Mollie Forshay, a sex worker plying her trade in Truckee and other areas, was convicted of second degree murder by an all-male jury in Washoe County on Feb. 2, 1872, for the murder of Tom Kelley, the proprietor of the Arcade Saloon in Reno, Nev. The judge sentenced Forshay, only 25 years old, to 27 years in the Nevada State Prison in Carson City.
Since Forshay was the only female inmate in the prison, she was housed in a small apartment. She neither ate with, nor was allowed to communicate with other prisoners. She worked at sewing but was otherwise not required to labor.
Twins from jail
Two years later, a scandal erupted when newspapers reported that Forshay had presented the state with twins, humorously blaming the warden for adding illegitimately to Nevada’s high prison population. Sympathy for the inmate was mixed, but some of Carson City’s leading citizens gathered a petition to release Forshay from prison and rescue her from the allegedly predatory warden, Col. P.C. Hyman, an “inhuman monster.”
In September 1875, Forshay was pardoned and released after serving about three and a half years for her crime. She was escorted from the penitentiary gate in a handsome horse-drawn carriage. Women of Carson City set her up in a dressmaking shop, but after six weeks Forshay realized that it was not for her, and in December 1875 she departed for Winnemucca with plans to open a brothel.
Newspaper stories across the Silver State kept tabs on Forshay’s whereabouts and crime sprees including imprisonment in Elko for selling alcohol to Native Americans and malicious mischief in Reno. (In a Jan. 1, 1972, article about female inmates at Nevada State Prison, the Reno Evening Gazette stated that her real name was Molly Forsha, sometimes spelled as Forshay. Newspapers used variations as did Forshay herself on police blotters.)
Queen Bee of Truckee
By the summer of 1876 Forshay was back as the Queen Bee of Truckee. In July she was arrested for disturbing the peace, but the charge was dismissed. In August she accused prostitute Mabel Gray and other local fallen women of larceny. This case was also ignored. In January 1877 Forshay was arrested for selling liquor without a license, but the arraignment was postponed. Throughout 1877 the Truckee Republican posted articles about her involvement in altercations, harassment and assaults. It was all part of the routine mayhem associated with Jibboom Street and its demi world denizens.
Law enforcement was lax as Truckee residents did not want to use public funds to arrest, jail and conduct legal proceedings for all the infractions occurring on a near daily basis.
The recently constructed Truckee jail (1875) at the corner of Spring and Jibboom streets was too small to hold more than a few scofflaws at a time while transporting alleged criminals by stage to the county calaboose in Nevada City was expensive and took the constable out of town for the day. Truckee’s strategy to rid the town of hoodlums was known as Sunset Parole. Leave town tonight and the county won’t prosecute. Vigilantes tried to make sure offenders were on the evening train. One critic complained that “Immunity from conviction for crime is an attractive feature of the town in the eyes of these people.”
A gun battle for Molly
On Nov. 3, 1877, Forshay was carousing at a Reno hurdy gurdy house (a frontier dance hall where male patrons had access to prostitutes) when William Phillips, a young Truckee local with a good reputation, entered the establishment. Phillips had fallen in love with Forshay on Jibboom Street and had followed her to Nevada. One editor later admonished, “Phillips betrayed great folly by frequently associating with the ex-prison bird, Molly Shay [sic].”
Forshay, however, had moved on and was enjoying the attentions of Wes Holladay, a small-time crook. Holladay had repeatedly tormented Phillips, insinuating how Forshay was such a “coin producer” for him. The men exchanged words, Holladay pulled a gun and Phillips left to arm himself, as well.
Within an hour the two adversaries met again at the dance hall, drew their revolvers and fired simultaneously. Phillips couldn’t shoot straight. His first shot hit the ceiling and the second gave the fleeing bartender a flesh wound in his thigh. Holladay’s gun jammed and he ran for the exit. Once behind the thin wooden door, Holladay stopped and aimed for Phillips, but Phillips shot first. The bullet pierced the door striking Holladay in the abdomen. It’s doubtful that Forshay shed a tear when the antagonistic gunslinger died the next day.
Molly’s troubled ways
By 1878 Forshay was living in Tuscarora, a mining town booming on silver ore in Elko County, Nev. The town had 1,500 residents at the time, one of the largest communities in the Silver State. A seemingly perfect place for a hustler like Forshay, but her explosive temperament repeatedly got her in trouble. Her transgressions were followed with zeal by the Tuscarora Times-Review. An article on July 12, 1878 stated, “The irrepressible Mollie Forshay is in trouble again. On Sunday night last she was arrested on two charges of assault and battery, and upon being presented to His Honor, Justice Abbot, the lady indulged in some offensive chat, which caused the Judge to send her to jail twelve hours for contempt of court. Upon charges of assault and battery she was held for $200 to appear on July 16. Miss Mollie gave the required bail and departed in peace.”
A year later on July 10, 1879, a report included, “On Friday night the window curtains in Mollie Forshay’s bedroom caught fire. Mollie was asleep at the time, but the blaze awakened her, and springing from the couch she tore the burning muslim down, and with her hands succeeded in smothering the flames, but in doing so she was badly burned about the neck, breast and arms. Her injuries are quite serious, but the surgeon attending her does not consider them dangerous.”
In 1888, Forshay was convicted of larceny for which she received a 180-day jail sentence. Tragically, over a lifetime pained by a world of abuse, suicide, drugs, murder and alcohol, Forshay spiraled downward into poverty in her final years, freed only by the respite of death in 1900 at age 53.
Special thanks to the research of Gordon Richards and to 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 and TheStormKing.com. Check out his blog at TahoeNuggets.com or read more at the Tahoe Guide.