Julia Bulette

Julia Bulette

Prostitute Julia Bulette moved to Virginia City around 1863 when the lively mining boom town boasted a population approaching 10,000. Four years later, an intruder strangled her during the early morning hours of January 20, 1867.

Local officials arrested Frenchman Jean Millian when he tried to sell a few of her possessions. Found guilty and sentenced to death after a brief trial, Millian went to the gallows on April 24, 1868. It was Virginia City’s first public execution.

“Jule” Bulette lived and worked out of a small rented cottage near the corner of D and Union streets in Virginia City’s entertainment district. An independent operator, she competed with the fancy brothels, streetwalkers, and hurdy-gurdy girls for meager earnings.

Contemporary newspaper accounts of her gruesome murder captured popular imagination. With few details of her life, twentieth-century chroniclers elevated the courtesan to the status of folk heroine, ascribing to her the questionable attributes of wealth, beauty, and social standing.

In reality, Bulette was ill and in debt at the time of her death. The brutal attack that ended her life pointed to the violence that surrounded the less fortunate members of Victorian-era society.

Suggested Reading:

Susan James. “Queen of Tarts,” in The Historical Nevada Magazine. Nevada Magazine, 1998.
Marion S. Goldman. Gold Diggers and Silver Miners: Prostitution and Social Life on the Comstock Lode. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981.
Anne M. Butler. Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West 1865-90. Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

At the site of her murder there is a Marker:

In Memory of
Julia C. Bulette
Angel of miners, friend of firemen
and administrator to the needy
Brutally murdered Jan. 20, 1867
Julia Omnio Servibus

Location. 39° 18.521′ N, 119° 38.984′ W. At the intersection of D Street and Washington Street, on the left when traveling north on D Street. Two blocks from her home at D and Union.

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One of the most conspicuous women in Nevada’s history is Comstock prostitute, Julia Bulette. In her brief lifetime, the “soiled dove” was a colorful, minor figure in Virginia City’s early heyday. However, with her brutal murder in 1867 and the hanging of the alleged killer the following year, Julia became a bigger-than-life legend. The myth-making and “fakelore” continues today in spite of the facts.

Author Marla Kiley, in her article “The Immoral Queens of the Red Light District,” has filled the pages of the July 1997 issue of True West magazine with the accumulated fiction and fable associated with Julia Bulette. “Almost instantly,” Kiley writes, “Julia was wearing silk, velvet, and sable furs. Shortly after her arrival on the scene she was making $1,000 a night and also accepted payment in the form of bars of bullion, diamonds, or rubies.” Absolute nonsense and pure poppy-cock! While Bulette had seen better days, she died in debt, according to estate records, her bills exceeding her assets. Kiley then describes Julia “as a beautiful and willowy woman who seemed to float as she walked,” when in fact she was neither wealthy, beautiful, willowy, nor did the rather heavy-set woman seemingly float when she walked.

Kiley’s imagination runs wild in painting an exaggerated, glamorized portrait of Julia Bulette’s life. We know that in the some four years that Julia lived on the Comstock she was a well-known prostitute and had worked in the best brothels, however she was certainly no rich, gorgeous courtesan. Earlier writers even elevated her to the position of madam and “the ‘queen’ of Virginia City’s sporting row”.

Kiley claims Bulette’s two-room crib near the corner of D and Union streets in Virginia City was a small parlor house “referred to as Julia’s Palace.” Then in a flight of fancy we are told that Julia rode “around town in a lacquered brougham with side panels emblazoned with a crest of four aces, crowned by a lion couchant” and attended events “at the Opera House cloaked in a floor length purple velvet cape lined with sable…” Nothing could be farther from the truth!

So who was this woman who looms larger than life some 140 years after her untimely demise? Like most prostitutes now and then, there is much mystery to Julia Bulette’s life. Some versions of her life story have her as an Englishwoman who immigrated to Louisiana where she married, then left her husband and entered prostitution, although she may have come to New Orleans from France where she had been recruited as a prostitute. Recent research indicates she was actually born near Natchez, Mississippi, and worked as a prostitute in New Orleans. Julia would travel to northern California to ply her trade before arriving on the Comstock by 1863.

