Like many small railroad towns in the 19th Century, Truckee’s businesses were strung along a main thoroughfare known as Front Street or Commercial Row. Behind these storefronts was an alleyway identified on the map as Second Street but what locals eventually called Jibboom Street.
Jibboom Street was the heart of the hamlet’s Red Light District where dive bars, boisterous backroom wagering and conspicuous prostitution thrived. The noise, violence and illicit activity greatly disturbed the residents who lived in neighborhoods up the hill from Jibboom Street. Understandably, they resented criminal misconduct in such proximity to their family homes.
According to research by the Truckee Donner Historical Society, this nefarious part of town was originally located on the south side of the Central Pacific Railroad train tracks near the Truckee River but a fire in 1868 razed that den of iniquity. The raucous lawlessness, however, found life again on Jibboom Street much to the chagrin of polite society.
The term red light in association with prostitution has several possible sources but its roots in Truckee may refer to the habit of libidinous railroad men leaving their glowing red signal lantern near the front entrance of a sex worker’s quarters until business was done.
The back doors of the relatively reputable gaming saloons and dance halls on Front Street opened directly onto Jibboom where there were opium dens, bars with cheap whiskey, card sharks, boarding houses for quick but intimate liaisons and decrepit single room cribs where the lowest level harlots plied their wares.
There were frequent fights and gun play on Commercial Row much of it overflowed from Jibboom Street. The back alley was the most dangerous stretch of dirt in Truckee. Thugs prowled the area after midnight looking for victims that had spent the evening gambling, drinking or fraternizing in a bordello. These men would usually be drunk and still have money on them, easy prey for a knife or pistol-wielding crook. With any luck, the loss of their purse was the only consequence of their reckless behavior.
Vigilante activity chased miscreants and wandering vagabonds from town to town. Truckee’s 601 vigilante faction was among the worst offenders of railroading undesirables out of town, including sending the mentally ill to Sacramento.
Virginia City, Carson City, Reno, Truckee and Sacramento were all connected by railroad and part of the spiderweb of crime.
Although any gender can participate in commercial sex, historically women have dominated the trade especially in the 19th Century American West. In frontier towns men outnumbered women by a large margin and Truckee was no exception in its early decades.
In his book “Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior, and Swearing in American History,” historian John C. Burnham describes a few of the reasons that some women fall prey to prostitution. (I edited and paraphrased Burnham’s much longer section on this.)
Some view it as a temporary arrangement for earning significant income, a mindset associated with highly paid consort or lucrative call girl services. For most, however, it’s often a lack of economic opportunity, childhood trauma, physical and sexual abuse, drug addiction and alcoholism. These are a few of the social and cultural triggers that lead some women into selling sex, notes Burnham.
Prostitutes were – and still are – also frequent victims of abuse and exploitation by pimps, customers (johns) or strangers, according to Burnham.
Mollie Forshay’s downfall
Like many European newcomers to the United States who arrived after the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, Irish-born immigrant Mollie Forshay boarded a train and headed west. It’s impossible to know her intended destination but by the summer of 1869 she was working the clientele on Jibboom Street.
When business slowed, she took the train to Reno to join the other Sporting Girls at the brothels and hurdy houses (a frontier dance hall where male patrons had access to prostitutes). Forshay, a drinker with a temper, was known to be disruptive. Business owners and law enforcement were familiar with her.
Shortly after Forshay’s arrival she was attacked by Truckee’s most notorious soiled dove, Carrie Smith, also known as the Spring Chicken. According to a Truckee Republican newspaper report “Molly ‘put a head on her [Smith]’ and beat her such it will “serve to keep her quiet for a day or so at least.” (I’ll have more on Carrie Smith in a future column.)
Initially, Forshay was a relatively minor public nuisance, particularly when compared to the volatile Spring Chicken, but in the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1871, all that changed. At 3 a.m. Forshay and a couple of friends sauntered into a restaurant at the Arcade Saloon in Reno. She began yelling at the proprietor, Tom Kelley, complaining that the candle on their table was not lit. Unhappy with this unruly behavior, Kelley refused to serve them and requested they leave. As the trio headed out the door, Kelley allegedly grabbed Forshay’s shoulder, most likely to steer the inebriated woman toward the street. In a flash, Forshay whipped out a knife and stabbed Kelley in the chest. The man fell to the floor and died of blood loss in a matter of minutes.
On Jan. 13, 1872, Forshay was arraigned for the murder of Kelley in Washoe County. She pled not guilty, testifying in court that Kelley had threatened her, but on Feb. 2 an all-male jury convicted her of second degree murder.
Unwilling to hang the young woman, the judge sentenced Forshay to 27 years in the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. She was 25 years old. The Nevada State Supreme Court turned down her appeal because she could not provide admissible evidence that she had acted in self-defense.
Special thanks to the research of Gordon Richards and Chaun Mortier of the Truckee Donner Historical Society.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at TheStormKing.com. Check out his blog at TahoeNuggets.com or read more at YourTahoeGuide.com.