Hell's Belles: Prostitution, Vice, and Crime in Early Denver, with a Biography of Sam Howe, Frontier Lawman/Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power: Salt Lake City, 1847-1918

By Parent, Robin | Western Folklore, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Hell's Belles: Prostitution, Vice, and Crime in Early Denver, with a Biography of Sam Howe, Frontier Lawman/Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power: Salt Lake City, 1847-1918


Parent, Robin, Western Folklore


Hell's Belles: Prostitution, Vice, and Crime in Early Denver, with a Biography of Sam Howe, Frontier Lawman. Rev. ed. By Clark secrest. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002. Pp. xxiv + 353, preface, acknowledgments, illustrations, photographs, appendices, bibliography, index. $34.95 paper); Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power: Salt Lake City, 1847-1918. By Jeffrey Nichols. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Pp. viii + 247, preface, introduction, illustrations, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95 cloth)

Denver historian Clark secrest has based Hell's Belles on the scrapbook collections of Sam Howe, a police officer who dedicated fifty years of his life to law enforcement in one of the roughest cities in the West. Using Howe's collection of police reports and newspaper clippings, secrest has constructed an engaging historical account of relations between crime and power in early Denver. Sam Howe's police reports are both detailed and extensive, including not merely all expected general information for such documents, but also the arresting officer's remarks written out in Howe's minuscule hand. When it came to the newspaper clippings, though, Howe was not always rigorous to a fault. According to secrest, Howe saved "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)" (4).

Using Howe's documents and his own extensive research, secrest draws connections among government, police, commerce, and vice in early Denver. We see into the lives of poor and pimped prostitutes, madams, corrupt local police, business owners-many of whom gained wealth through gambling-and high society that plied the ruling hand of government.

Though primarily a history, this work has multiple uses to the folklorist. For instance, in a graduate course on regional folklore, the information surrounding a passage such as the following can help foster student understanding of power dynamics in the creation of a sense of place: "As with any western frontier community, a quartet of indulgences soon surfaced in early Denver City and Auraria: overimbibing (which frequently led to the other three), homicide, gambling, and-tentatively at first-prostitution. Those four inevitably led to a fifth: local government corruption" (59). The book also incorporates voices of the folk in sketches of many of Denver's colorful characters of the day. …

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