We do know she quickly became a favorite among Virginia City’s Fire Engine Company No. 1. According to contemporary accounts, the firemen elected her an honorary member “in return for numerous favors and munificent gifts bestowed by her upon the company.” Other accounts in the Territorial Enterprise noted Bulette’s enthusiastic support of the fire department and her presence at fires where she worked the brakes of the hand-cart engines. Fire Engine Company No. 1 participated in Julia’s funeral procession through the streets of Virginia City in January 1867.

John Millian hanging

Clearly, Julia was more than a run-of-the-mill prostitute before dying in her early 30s. Journalist Alfred Doten attended a ball hosted by “Jule” in June 1866. The Territorial Enterprise bemoaned her tragic death claiming “few of her class had more friends,” although the “good” women of the community were generally relieved to see her leave the scene. Law enforcement officials diligently pursued the person who had robbed and killed her, ultimately hanging one John Millian after the convicted murderer had exhausted all his appeals. On April 24, 1868, more than 4,000 spectators, including Mark Twain who was touring the country following a trip to Europe and the Middle East, witnessed the execution.

Susan James in her excellent Nevada Magazine article, the “Queen of Tarts” (Sept./Oct. 1984), traced the romance, myth-making, if not downright lying, linked to Bulette back to 20th century writers of Nevada history, George Lyman, Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, and Effie Mona Mack (aka Zeke Daniels, The Life and Death of Julia C. Bulette, 1958). Others include Carl B. Glasscock, Duncan Emrich, Katherine Hillyer, Katherine Best, Oscar Lewis, and Paul Fatout. Marla Kiley, who borrowed liberally from Lyman’s potboiler The Saga of the Comstock Lode (1934), is among the most recent, but certainly not the last, to play tricks on the living and the dead in recounting Julia Bulette’s colorful and controversial career as a prostitute. The fakelore will never die, but those of us who do our homework know better. Hopefully, one day we may learn much more about the facts of Julia’s short life. We have certainly had more than our fair share of fiction and fable.

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Julie Bulette, the darling of Comstock folklore, has survived a century of faded memories, historians’ investigations, and her own murder.

Before climbing into bed on the evening of January 20, 1867, newspaperman Alf Doten, as always, recorded the day’s events in his diary. He wrote that singing, a turkey dinner, and champagne had eased the bite of the Virginia City winter, but an evening excursion had left him cold.

Doten and a friend had gone to view the body of a woman “Foully murdered in her bed.” He had little to say about the victim:  “about 35 years old – prostitute.”

In a few days, though, every resident of the Comstock and half the West knew that the woman’s name was Julia Bulette and that she had been the victim of what the Territorial Enterprise called “the most cruel, outrageous, and revolting murder ever committed in this city.”  Prophetically, the Virginia Daily Union stated, “Let a tear of sorrow for her frailties take the place of scorn for her weaknesses, for she may yet bloom on the tree of immortality.”

Such stories were to launch a legend.  Her background and violent death proved to be rich material for storytellers, and Bulette in time found an impressive niche in Nevada’s heritage. With the help of impassioned newspaper stories, dime novels, and popular imagination, she became a legend, the “Queen of the Red Lights,” the darling of Comstock folklore. Thanks to so much attention, by the middle of the 20th century Julia Bulette the frontier prostitute had been transformed into a stunning and affluent courtesan.

In fact, if “Jule” Bulette’s friends read a modern biography of her, they would probably not recognize her.  She was neither wealthy nor beautiful. She little more than typical.

Julia and other prostitutes came to the Comstock in the early 1860s, keenly aware of how much money they could make in a mining town where the men outnumbered the women by nearly 40 to one.  Journalists dubbed these camp followers “the fair, but frail.”  Respectable society shunned them, but prostitutes offered pleasure as well as companionship to the men who labored in the hellish abyss of mines, enduring extremes of heat and cold as they dug the silver-rich ore from Mount Davidson. The delights of D Street’s bawdy district gave them a chance to leave the inferno behind, if only for a while.

During her four years on the Comstock, Julia Bulette enjoyed moderate success.  In early morning hours of January 20, 1867, however, however, someone decided that Julia had more to offer than companionship.  After a desperate struggle, the villain strangled her and fled unnoticed into the night with a booty of furs and jewels. The coroner’s report said that she had sustained several heavy blows to the head before she died.

