Yukon News

The madam with the million dollar smile

MacBride Museum/Yukon News

Macbride

Diamond Lil was the main attraction at the house she ran in Skagway during the Klondike Gold Rush.

During her glory days Diamond Lil Davenport had a million dollar smile, literally.

This Klondike Gold Rush madam ran one of the most lavish houses of ill repute, and her ostentatious nature showed in her personal demeanor.

 

Lil stood nearly six feet tall; she was remarkably good looking and she always sported an elaborate diamond collection, one of which was implanted into her teeth.

 

“Certainly nature had fashioned her into a perfect beauty and at first glance she did appear to be a person of real refinement,” wrote Ella Lang Martinson in an account of a trip she made north on the S.S. Rosalie in June 1898 to meet her husband.

 

“But Diamond Lil was a courtesan in the fullest sense of the word, only entertaining the obviously rich clients who could pay handsomely for what she had to offer. Nevertheless she was fully entrenched in ‘the world’s oldest profession.’”

 

Lil was born Honora Ornstein to a prominent family in the cattle business in Butte, Montana.

 

During the gold rush Lil set up a house in Skagway, where she had the best pianist in town play for her guests.

 

Although songs like Swannee River, Climbing up de Golden Stairs and There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight were popular, Lil was of course the main attraction.

 

It was rumoured that Lil had connections to the underworld in Chicago, but she was always completely honest in running her house, according to Lael Morgan’s book, Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush.

 

After the rush, Lil moved to Seattle where some accounts say she opened another house of ill repute and others say she took a job scrubbing floors.

 

Nonetheless, over the years Lil’s smile slowly lost its sheen.

 

After two failed marriages, signs of insanity slowly began to show themselves.

 

She left dozens of wills. Every time she fell in love with someone she would write a will bequeathing all of her fortune to him.

 

Lil was also known to shower her favourite suitors with diamonds.

 

She took two taxis everywhere she went: One to ride in and the other to follow behind, just in case the first broke down.

 

In 1935, she entered Western State Hospital, and the media reveled in reporting on the fallen giant.

 

“At the time of her commitment she was reported to be wracked with venereal disease and narcotics,” wrote the Whitehorse Star in May 1961 in an article titled Diamond Lil Now Penniless. “Although she is still insane, she apparently is in good physical health.”

 

Lil’s diamonds were sold off one by one to pay for her care.

 

Reportedly her lawyer had trouble selling the diamonds because some women balked at wearing jewels that were tainted by a woman such as Lil.

 

Lil died alone at a nursing home in Yakima, Washington in 1975.

 

Her obituary in the Daily News read: “Diamond Tooth Lil, famed in legend as the dance hall queen of Alaskan Gold Rush days and the toast of sourdoughs is dead.

 

“Few who still live remember the tragic figure with the rich and glamorous legend of a bygone Golden North, the bright lights of the saloons and the raucous men from the creeks in town for a fling—their pockets loaded with gold.”

 

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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