concerned, his military career ended honorably with the Atlanta discharge.

Given Howe's lifelong fondness for entertaining listeners with remembrances of his war years (and even his three months in Libby Prison), it is unusual that he is never recorded as having mentioned his Seventh Cavalry enlistment, if only because the Seventh had been (and was, when Howe joined) under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Custer was a strong taskmaster—so strong, in fact, that he could have precipitated a desertion by a soldier so inclined. The Seventh was an incongruous mixture of drunks, grumblers, and professionals, including one captain who was a former congressman. Desertion was not uncommon, as the men felt the increasingly persuasive call of the goldfields.

At the time of Howe's enlistment in the Seventh Cavalry on July 17, 1867, the regiment was exhausted and was encamped at Fort Wallace on the Smoky Hill River in extreme west-central Kansas. On July 15—two days before Howe's enlistment (at an unknown location)—Custer left Fort Wallace on a difficult 150-mile march to seek new orders, supplies, and horses. On July 20 Custer was alleged to be absent from his command, and on October 11, 1867, he was found guilty.

For most of his time with the Seventh—from January through April 1868—Howe is listed as "sick in hospital," and in his later years Howe cited Civil War–contracted illnesses in applying for pensions. But the record says that by June 17, 1868, Howe was listed as a deserter. Military record keeping at times was haphazard at best, but one can only assume under the evidence at hand that Howe was not erroneously listed as a deserter, particularly since the military still carried the "deserter" notation on Howe's records thirty years later.

There is no record, however, that the army ever took action on Sam Howe's supposed desertion. He became a member in good standing of the Grand Army of the Republic veterans organization, and he drew army pensions of between six dollars a month (1899 and 1901) and eight dollars a month (1904). When he died in 1930 he was receiving sixty-five dollars monthly.

Howe frequently submitted formal requests for pension increases during his later years. Some of his requests are in the third person and sound almost desperate, such as "The records of the War Department must show his [Howe's] service in the Union Army in defence of the Union." In 1889 Howe and wife Helen traveled to Washington, D.C., where one of his purposes, according to the Denver press, was to "recover his discharge from the regular army, which he lost in 1864." (Howe would not likely have retained his original discharge papers if they showed a discharge that was less than honorable; indeed, of all the certificates and documents he retained about himself, no discharge papers are found.) The next year he pleaded to the government that he had "disease of the lungs, extreme nervousness and general disability." In 1897 he attested that he was "unable to [gain] support by manual labor by reason of general disability and breaking down of system, that said disabilities are of a permanent character and are not due to vicious habits." Howe made no attempts to hide his frail health, and the newspapers took note of his debilities. As early as June 1879, when he left for his old Ohio home for a visit with his sisters, the Rocky Mountain News observed that "Mr. Howe has been in poor health for some time and the trip is made for the purpose of getting much needed rest."

By October 1868, five months after Sam Howe's departure from the army, he was on his way west with the hordes of other gold seekers. In an interview given to the Denver Republican on January 12, 1913, Howe sidestepped the apparent missing year from his life—when he was on the roster of the Seventh Cavalry—by stating that he was discharged in Atlanta in 1867 but did not leave for the West until 1868. He did not address what he did in the interim.

During his October 1868 westward odyssey, Sam Howe paused briefly in Ellsworth, Kansas, then the terminus of the Kansas-Pacific Railroad, which would not reach Denver until 1870. Howe recounted during the 1913 interview that in Ellsworth he met William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody and James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, the latter the Ellsworth marshal. If that encounter planted a seed that would grow into a law enforcement career, Howe made no mention of it.

Leaving Kansas, Sam Howe drove a team to Denver and proceeded almost immediately to the Black Hawk mining district where he tinkered in the gold mines and, by his account, was "fairly successful." By 1870 he was spending increasing amounts of time in Denver. The Rocky Mountain News observed that April 25 that "S. Howe" took the stagecoach from Denver to Central City, and on August 14 the paper published a notice that a letter awaited pickup by Howe at Denver's post office.

Howe had developed a romantic interest in Denver, and on November 25, 1871, a justice of the peace performed a wedding ceremony uniting Howe and Helen M. Wright. Born in 1850 in Troy, Ohio, near Howe's old hometown of Shelbyville, Helen was eleven years younger than Sam and had come to Denver in 1870, two years after his Colorado arrival. Although the couple was married for twenty-five years, little is known of Helen Howe. In 1889 the Denver Times published a one-paragraph item stating:

A new conductor in charge of Colfax avenue cable car 36 had his heart in his mouth at 5:30 o'clock yesterday afternoon. Detective Sam Howe and Mrs. Howe were alighting from the car at Larimer street when the conductor rang to go ahead and the lady was thrown to the ground. Fortunately her injuries were not serious, but the conductor's cheeks were white as chalk.

Excerpted from Helle's Belles by CLARK SECREST. Copyright © 2002 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Clark Secrest retired in 2001 as an editor with the Colorado Historical Society. There he researched and wrote numerous articles for the society's quarterly journal Colorado Heritage.

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