A friend and fellow prostitute, Gertrude Holmes, discovered Bulette’s contorted body several hours later.  Soon, Virginia City buzzed with the news of the crime.  Local newspapers took advantage of the clamor by publishing sordid details of the death scene.

However, little was known about Bulette’s background.  According to the local newspapers, the young Englishwoman came to the Comstock in 1863 via New Orleans and the gold fields of California. The papers noted that somewhere along the way, Julia had married. The mysterious husband never appeared in Virginia City, where Bulette lived alone in a small rented cottage near the corner of D and Union Streets.

Shortly after her arrival, Julia was elected an honorary member of Virginia City
s Engine Company No. 1. The title was apparently granted “in return for numerous favors and munificent gifts bestowed by her upon the company.”  The Enterprise called attention to Bulette’s unflagging support of the fire department and her appearance at many fires where she was seen working the brakes of the engines.  The company returned the favor by leading her funeral procession through the streets of the city. The weather was bad, though, and the firemen dropped out before the long, muddy trek to the Flowery Hill Cemetery east of town.

About 16 carriages filled with friends and members of the sisterhood accompanied Julia on her last journey.  According to legend, the respectable ladies of the city quickly drew the curtain shades as the procession went by, no doubt hoping that their husbands were not among the mourners.

The Victorian society of the 19th century had mixed feelings about women whose choice of work led them into lives of disrepute.  When given the opportunity, journalists and storytellers-the two differed little on the Comstock- seemed eager to romanticize them as fallen angels who could be paragons of virtue.  Each candidate had to meet certain qualifications, though, and society was a fickle judge.

Julia Bulette had the essential prerequisites.  First, so little was known about her ife that her attributes could be greatly enhanced without fear of contradiction.  More importantly, the combination of sex and violence captured the popular imagination at the time of Bulette’s death, and journalists seized the opportunity to exploit the sensational nature of the murder. Finally, a public spectacle had to follow the murder and stir up the community’s passions,a s did the trial and hanging of Bulette’s slayer.

Other candidates for legendhood, who probably deserved it more, did not fare as well because they lacked on the essential themes.  For example. two years before Bulette’s murder, Virginia City madam Jessie Lester lost and arm from an gunshot wound.  Tortured by pain, the unfortunate woman languished for nearly a month before she died from an infection in January of 1865, according to Alf Doten’s diary.  Jessie left most of her estate to the local Daughters of Charity for the care of orphans.  The Catholic Church rewarded her generosity by burying her in consecrated ground.  But philanthropy and violent death weren’t enough.  She took the secret of her assailant’s identity to her grave, thus depriving Virginia City residents of the opportunity to enjoy a lurid trial and a hanging.  Jessie was soon forgotten.

When Julia Bulette died, the press wanted its readers to believe that the murderer had deprived the city of one of its most generous citizens.  Bulette’s only known contributions were to the local fire department.  The Union also stated that she “possessed a benevolent disposition, her purse ever being open to the demands of charity, no matter what the form of application.”  Not wishing to be outdone by its competition, the Territorial Enterprise cited Bulette’s “kind-hearted, liberal, benevolent and charitable disposition,” adding that “few of her class had more true friends.”  The writer said that justice would only be served when authorities captured the despicable murdered and punished him for his deed. 

Five months later, the press got its wish when officials took a destitute Frenchman, John Millian, into custody for the murder of Julia Bulette.  After a well attended trial, a judge and jury convicted and sentenced him to hang.  Once again, the Enterprise exaggerated Bulette’s largesse when it noted that “hundreds in this city have had cause to bless her name for her many acts of kindness and charity,”  despite the fact that “she was a woman of easy virtue.”

John Millian sat in jail for nearly a year, maintaining that two men had framed him for the murder, but authorities failed to locate them.  On April 23, 1868, Millian ascended the gallows in front of about 4,000 spectators enjoying picnic lunches.  Before the noose slid around his neck, the convicted murderer declared his innocence and thanked the ladies who had visited him in prison.  (Despite the claims of the press, many of Virginia City’s female residents were unwilling to acknowledge that Julia Bulette had made a significant contribution to the quality of life on the Comstock Lode.)

The hanging of John Millian brought an end to the sensation created by the murder of Julia Bulette, and interest in her story dwindled with the fortunes of the Comstock. The events of January 20, 1867, receded into the popular imagination until novelists resurrected them after Julia had lain in her grave for nearly 80 years.

