Taking a chance on love
By Rosemary Fetter
Among Colorado’s early gambling brethren, romance was seldom a priority, tagging along somewhere behind an easy mark at the tables, powerful whiskey, a comfortable bed and willing saloon girls. Still, whispers of romantic love (or something like it) abound in legends of the old West. Following are just a few tales of passion on the high plains, some of which ended better than others.
Wyatt Earp & Sarah Josephine Marcus
The true story of the Earp-Marcus relationship has been buried in legend and fantasy, perpetrated by Marcus and a slew of creative writers and would-be historians. It’s fairly certain that Wyatt met Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp in Tombstone, Ariz., in 1881. An actress, woman about town and perhaps a prostitute, she was described later by Bat Masterson as the “belle of the honkytonks, the prettiest dame in three hundred or so of her kind.” Although Wyatt called her “Josie” she generally went by the name “Sadie.”
She had recently separated from Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Beham when she and Wyatt became involved. At the time, Wyatt had been living with his common law wife Mattie Blaylock, an opium addict who later committed suicide. Sadie and Wyatt commiserated with one other, becoming friends and then lovers. After the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral and Earp Vendetta Ride (a search for the men who murdered Wyatt’s brother Morgan and crippled his brother Virgil), the lawman left Arizona for Colorado. He later met up with Sadie in San Francisco, where her family lived.
By 1882, Sadie was going by the name of Josephine Earp, although the marriage was never documented. The Earps made a colorful pair in later years, a gambling team who operated saloons in Idaho and Alaska, ran horse races in San Diego and hunted for gold and silver in various western locales.
When Wyatt died on Jan. 13, 1929, several writers were attempting to document his legacy. Perhaps in response to those she felt were unfair to her and Wyatt, Josie tried to publish her own life story, I Married Wyatt Earp. Due to her reluctance to be honest about her past, publishers turned her down. She died in 1944 at age 83 and lies buried next to Wyatt in Colma, Calif., near her family.
In 1967, Amateur historian Glen Boye recovered a copy of her manuscript and used it as a source for the book I Married Wyatt Earp, once considered an authoritative biography but later proved to be fraudulent. Among the many films about the Earps, the most critical acclaim went to John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in 1946. More recent movies such as Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994) come closer to the truth. An off-Broadway musical with an all-female cast, I Married Wyatt Earp, was produced in 2011.
Charley Harrison & Ada Lamont
Another story also shrouded in mystery concerns Denver’s premiere gambler and madam. In 1858, a beautiful young woman and her husband, a minister, joined a wagon train heading for the Pikes Peak region. When the clergymen mysteriously disappeared, along with a woman reputed to be a prostitute, everyone assumed that the two had run off together. When the party reached the outskirts of Auraria (a.k.a. west Denver), the minister’s wife announced to her shocked fellow passengers that she intended to abandon her former life and open the town’s first brothel under the name Ada LaMonte. According to reports, her employees never stole from clients and she served the best liquor in town.
Ada met Charley Harrison early in 1959 and the pair immediately became an item. Taken with her spirit and good looks, Charley escorted her to parties and celebrations and frequently stepped in when aggressive or abusive clients threatened her establishment. Harrison was probably in his early 40s at the time, handsome and well built. According to legend, he always carried a pair of pearl-handled Colt revolvers, which he used when he found it necessary.
With the advent of the Civil War, Charley, a Southern sympathizer, was ordered by a judge to “git out of town” after an altercation with the First Colorado volunteers. He returned to his Southern homeland and enlisted in the Confederate Army. Irritated by his treatment in Denver, Harrison convinced his superiors that the town contained a veritable gold mine of supplies and ammunition, which the Confederacy desperately needed. He formed a raiding party and set out for Denver. Unfortunately, the Osage Indians were pro-Union and attacked Harrison’s contingent, killing and scalping all 19 men.
Ada’s life also ended soon, dramatically if not heroically. Depressed by Charley’s departure and subsequent demise, she soon suffered another shock. A group of travelers had discovered her husband’s remains on the prairie, along with those of the missing woman. The minister’s skeleton had a hole in the back of the head and a bullet lodged in the skull. In a bundle of rags, someone found the gift that she had once given him, a Bible with her inscription still legible. Filled with remorse, Ada began to drink heavily. Business went downhill, and she boarded up her establishment and moved on. Eventually she drifted into Georgetown, where she died of starvation in the midst of the silver boom.
Ed Chase & Frances Barbour
If Ed Chase had never existed, a Hollywood scriptwriter would have invented him. For nearly 50 years overlord of Denver gambling, Chase had movie-idol good looks, prematurely silver hair and riveting blue eyes that could make a woman’s heart flutter or an adversary’s blood run cold. Although he loved women, his amorous exploits generally ended in disaster until he found the one woman who could keep him interested for life.
His original enterprise, a tent saloon on Blake Street, had been blessed at its opening by the presence of Col. John M. Chivington, elder of the Methodist church. Soon he and his partner moved across Blake Street at the request of several prominent businessmen, who wanted a higher-class gambling club in town. The Progressive opened in 1864.
Chase later recalled, “The tables were the best Denver had known up to that time. The entire lower floor, 25 X 100 ft., was devoted to gambling, with the exception of the bar space. The second floor was also used by the fraternity, but in a more quiet way…”
In his younger days, Ed had been notorious for his exploits with women. His first marriage ended when his wife, Margaret Jane, stormed into the Corn Exchange gaming hall dressed as a man. She subsequently attempted to shoot a waitress named Nellie Bellmont, whom she accused of being Ed’s mistress. After Mary Jane sued for divorce, Ed married the beautiful Helen, which ended when he discovered her with a cattleman named George Brown.
In 1880 Ed married 20-year-old Frances Barbour, a charming young actress from Pennsylvania who had performed at the Palace Theater. Despite the 23-year age difference, the couple remained happily together for life. He and Frances built a house at 1492 Race St., eventually the site of the old Aladdin Theater, where they entertained their many friends and business associates. When Ed died on Sept. 27, 1921, Denverites were amazed to discover that his vast fortune had been reduced to $650,000. According to his counsel, Mary Lathrop (Denver’s first woman lawyer) Chase had given away enormous sums over the years to broken-down gamblers and others in need.