Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: Shady ladies and hurdy gurdy girls |

Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: Shady ladies and hurdy gurdy girls

The hurdy gurdy, a hand organ with strings, keys and wooden wheels, produced music when the handle was turned. First played in Europe, it became a popular musical instrument in 1800s America.
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Editor’s note: This tale comes from Mary Ellen Gilliland’s humorous local history, “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods.” The book captures the high-spirited antics of shysters and shady ladies, swindlers and rogues of 1800s Summit County mine camps. Old-timers interviewed by Gilliland provided most of the book’s savory stories.

The false front, hallmark of Victorian architecture, is amusing because it typifies the pretension of the late Victorian era, 1870-1901. Merchants and businessmen erected false fronts on their buildings to make the structures impressive. Victorian society similarly put up a false front of moral virtue. Nowhere was this more apparent than in their contrivances regarding sexual immorality.

Victorians upheld rigid rules of sexual propriety. Adultery created a scandal. Despite strict laws regulating vice, every town had its cribs, parlor houses and saloon dance halls where each strata of male society — mine laborers, merchants and mining magnates — could buy female favors.

How could an upstanding and honorable citizenry condone such double standards? Victorian consciences remained clear for two well-rationalized reasons. First, ordinances confined prostitution to a certain area, the red light district. That equaled a firm stand against debauchery. Second, town fathers licensed prostitution. That meant they could look their mothers in the eye. When money flowed into the town coffers from the madam’s monthly $5 or $10 fee, an aura of righteousness and order prevailed. (A nice lunch cost 25 cents at the time.) Never mind the police magistrate, who had to knock red-faced on the parlor house door, to collect the fee.


Tough laws, laid down in strong language, satisfied the Victorian soul. A typical prostitution ordinance defined the lewd offender and identified the den of wickedness. In 1890 Breckenridge overhauled its laws and The Summit County Leader on Feb. 5 published this:

“Inmates of Bawdy Houses – Patrons – Within Three Miles

“Sec 12 Whoever shall keep or maintain, or shall be an inmate of any bawdy house, or house of ill fame, or place for the practice of prostitution or lewdness, or whoever frequents or in any way patronizes the same, or lets any house, room or other premises for such purposes, or shall keep a common, ill-governed and disorderly house to the encouragement of idleness, gaming, drinking, fornication or adultery, or other misbehavior within the town, or within three miles from the limits thereof, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, be fined a sum of not less than five dollars nor more than two hundred dollars.”

Stout language, that. The fact that these laws were widely ignored failed to trouble the Victorians. Defining and containing sin sufficed. Requirements of the Victorian moral code were met. In their towns both the church door and the saloon door swung wide. They allowed the family parlor and the parlor house, the preacher and the prostitute to coexist. If they zoned it, licensed it, fined it and frowned on it, vice was quite nobly contained.

However, one female occupation in the early Colorado mine camp allowed a young woman to retain her virtue and still make more money each night than many of her customers earned all week.


In Breckenridge, houses of ill repute flourished alongside dance halls. Together the 1860s fire-and brimstone preacher, John Lewis Dyer, and pioneer Agnes Ralston Silverthorn complained about the dance halls. He lamented the sinful nature of both music and dancing; she could not stand the racket. Both had something to groan about.

Dance halls, called hurdy gurdy houses, blared raucous music into Breckenridge residents’ eardrums day and night. The hurdy gurdy, a hand organ with strings, keys and wooden wheels, produced music when the handle was turned. First played in Europe, it became a popular musical instrument in 1800s America. The girls who worked as dancing partners for the prospectors in 1860s Breckenridge were called hurdy girls or hurdies.

These girls worked in halls where a bar occupied one side and a dance floor the other. A hallway with several small rooms, available to revelers wanting more than a dance, opened to the rear. Not all dance hall girls engaged in vice. The dance hall offered a good money-making opportunity to a pretty woman who did not want to degrade herself in prostitution. The male sporting element understood that while the dance was free, they were required to buy both themselves and their partners a $1 drink after each dance. Of the $1, the girl got half as her commission. The hurdies usually drank cold tea to insure their dancing agility.

A popular hurdy girl could dance with 50 men in one evening, earning at least $50, and she got $25 — a fortune in an era when mine laborers, working hard, earned $2.50 per day. The dance hall girls, known by their real names and respected more than trollops, received admiration and friendship from their often-lonely male dance partners. In 1860s Breckenridge, the hurdy girl might be the only female a prospector saw all season.

This male comfort failed to cheer Summit County’s only real saint, Methodist preacher Father John Lewis Dyer who despaired of “the general hubbub from dark to daylight.” He opposed music and dancing, and scolded “the inevitable dance house, with degraded women, fiddles, bugles and many sorts of music.”

Mary Ellen Gilliland’s “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado,” has captured the colorful gold rush. She details the misbehavior of history’s miscreants in her “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods” and recounts the story of the region’s first town in Breckenridge. Gilliland is also the author of the popular guide,”The Summit Hiker.” All are available from The Next Page Bookstore or online at

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