Golden Ladies of the Silver Years
Las Vegas Sun, August 18, 1963
Julia Bulette, perhaps Nevada’s greatest enigma, that never has been—and now never will be—solved, hit Virginia City like a nuclear bomb in the days when it was wild and tough, and remained as one of its leading figures during the years when it became still wilder and tougher.
Just who she was and whence she came nobody knows, and it seems virtually certain nobody ever did know. According to tradition, she was either French or a Creole from New Orleans. Another, and probably equally reliable, version was that she was English, a native of Liverpool.
What secret lay behind it all, and it must have been a big one to have sent her out into the then almost trackless wilds, remains a secret.
Her contemporaries described her as a woman of great beauty, somewhat taller than the average, with skin dazzling white and hair of midnight blackness. Among her friends were Mark Twain, John Mackay, William Sharon—and the muddiest, dirtiest miners from the lowest levels of the deepest shafts. One hour she might be in the opera house, dressed in gorgeous velvets and solks, and surrounded by admirers. The next hour she might be kneeling in the mud, tying bandages on an injured miner whose blood was ruining that same gorgeous gown. If her efforts failed and he died, she probably paid for his funeral.
Apparently she just appeared and became a resident of Johntown, a little camp of shacks and huts populated by gold prospectors who were scraping out daily wages only a few miles away from where the3 Comstock was to be discovered. She was in…
…Fennimore, who was later to name Virginia City. There were Peter O’Riley and Patrick McLaughlin, on the verge of discovering the Comstock. And by no means least important, there was Emily Orum, later to become Mrs. Sandy Bowers and Julia’s bitterest foe.
When in 1856 the Comstock was discovered and Johntown moved en masse to Gold Hill, Julia went along, too. Almost immediately, the real focus of the strike became Virginia City. Likewise, within the space of a few months, did virtually everybody from either East or West able to get there.
Almost overnight Virginia City became a heterogeneous collection of huts, dugouts and tents, some of the latter made of canvas, but more of them of old blankets, potato sacks, and all kind of rags available to the occupants, who for the most part had no business at all on the face of a thousand foot high barren mountainside. They were “…,” – clerks, merchants, …, and others equally without knowledge of how to take care of themselves under the conditions then facing them with a tough Sierra winter coming on.
Most of the immediately fell sick. Much of the time it seemed that all of them were. To make matters worse, the water was found to be impregnated with chemicals that poisoned them.
Julia promptly jumped into action. She had a house, such as it was. Her friends always saw to it that she had a house, whether anyone else had one or not. She turned her little shack of a house into a hospital. And sent her friends out to drag into it every sick man it would hold. Pots and kettles of soup and broth simmered continuously on her stove, some of it for men in the “hospital,” but vastly more for those outside.
For Julia went everywhere, attended by friends who lugged kettles of hot soup. She poked into every tent and dugout in search of sick men and found them in droves. With her rounds in Virginia City completed, she would tramp across the Divide to Gold Hill and repeat her ministrations.
She didn’t know much about medicine, but common sense told her that when poison had entered the system, the obvious treatment was to get it out again. Hence, she carried with her almost lethal supplies of physics and emetics, with which she dosed her patients generously, and then fed them soup. Lastly, when she had them thoroughly doped and fed, she rewarded them equally with generous slugs of whiskey. Often when she left them she was probably uncertain whether her patients were just sleeping or plain drunk. In either case, they were more comfortable, and most of them got well.
By the spring of 1960 Virginia City had managed to get itself on a fairly even keel, everything considered. Roads were open again, freight wagons were pouring in, and even the Pony Express was p… ing as near as Dayton.
Then came the next setback, the Piute Indian war. By the hundreds new settlers scuttled back to California, and for a time the new city was almost deserted, except for the bobtail army of volunteers being organized to fight the Indians—and of course, Julia Bulette.
Julia was determined to go with the army. It would certainly need a cook, she argued, and without much doubt would also need a nurse—and she was the best of either in the mountains. But the miners had different ideas. Julia Bulette could neither be spared nor risked, and she would stay at home in the comparative safety of Virginia City if they had to tie her up. Consequently, from the wall of a stoner house that had been converted into a fort, Julia watched the army march away.
A few days later, when its draggled and defeated remnants came straggling back, she had plenty of opportunity to exercise her talents as both nurse and cook, and did it with skill and enthusiasm. She proved one of the strongest of the city’s leaders during the dismal days that followed, until the Indians had finally been defeated and scattered.
Then came the wild boom days, when Virginia City jumped from a camp to a city that knew every luxury of the period, where “tow bits” was the smallest coin accepted and bartenders weren’t expected to give change for a five-dollar gold piece. Maguire’s opera house on D Street attracted the best theatrical companies of the country. On D Street also lived Julia Bulette, in an attractive house of her own next door to the gas house. She entertained extensively, though exclusively, and her friends were of the highest social standing, who came and went by appointment only, and never encountered one another.
She found plenty of time for social events, having her private box in the opera house and attending every performance, whether a play or a dog and bear fight. She always was the best dressed woman in the house, and arrived in her own carriage, attended by a liveried footman. At parties she was always accompanied by one or another of the city’s leading citizens, and often by several.
Still, she never changed her relationship to those citizens less socially prominent. A disaster—any disaster—and there were plenty of them in those days, would bring her hurrying to the scene with salves, ointments and bandages. Somebody needed to help—and she was always on hand to provide it.
She appointed herself special nurse of the fire department—or at least, of the Virginia Engine Company, the station nearest her own home. She not only provided the firemen with medicine if one of them had so much as a cough, but also mended their clothes and sewed on their buttons. She became a sort of a godmother to the entire company, which made her an honorary member.
She had the respect—almost the admiration—of every man in Virginia City and Gold Hill, and was detested by virtually all the women. She accepted the first and ignored the second.
Thus matters stood on January 19, 1867. It was a Saturday night and Julia, who took her meals in the home of her friend, Jane Minesa, two doors away, dashed in at 11 o’clock for a late lunch. She told Mary Jane she must hurry because a friend was waiting for her.
At 11:30 the next morning, when Mary Jane went to call her to breakfast, she found Julia murdered in her bed.
Virginia City was shocked to a dead halt. Had the mayor been murdered, Virginians would probably have regretted the occurrence, but would have looked on it as a minor disaster, compared with the tragedy that had actually taken place. Gaming tables were deserted and evens the bars were sunk in gloom.
Immediately plans got underway for her funeral. It was reported that the entire fire department would march in full dress uniform, and every wife of a married fireman “put her foot down.” Her husband march to that woman’s funeral? No sir!
What scenes may have been enacted in homes nobody knows now, but the fact is that when the funeral cortege moved out the dress-uniformed firemen marched in unbroken ranks.
Not only that, but hundreds of other marching men filled C Street from curb to curb. Mines were virtually shut down, for miners from Virginia City and Gold Hill, many who could ill afford it, laid off and sacrificed half a day’s wages in order to attend her funeral.
The casket was literally buried under flowers, and the black-draped fire engine that followed carried as many more—and flowers must have been extremely hard to get in Virginia City in January of 1867.
Miners, firemen and even leading citizens wept unashamed as they piled the flowers on the new grave and took up the march back to Virginia City.
On the way back the band played, “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”
If by any chance the understanding Julia was able to know that, she laughed.
o o o
As a footnote, a few months later John Milleain was convicted of murdering Julia for her money and jewelry, and was hanged. The execution provided a big day for Virginia City.