In historic Uptown Butte along Mercury Street sits the Dumas Brothel – a memory of Butte’s red-light district. The brothel was in operation from 1890 to 1982. It is a house of secrets, of comradery, and shared experiences. A visit to the Dumas is sure to leave a lasting impression on visitors, while providing a glimpse at the lifestyle of the days when Copper was King in Butte.
While the upper floors of the hotel tell a tale of gentlemen, money, and elegant décor, the basement of the Dumas tells a much different story – one of hardship, unease, and struggle in the dim lighting.
At the back of the Dumas, there is a padlocked door leading to a private passageway that once led to the brick paved street known as Pleasant Alley, then Venus Alley, and finally Piss Alley. Along this alley were hundreds of one-room backstreet cribs. Miners would flock to the alley looking for a good time. This alley was a violent place, seeing crimes including: shootings, stabbings, beatings, robbery, and more. The basement of the Dumas was part of the burnt district and stands today as the only reminder of the activity that once defined the area.
While working girls struggled to make ends meet in the basement, a number of madam’s occupied the front apartment on the second floor, running what was considered to be a high-class establishment.
From 1950 to 1955, Elinor Knott served as the madam of the Dumas. As the tale goes, Elinor planned to leave the brothel with her lover on a cold night in February of 1955. She had her suitcase packed, but her lover never showed. The next morning, Bonita Farren sent for a doctor after finding Elinor’s body. Her death was ruled to be due to natural causes, yet there were whispers of a suicide or possible murder.
Bonita succeeded Elinor as madam, moving into the second-floor apartment with her husband John Farren. Bonita died in 1971 from cancer. Following Bonita’s death, Ruby Garrett took over as the final madam of the Dumas. On October 3, 1981, there was a brutal robbery where Ruby was pistol-whipped and robbed. Although the suspect was sent to prison, the event led to a federal investigation of the business and the IRS convicted Garrett of tax evasion. The Dumas Brothel closed permanently in 1982.
Various people have reported sighting a spectral woman with a suitcase in the Dumas. An employee during the 1970s reported that she had been in the building alone one evening and saw a woman carrying a suitcase walk past the door of the upstairs bathroom and descend the stairs. Upon further inspection there was no one in the building, and no one would have been able to make an exit in such a short period of time.
Several years ago, an artist visited the brothel, staying in the second-floor apartment where the lighting would be ideal for painting. Each time she sat down to work, she felt compelled to paint the face of a woman she had never met – it haunted her. After multiple canvases had gone in the trash she gave up, leaving the room to paint elsewhere. The owner of the building rescued one of the portraits of a 40ish year old woman, wearing a hat and coy smile. Bonita Farren? Elinor Knott? We may never know.