Studio Portrait of woman, standing, in a long skirt and fashionable hat

Studio portrait of C. Coyle, likely Catherine Coyle, who owned the boarding house on the northwest corner of Kasten and Ukiah. (Gift of Emery Escola)

In celebration of Women’s History Month, here is an excerpt from the Kelley House publication From Maidens to Mavericks: Mendocino’s Women, Mendocino Historical Review Volume XXIX, written by local author, Molly Dwyer. The book can be purchased in the museum or on our website; the author’s lecture from May 17th, 2015, is available to watch on the Kelley House YouTube channel. 

Mostly lost are the histories of single women who came to Mendocino, likely from the streets of San Francisco. They did not come to settle, but rather to work and support themselves. “No fewer than twenty-eight saloons have been documented between 1855 and 1907 in the town of Mendocino,” writes researcher Margi Gomez, and “drink was not the only attraction. In addition were the fast houses” with women “imported by the big lumber companies….” These popular places were marked on local maps as “FBH,” which is to say, “fashionable boarding houses.”

“In most cases, the saloon would operate on the bottom floor…with ‘lodging’ upstairs,” according to local historian Katy Tahja. “What were your options?” Katy asks. “You could be a seamstress going blind  over your work…” or “a laundress up to your elbows in soapsuds.” But if you worked as a prostitute, “you had your own money, which you were encouraged to spend on clothes, jewelry, perfume, fun stuff. Plus you were taken care of, if you worked for a good madam….”

Miss Molly’s Fashionable Boarding House had a saloon up front, a warren of cozy rooms in the back. The house, which still sits on the northwest corner of Kasten and Ukiah, belonged to one Catherine Coyle, who purchased the house in 1875 and opened her enterprise that same year. A year later it became the scene of a double murder. According to the Mendocino West Coast Star, Lena Clymer (who worked at Molly’s) and Frank Mitchell (a San  Francisco actor who patronized the place) were shot down March 27, 1876. Lore has it the killer was Frank’s wife, but according to newspapers written at the time, the shooter was a man from San Francisco named Harry Kleinschmidt. His motives are unclear.

Another local madam, Pretty Pearl Peck, ran a successful business out of the Lisbon Hotel on Ukiah Street. Sometime in the early 1900s a young Chinese woman who called herself “The Dragon Lady” made Mendocino her home. She seems to have worked for herself, rather than under the auspices of a madam. In fact, she ran Mendocino’s first (and perhaps only) mobile den of iniquity in the backseat of her motorcar.

The other mill town of consequence, Fort Bragg, also had a popular red light district. Saloons and bordellos lined Redwood Avenue from Main Street to McPherson. The Golden West Saloon, which still exists, had a brothel upstairs, and the alley next to it was crowded with shacks housing from one to six girls who serviced working-class men. When a man left a saloon in Fort Bragg announcing he was “going down the alley,” that’s where he was headed.

Girls posed topless in their parlor windows, calling out to the passing men. A back room housed beds and, if one was lucky, curtains. The women who worked these “cribs” lacked the status of parlor house girls. They tended to be older, ethnic, or scraping the bottom of the barrel.

The local madams were likely working girls from San Francisco who had succeeded in the industry and wanted to advance their fortunes. It is probable that Maggie Horn (ca.1856-1920) was one of these women. She was Fort Bragg’s most powerful madam, a shrewd business woman who had a bevy of girls working for her, some in the cribs, some in saloons, some in parlor houses. She looked after her girls with the aid of a bouncer, Rock McMullen, a tough guy from Point Arena. When things got rough, he would pistol whip whoever threatened one of Maggie’s girls.

The Kelley House Museum is open from 11AM to 3PM Thursday through Monday. If you have a question for the curator, reach out to to make an appointment. Walking tours of the historic district depart from the Kelley House regularly.