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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bonanza, Little Joe, and the Real Julia Bulette

Julia Bulette, a high priced courtesan known for her beauty and brains, arrived in Virginia City in 1858 and found herself the lone woman in a town filled with rough and desperate men who were mining the Comstock Lode. She set to work and besides her considerable feminine charms, she became known for her community support, her loyalty and her good business sense before her life came to a tragic end.

Julia’s story found its way onto the small screen in episode 6 of season 1 of the popular TV series, Bonanza, which took place around the environs of Virginia City at the time Julia was plying her trade.  In the fictionalized account, Little Joe gets captivated by the older Julia at her upscale saloon and Ben Cartwright, Little Joe’s father, is not pleased. But when a fever breaks out in Virginia City and Julia pitches, she earns Ben's admiration and he relents saying if she is what Joe wants, he won’t stand in the way. Of course, Little Joe remained single, much to the joy of female viewers everywhere. You can watch it in parts on You Tube. Here’s the first part 



The real Julia Bulette  proved that the woman of loose morals with a heart of gold was more than just a Hollywood caricature.

It was said Julia was from London, England, but of French ancestry, and came to Virginia City, Nevada by way of New Orleans and California.

Her house on D Street became a center of community life in those early days and a place to enjoy the finer things after working down under in the mines. A place of  light and charm versus dark and gloom. You had to behave as a gentleman, however, or you would not be welcome. And these rough, raw and tough men did just that.  She taught her patrons about elegance and grace and they admired her all the more for it.

The miners working the Comstock lode, whose pockets were overflowing with silver, paid dearly and, by all accounts, happily for Julia’s favors as she charged them up to $1000.00 a night. Needless to say in a short time she had the means to open her own house of pleasure, Julia’s Palace, which combined feminine companionship with wonderful French wine and cuisine.

Being an exceptional business woman, Julia “expanded her operations, importing only the most accomplished and refined girls from San Francisco.” (p. 81, Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West by Dee Brown)

As women of more respectable origins, such as the wives and daughters of the miners, arrived in the city, one would have thought Julia’s role would diminish and, like most sporting women, she would have kept in the background. But that was not Julia’s way.

She rode through the streets of Virginia City in her brougham with four aces emblazoned on the panel and crowned by a lion. She walked the streets going about her daily affairs wearing the latest Parisian fashions and sable muffs and scarves if the weather dictated. She felt part of the city and for a time, the city, at least the men of the city, embraced her. She could often be seen at the Opera in her own loge and always fashionably dressed.

Her proudest moments came from being made an honorary member of in the Virginia City Fire Company, Engine Company No. 1, voted in by the firemen themselves. Of course it didn’t hurt that her favorite lover, Tom Peasley, was the Fire Chief.  In the 1861 Independence Day celebration she was elected Queen of the parade and rode on the fire truck with a fireman’s hat on her head.

She was given other “honors” by the men of the area. “One of the Comstock Mines was named the ‘Julia’ in her honor and the best club car of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad bore the gold-plated name, ‘Julia Bulette.’ When the newly elected governor Nye came to Virginia City, it was Julia who entertained him and other state functionaries at dinner while the “good women” of the town gnashed their teeth behind closed curtains.” (p. 112, Lost Legends of the West by Williams and Pepper)

Julia was beloved by her patrons and she was loyal in return. Many stories circulated of her generosity to those down and out and her support of the city, including her plentiful donations to the fire company. She also would help the men put out fires by working the water pump and serving coffee to the fire fighters. ( p. 81, The Gentle Tamers)

When the Piute War of 1860 erupted Julia offered to stay and feed the defenders of Virginia City but the miners finally persuaded her to join a dozen or so other women in a shelter. When several hundred miners became sick after drinking water containing arsenic, she turned her Palace into a hospital and “went on duty as a nurse, soothing and comforting, and bring the patients to health on a diet of warm soup and rice.” (p.82, The Gentle Tamers)


By 1863, with a population of 30,000 Virginia City was the largest city west of Chicago and their red light district was considered superior to others in the West. ( p. 83, The Gentle Tamers). But with a population that large it was inevitable that “civilization was coming to Virginia City. Indeed by the next year, the Opera house hosted Adah Menken and Julia watched the performance from a “box behind half drawn curtains, exiled because the town had become too respectable for her.” (p. 83 The Gentle Tamers.)

But the end of Julia’s story came about not due to the encroachment of civilization but to the greediness of one of her “uncivilized” admirers who murdered her in the middle of the night in order to steal her considerable jewelry. She was found partially naked, bound, and dead come morning light.

According to reports, Virginia City, at least the male population of the town, went into mourning for her, closing down the mines and shops, hanging black wreaths from saloon windows and decorating fire trucks with black streamers. Thousands of men walked behind the black horse-drawn hearse to bury her in unconsecrated ground.

It took almost a year but finally her murderer, John Millain, (who figures as a jealous lover in the TV version) was caught and brought to trial. As Mark Twain noted in his book, Roughing It, no one was punished for murder in a wide open town like Virginia City.  John Millain would prove an exception so outraged was the town over Julia’s death. Mark Twain, who witnessed Millian’s hanging, gives a chilling account of it in his Letters from Virginia City.

“I saw it all. I took exact note of every detail, even to Melanie’s (sic) considerately helping to fix the leather strap that bound his legs together and the quiet removal of his slippers—and I never wish to see it again. I can see that stiff, straight corpse hanging there yet with its black pillowed-cased head turned rigidly to one side, and the purple streaks creeping through the hands and driving the fleshy hue of life before them. Ugh!”( State Library and Archives: A Division of Nevada Cultural Affairs, From Mark Twain, May 2, 1968)



A sad conclusion to the story of the woman whose heart of gold could not save her from the tragic fate that befell so many in her profession.

Should Julia have won Little Joe’s heart? It would have made a much happier ending but perhaps spoiled the series for so many young woman of the time.

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Re-ride at the Rodeo, at The Wild Rose Press. She also is co-editor of the review website, www.lovewesternromances.com

8 comments:

Cheryl Ann Smith said...

Interesting story!

Emma said...

This is the stuff I love about history--the stories that DON'T get told. I had the good fortune to get to Virginia City once. Now I'll be remembering it in a whole new way!

Anne Carrole said...

Thanks Cheryl Ann and Emma for stopping by and glad you enjoyed Julia's story.

marybelle said...

I loved this. History, & such 'interesting' history, finding it's way on to Bonanza made me laugh.

Anne Carrole said...

Mary Elle, I too was so surprised to find Julia in of all places, Bonanza! And with Little Joe no less,

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing. We watched Bonaza, and still do on occasion. Killing off Little Joe's wife was the beginning of the end. That and when Dan Blocker died.

Lauri said...

Great post! This was so very interesting! I recently watched a Bonanza episode where 'Mark Twain' was a newspaper reporter.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Fascinating story, even more so because it's true. I hadn't heard of this woman--or had forgotten about her. What a sad end for her. It makes you wonder what made a woman who obviously had been reared with finer things turn to the life she led. I'll bet there are a lot of good stories in her life. Thanks for your post!