“Today in San Francisco,” states an article in the St. Louis Post–Dispatch of April 14, 1901, “there are a dozen mansions presided over by ex-gaiety girls of the frozen north. Their husbands are men who made their pile up there and lost their hearts to the vaudeville fairies.” The article lists more than a dozen women who hit the matrimonial jackpot by marrying wealthy Klondike miners.
The one who topped the list was Mrs. Lillian Hall, who had the good fortune to wed “Arkansaw Jim” Hall. Hall made his fortune from claim number 17 on Eldorado Creek. He had been in the Yukon for a decade before the gold rush and had the good fortune to select the richest claim in the entire Klondike.
Lillian Green was a vaudeville actress, who was originally from San Francisco. She was performing in Victoria, B.C., before making her way down the Yukon River to Dawson City in October, 1899, so the story goes, when the boat she was in was caught in the ice floes and wrecked below Fort Selkirk. She made her way to a nearby camp, falling through the ice en route. Standing in front of the campfire she recounted her perils as she thawed out. In her audience was the wealthy James L. Hall, who fell for her hard. A couple of months later, in Dawson City, Reverend Naylor joined the two in marriage.
“My husband is the best nugget in the Klondike,” proclaimed the fortunate Mrs. Hall when later visiting her mother in San Francisco, “Before I left Dawson he gave me $50,000 to put away for myself for a rainy day, and an extra $10,000 to spend amusing myself.” Meanwhile Hall, remained in the Yukon, presumably digging up more gold for his beautiful wife to spend.
The nouveau riche among the mining fraternity were easy targets for the enticing beauties of the stage. Many of these men had spent a hardscrabble existence prospecting the nameless creeks of the North, and through chance good fortune, found themselves instant millionaires. Now, they could have anything – and anyone – they wanted.
Other fortunate actresses also occupied mansions in San Francisco. Among them was Violet Raymond, who married Antone Stander, another Eldorado King. Stander did not fare too well, but Ms. Raymond lived in luxury until the end of her life. Grace Drummond, one of two sisters performing in the theatres of Dawson, married Charley Anderson, the “Lucky Swede,” while Jim Daugherty, who owned a rich claim on upper Bonanza Creek, as well as the New Pavilion Theatre, had his eye on the Oatley Sisters. He eventually chose Lottie to be his bride.
Another actress, who was remarkably good at separating miners from their gold was Cad Wilson, although she deftly avoided Cupid ’s bow. One Eldorado king is said to have lavished his attention upon her to the tune of $75,000, but she wasn’t choosy. Jack Mitchell, known as “The Sawdust King,” made his living changing the sawdust on the barroom floors. Jack had an uncharacteristic streak of good luck gambling, winning $1,800. That was enough to propel him into Cad Wilson’s arms, temporarily, where “she had one arm around his neck and caressingly stroked his unkempt hair. Each was sipping wine from the other’s glass.”
A few hours later, he was thrown unceremoniously out of the Tivoli Theatre, still wanting to spend his remaining $60 on more booze! Wilson left Dawson less than a year after she arrived, loaded down with money, jewelry, and the gaudiest nugget-studded belt that was ever produced in the Klondike.
Other denizens of the theatres and dance halls of Dawson weren’t so fortunate, but still earned a decent, if hard living. The percentage girls were good at entertaining wealthy miners in the private boxes overlooking the dance halls, and collected a portion of every bottle of champagne that they sold. Then there were the dollar-a-dance girls, who made out all right, if they had the stamina for it. They worked all night, receiving a portion of each dollar paid for a quick spin on the dance floor, plus a portion of every drink purchased by their dance partners.
One of these girls told her story to a dance partner. She lived in Oregon with her mother and younger sister, where she met and fell in love with a fellow named Joe. They had been engaged to be married for three months when news of the Klondike broke in July of 1897. While he was assembling his outfit for his trek to the Klondike, he told her that when he made his pile, she could join him in the Klondike, where they would be married.
Early in 1898, she received his letter telling her he had struck it rich, so she rushed to Dawson “with a light heart and a light purse,” but found no trace of him. When her money ran out, she sought work in one of the dancehalls, still waiting for Joe.
Her dancing partner believed that the story was fabricated to elicit his sympathy, until one evening, while talking to a number of strangers, one of them told him about a foolish girl he had “on a string” back in Oregon. “Last winter, sometimes, just to kid her, I wrote her that I’s struck it rich and for her to come on up here. And would you believe it, the little fool packed up her grip and came in on the first boat. Now she is making bushels of money down at Dawson and I haven’t $20.”
For some, theatre life, in the chaos of an isolated northern boom town, was more than they could bear. The booze and dissipation from the lifestyle ate away at their spirit until there was nothing left. Myrtle Brocee, who did a song and dance routine with her sister Florence, was recovering from an illness of several weeks. The lifestyle was not as glamorous as it appeared. Her funds had run out, and she dreaded returning to a livelihood whose standard of morals was not very high. She had threatened to kill herself before, but this time she completed the act — with the help of a Smith and Wesson .22 calibre pistol, in the Monte Carlo, December 9, 1898. At the coroner’s inquest, a number of witnesses testified that she had maintained her virtue, despite the lifestyle.
Several more untimely deaths followed. Kittie Straub, a dance hall girl employed at the Monte Carlo under the name Stella White, ended it all with a dose of strychnine when she caught her lover, a bartender from the Pioneer Saloon, cheating on her.
A few weeks after that, Dave Evans killed his lover, an older woman named Libby White, in an angry rage. The following summer Harry Davis did the same to Maud Roselle. Both murders occurred at the Monte Carlo — and both men killed themselves after they had done the deed.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org