The new biographers turned the 19th-century newspaper accounts to their advantage, adding grossly exaggerated details of the courtesan’s life.  The legend blossomed again as Julia received the attributes of royalty and a band account to match.  The woman the Virginia Daily Union described as “comely”  was now depicted as “elegant” and “warmly beautiful,” her furs and jewelry the envy of every woman on the Comstock.

Writers speculated about Julia’s ancestry. The fact that she might have lived in Louisiana was all they needed to transform the fair-skinned Englishwoman into an enticing new Orleans Creole.  Exotic beauty was not among Julia’s assets, but it didn’t hurt to stretch the truth a bit.

Western novelist George Lyman perhaps was the first to recognize the wonderful possibilities of Julia’s story.  In the Saga of the Comstock Lode (1934), Lyman wrote, “All social life went on within her well-lighted, well-regulated, fragrant walls.”  he couldn’t resist calling her small rented crib “Julia’s Palace,” which he described as the cultural center of the Comstock.  The author maintained that Julia refined the city’s ruffians by teaching them about fine French wines, cooking, and clothing, adding that she “caressed Sun Mountain with a gentle touch of splendor.”  Also, Lyrman would not allow his heroine to simply walk the streets of Virginia City.  he promoted the story that she wealthy courtesan “rode in a lacquered brougham upon whose side-panels were emblazoned her crest-an escutcheon of four aces, crowned by a lion couchant.”

Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, Virginia City residents and owners of the Territorial Enterprise, wrote about Julia in Legends of the Comstock Lode (1950).  They liked the story about the carriage, adding that it “had been imported across the Isthmus of Panama.”

When Zeke Daniels (a.k.a. Effie Mona Mack of Reno) wrote the book The Life and Death of Julia C. Bulette (1958), she was skeptical about the “lacquered brougham.”  Daniels, however, elevated Bulette to the position of madam, calling her “the queen” of Virginia City’s sporting row.

With the inventive assistance of those modern biographers, Julia assumed nursing capabilities second only to Florence Nightingale.  Daniels asserted that Bulette never refused to help a sick miner.  Beebe and Clegg wrote that Bulette nursed hundreds of disabled miners through bouts of influenza, using medicine culled from “the primitive resources of the community.”  They wrote that the miners gladly rallied to her support when hostile Paiute Indians threatened to attack the city.  This bit of creative fiction became an important part of Julia’s legend, despite the fact that the story was based on an incident that occurred several years before on the Comstock.

Julia’s story received an additional boost in the 1950s when attention focused on her grave, or on a facsimile of it.  Bulette’s original burial site had disappeared over the years, but some enterprising Virginia City residents found a way to make something out of nothing.  They created a gravesite complete with white picket fence and placed it east of town among the ruins of the old Flowery Hill Cemetery.  Tourists loved the idea.  Since then Virginia City merchants also have named restaurants, saloons, and museums in her honor.

The stories, however, betray the reality of her existence.  Recently, authors such as Marion Goldman and Douglas McDonald have worked to dispel the myths developed by earlier writers.  In the Legend of Julia Bulette (1980), MdConald points out that contrary to previous descriptions of her “pleasure palace,” Julia resided in one of the hastily-constructed cribs which lined Virginia’s City’s D Street.  Both biographers note that the preparation of sumptuous French meals would have been difficult in a house that lacked a kitchen and indoor plumbing, not to mention a French maid.  Julia paid near neighbor Gertrude Holmes a small sum in return for meals.  Her only helper was a Chinese man who came by on winter mornings to make a fire and sweep the floors. Goldman, in Gold Digger and Silver Miners (1981), states that the Comstock’s most celebrated prostitute died in debt, leaving behind too many bills and not enough assets to cover them.

Undoubtedly, Julia would have been happy with a quarter of the wealth and honors that writers later attributed to her. Like other legends, her story gradually grew in details, each more exaggerated than the last, that added heroism and splendor to a hard life.  The legend of Julia Bulette may be filled with inaccuracies, but it is a good story, whose embroideries make it one of the most captivating examples of Comstock folklore.  It shows, at least at first, what residents were willing to believe about their disreputable neighbors when they had the chance.

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Mark Twain happened to be in Virginia City to witness the hanging of John Millian.