Julia Bulette: Legend of the Comstock Lode

Virginia City saloon. | Mark McLaughlin

Julia C. Bulette was brutally murdered 155 years ago, but her memory lives on in historic plaques, chautauquas, a saloon named after her and stories. Even the popular American television series “Bonanza,” set on a fictitious family ranch near Lake Tahoe, had a 1959 episode where the character Little Joe falls in love with the madam of Julia’s Palace.

During the 1860s, Bulette was a prostitute in Virginia City, Nev., one of many to ply her trade on the hillside town’s infamous D Street, the notorious red-light district one block below the business district on C Street. Bankers and new millionaires built their mansions on A and B streets above the riffraff.

On Jan. 20, 1867, news of the vicious beating and strangling of 35-year-old Bulette stunned residents. She may have been a soiled dove, but that didn’t stop the citizenry from organizing an impressive funeral for her. The day Bulette died, the normally stolid silver miners of Virginia City cried a river of tears.

Julia Bulette’s reputation as an accommodating woman grew and soon the Queen of D Street could pick and choose her clients. Some of her customers were wealthy gentlemen who gave her expensive gifts.

Before her arrival in the West, little is known about Bulette’s past. She was either born in London, England, or Natchez, Miss. Like many young, single women of the restrictive Victorian Era, she could not get a legitimate job, so she became a call girl in New Orleans. In 1852, Bulette joined the California Gold Rush where she prostituted herself in numerous mining camps for a decade before the silver excitement in Nevada drew her to Virginia City in April 1863.

The Comstock District was barely 4 years old in 1863, but there were already thousands of lonely miners there, most of them about 20 years old. The pre-boom 1860 Virginia City census reported a population of 2,390, of whom only 118 were women.

The Comstock had the busiest saloons in the West. Liquor flowed freely and the miner’s boisterous behavior was legend. Prostitution was the single largest occupation for women on the Comstock when laundry or domestic work paid less than $25 per month. Although some community members looked down on the sporting life, the mere presence of females had a soothing effect on the predominantly male society.

As an independent hooker, Bulette lived in a small frame house at 4 North D Street. In 1861, Nevada Territory had adopted English common law that deemed brothels public nuisances but not illegal. Her cottage was small, but Bulette decorated it tastefully.

For her customer’s enjoyment she stocked a small bar with whiskey, port, claret and rum. Bulette’s reputation as an accommodating woman grew and soon the Queen of D Street could pick and choose her clients. Some of her customers were wealthy gentlemen who gave her expensive gifts of jewelry and furs.

She kept her health by visiting the doctor regularly and using contraceptives. Bulette had a generous personality and was praised for her efforts to nurture sick miners or help those with no money.

Virginia City, constructed of wood, was perched on arid, wind-swept Mount Davidson. Hot sparks emitted from wood-burning stoves frequently set buildings ablaze. The town’s Fire Engine Company No. 1 was equipped with one of the most powerful trucks on the Pacific Coast. It carried 600 feet of hose; a full crew required 65 men. The fire company was comprised of the city’s elite who enjoyed battling dangerous conflagrations. These men were often successful stockbrokers, merchants and mining speculators. When the volunteers raced to a fire, it was often with Bulette — an honorary member — hanging on the engine.

On Jan. 19, 1867, Bulette attempted to see a performance at Piper’s Opera House, but a new ordinance required that prostitutes sit in a special viewing box with the curtains closed so proper ladies did not have to see them. When Bulette refused to sit there, she was denied entry. Later she enjoyed dinner with her neighbor and friend Gertrude Holmes, the last person to see Bulette alive.

The next morning Holmes brought over Sunday breakfast and discovered Bulette partially clothed and brutally murdered. She had been struck with a pistol, bludgeoned with a piece of firewood and strangled. Most of her finer jewelry and clothing were missing. Comstock residents were shocked into rare sobriety by the violent act and a search began for the killer. The “Gold Hill Evening News” insisted on an immediate hanging as soon as the culprit was caught.

On Jan. 21, Bulette’s funeral was held at the engine house on B Street. It was a bitterly cold day, with gusty winds and snow squalls. Despite the adverse weather, hundreds turned out to hear Rev. William Martin’s eulogy. Extolling the virtues of a known prostitute is not easy for a man of the cloth, but Martin’s sermon was well received and considered to be “most appropriate to the occasion.”

The Virginia City “Territorial Enterprise” eulogized her as “being of a very kind-hearted, liberal, benevolent and charitable disposition — few of her class had more true friends.”

Her fellow firefighters in Engine Co. No. 1 took up a collection and purchased a handsome silver-handled casket. After the sermon, a brass band led about 60 members of the fire department on foot, as well as 16 carriages of mourners, to the Flowery Hill Cemetery. Bulette was given a Catholic funeral, but a woman of easy virtue could not be buried in consecrated ground. She was entombed outside of the town’s graveyards. As the mourners slowly filed back, the firemen sang “The Girl I Left Behind.” Virginia City was draped in black; for the first time since President Lincoln’s assassination, all saloons were closed.

Authorities pressed on with an investigation but were stymied without an eyewitness to the crime. Several months later prostitute Martha Camp was awakened by someone lurking in the darkness of her room. Her screams sent the man fleeing, but she later recognized him on the street. Identified as Jean Millian, a French baker and drifter, he was arrested and jailed.

The next day, a search of his house and storage trunk revealed some of Bulette’s possessions. No one stepped up to defend Millian and jurors quickly convicted him on circumstantial evidence. His attorney unsuccessfully appealed the case to the state Supreme Court.

On April 24, 1868, Millian was escorted to the gallows where more than 4,000 spectators — including families with children — witnessed the execution. In town on a lecture tour, former Virginia City “Territorial Enterprise” reporter Mark Twain was in the audience, as well.