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Femme Fatales of the Frontier

Posted by Megan Rohleder on Sep 24, 2021

By: Ethan Anderson, Government Records Archivist

Every once in a while, an item in the collection piques our interest and we can’t help but investigate further. Such was the case with the below photographs of two women known as Squirrel Tooth Alice and Timberline. The descriptions for both images simply state that the two worked as prostitutes in Dodge City in the 1870s. Though documentation of transient sex workers can be especially difficult to find, we nevertheless decided to do some digging in an effort to tell the stories of the women behind these unusual aliases. As prostitutes in the American West played a crucial role in the growth and economic well-being of frontier towns, studying these women can give us a better understand of the demographics and social norms of these burgeoning communities.

Squirrel Tooth Alice’s unforgettable moniker and long career may explain why so much is known about her. She was born Mary Elizabeth “Libby” Haley in Belton, Texas in 1855. Her wealthy family lost nearly everything in the Civil War and in 1864, further tragedy struck when Comanches raided the family farm and kidnapped her. She spent three years in captivity. Libby’s family paid for her release, but they hardly welcomed her back with open arms. As Libby later recalled, “Through no fault of my own I was seen as a marked woman after my release. Though only 13 years-old most people assumed that I had been ‘used’ by the Indians during my captivity and I was shunned and ostracized from society.” She managed to overcome this stigma and soon fell in love with a much older man. However, when she brought him home to meet her family, her father shot him dead on the front porch. Unable to further tolerate this oppressive environment, Libby ran away to Kansas. With few economic opportunities available to women on the frontier, she became a dance hall girl in Abilene and later moved to Ellsworth and Dodge City. The surprisingly amusing 1870 U.S. census documented Libby in Ellsworth, where she occupied a “house of ill fame.” Perhaps reflecting her irreverent humor, Libby’s occupation was listed as “diddles,” a 19th-century slang term for intercourse. [1]  

Libby most likely worked in a dance hall such as Varieties, pictured above, while in Dodge City. In 1879, the Ford County Globe reported that the town had fourteen saloons, two dance halls, and 47 prostitutes for its 700 inhabitants.[2]

Soon after arriving in Kansas, Libby met William “Texas Billy” Thompson, a gambler, gunman, and cowboy. Due to the nature of the couples’ work and Billy’s run-ins with the law (he accidentally killed Ellsworth Sheriff Chauncey Whitney in 1873), they moved frequently between towns in Kansas, Colorado, and Texas. The two finally settled down in Sweetwater, Texas, where Libby owned and operated a brothel and dancehall. It may have been in Sweetwater where Libby acquired her unusual nickname. Like many prostitutes in the American West, Libby went by an alias: Alice. This eventually morphed into Squirrel Tooth Alice due to a small gap in her front teeth and her fondness for prairie dogs, which she kept as pets. A drunken man one night mistook the animals for squirrels, gave Libby the nickname, and it stuck. She continued to work as a madam until retiring in 1921 at the age of 66. Libby later moved to Los Angeles, California, where she died at a rest home in 1953.[3]

Unlike Squirrel Tooth Alice, frustratingly little is known about the woman in the above photograph known only as Timberline. She does not appear in any census, birth, or death records, Dodge City police dockets, court records, or even newspaper accounts of the day. This photograph seems to be the only evidence of her time in Dodge City. 

 

Many of Dodge City’s prostitutes plied their trade in the brothels, saloons, and dance halls of the town’s red-light district, located south of the ATSF railroad tracks.

It is widely accepted that Dodge City’s Timberline is the same woman who later worked in the silver mining boom town of Creede, Colorado in the 1890s. She must have done well for herself in the intervening years as writer Perry Eberhart states she was not merely a prostitute by then but one of Creede’s top madams. A February 3, 1893 article in the Creede Candle newspaper provides the only contemporary written account of Timberline. According to the paper, her real name was Rose Vastine and her alias was a reflection of her imposing height of 6’2”. Sadly, the Candle relates that Rose “became weary of the trials and tribulations of this wicked world” and attempted to take her own life with a 41-calibre pistol. Doctors were quickly summoned, and the self-inflicted gunshot wound to her chest did not prove fatal.[4]

Suicide was not uncommon among prostitutes of the time and Rose’s brush with death may not have been her first or last. Writer Jan MacKall says doctors also revived her after an intended overdose, while Eberhart claims she climbed into the hills above Creede one day and shot herself an incredible six times.[5] Unfortunately, these suicide attempts are all that is recorded of Rose Vastine. It appears that well-behaved women are not the only ones who seldom make history.

Sources:

[1] Marshall Trimble, “Squirrel-Tooth Alice,” True West Magazine, March 16, 2021, https://truewestmagazine.com/squirrel-tooth-alice/ (accessed May 5, 2021); Kathie Bell, “Remembering Squirrel Tooth Alice,” Dodge City Daily Globe, September 25, 2017, https://www.dodgeglobe.com/news/20170925/remembering-squirrel-tooth-alice (accessed May 5, 2021); U.S. Census Bureau, Schedule 1, Inhabitants of Ellsworth in Ellsworth County, Kansas, 1870. Libby’s fellow boarders listed their occupations as “does ‘horizontal’ work,” “‘squirms’ in the dark,” and “’ogles’ fools.” Perhaps to protect her true identity, Libby listed her birthplace as Missouri rather than Texas.

[2] “Sparks from Dodge City,” Ford County Globe, September 2, 1879, 4.

[3] For an image of Sheriff Chauncey Whitney, see 213083; Trimble, “Squirrel-Tooth Alice.”

[4] Rose Vastine was not the only prostitute of the era who went by the alias Timberline. One of Irwin, Colorado’s resident sex workers was known as Timberline Kate. However, rather than a reflection of the woman’s height, the moniker referred to her thinning hair. Harry C. Cornwall, “My First Year in the Gunnison Country,” Colorado Magazine 46, no. 3 (Denver: Summer 1969): 241; Perry Eberhart, Guide to the Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (Chicago: Sage Books, 1969), 402; Creede Candle, February 3, 1893, 4.

[5] Jan MacKall, Brothels, Bordellos, and Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado, 1860-1930 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007), 122; Eberhart, Colorado Ghost Towns, 402. 


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