Erotic Archaeology

Article excerpt

Rooms that were left sealed and undisturbed for years in a derelict Butte, Montana, house have yielded a glimpse into daily lives otherwise ignored, denied, and certainly never preserved. That's because the broken-down Victorian house that contained the time-capsule chambers was once America's oldest active brothel, the Dumas.

It did regular business with the area's copper miners from 1890 until 1982. A reform sheriff evicted the town's last madam as the last mine was closing, but even on the day she locked the Dumas' door behind her, those sealed rooms hadn't been opened in decades.

Workmen who finally broke through the doors found the hastily abandoned detritus of boomtown whoredom. The floors were littered with old cigarette packs and decks of playing cards, leftovers of the boredom that hung over a brothel waiting for the mine whistle to sound. There were liquor bottles to suggest the alcoholism of the prostitutes, as well as of their customers. There were scattered lipsticks, chamber pots, an old jar of Vaseline. There was a bed sinking through the floorboards, a 1911 vibrator, a 1930s postcard encouraging safe sex.

But there was most of all the air of accident. A prostitute's past is evanescent, quick to disperse, gone with the morning. It is history of no seeming interest; it is, literally, pornography, a term that began its life as "writing about prostitutes."

Enter Norma Jean Almodovar. Almodovar's resume is full of surprises. The 49-year-old Montanan was once a Los Angeles cop. She quit to become an upscale Beverly Hills prostitute (she says she wanted to make "an honest living"); became head of the L. …