Santa Cruz County History - Crime & Public Safety

Harlots and Whorehouses: Fallen Angels of Front Street, Part 5
by Phil Reader

"Stories of the World's Oldest Profession in 19th Century Santa Cruz County"

Fallen Angels of Front Street, Part 5

The Lonesome Death of Marie Holmes

"The wages of sin. Perhaps in old England a mother awaits in vain the coming of an errant daughter. Perhaps somewhere a small child lisps the word 'Mama' while watching for her who sleeps cold in death. Never more shall mother and daughter gaze upon their loved one."

So wrote a reporter for the Santa Cruz Sentinel on May 8, 1898. The article, reeking with pathos according to the genre of the day, went on to tell the story of a young woman found dying in front of a saloon on Pacific Avenue.

In a paupers corner in the Evergreen Cemetery sits a modest little tombstone placed there by the prostitutes of Santa Cruz to commemorate one of their own. It stands among those of local pioneers and prominent citizens who passed away during the last century. The simple epitaph that is carved across the face of the marble tablet reads, "MARIE HOLMES 1877-1898."

During the autumn of 1897, Marie Holmes came to Santa Cruz and went to work at a brothel on Pacific Avenue. She was a reclusive person who talked little of herself except during periods of melancholy.

Over the next few months she let it slip that she was twenty years of age and a native of England. After leaving home, she came to America where she settled on the east coast for a brief period of time before drifting across the country to San Francisco. She afterwards found her way to Salinas and Watsonville before landing in Santa Cruz. She also spoke in vague terms of having left a daughter somewhere along the way. Yet another legacy of her many travels was a case of Consumption (Tuberculosis) which was beginning to take a toll on her.

Marie, from time to time, would receive a bundle of letters bearing a postmark from somewhere in the mid-west. Upon reading this correspondence she invariably fell into a deep state of melancholy during which she would loudly lament the life she now lived and threaten suicide. These fits only aggravated her consumption.

Then on Thursday, May 5, 1898, Marie went to the beach with Gladys Mills, another of the girls from the house. As they talked she shed tears of anguish, regretting that she was unable to lead a better life and bemoaning the absence of her daughter. Marie Holmes, she said, was not even her real name and again she spoke of suicide. Gladys dissuaded her from such thoughts and convinced her to return to her room.

Later that afternoon "Marie" took all of the letters from her trunk and burned them in a large basin at the foot of her bed. She then wandered idly about town until early evening when she stopped in front of a house on the corner of Mission and River (now North Pacific) Streets. Reaching down into her purse, she took out a bottle of carbolic acid and swallowed the fatal poison.

Walking down Pacific Avenue, she reached as far as the Merrill Brothers Saloon before she began to stagger and fell to the ground. One of the saloon's proprietors, J. M. Merrill, saw the woman go down and summoned medical aid. However all attempts to revive her were in vain and fifteen minutes later "Marie Holmes" was dead.

A coroner's inquest was held, after which the body lay unclaimed at Wessendorf and Staffler's mortuary for two days. Later, the madame for whom "Marie" had worked, came by the parlor arranged, and paid for a funeral.

The Sentinel reporter, with his flair for the maudlin, covered the event and wrote,

"Services were held Saturday noon in, Wessendorf & Staffler's undertaking parlor. Besides her former companions there were present a few kind-hearted women, who assisted in the services. But none were there who knew anything of the girl's early life. Truly, the last rites were performed by strangers, to whom even her real name was unknown. Many beautiful floral pieces were on the casket, mute tributes of sympathy from her companions, down whose cheeks tears coursed as they listened to the words of the Rev. E. H. Hayden from the Baptist Church. Perhaps it had been years since most of them had heard words from the lips of a minister. A choir sang appropriate selections which touched the hearts of the women whom Marie Holmes knew...The remains were interred in the Evergreen Cemetery, there to rest, while mother and child watch in vain for her coming until their short pilgrimage in this life is also at an end."

So here should end the story of the nameless prostitute who met her fate in the streets of Santa Cruz, but not so, for the threads of the tale are picked up in the archives at the University of Wyoming. They take the form of three letters written by the wife of a successful dentist in Denver, Colorado. They are postmarked Santa Cruz, California, and dated at various times during the summer of 1927.

They are addressed to, "My Dear Grandmother," and read in part

"Today I found were Mama died. It was here in Santa Cruz...and she must have been so unhappy, for the newspaper said that she died by her own hand... Oh, was so horrible...while here she was called Marie Holmes...they buried her at the Evergreen cemetery and it is such a lovely place, tucked into the bottom of a small mountain...and so it is over for us, Grandmother, it is finally over..."

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Over the years vandals have completely destroyed the marble head-stone marking the grave of "Maria Holmes".

"A Case of Depravity"

So screamed the Santa Cruz Sentinel on December 24, 1896. This outrage, amid the Christmas season, was directed at Den Kee, who kept a house of ill-repute in the Chinatown district on Short Street near the San Lorenzo River.

The newspaper's editor, with a long history of anti-Chinese agitation, was always eager to point out to his readers instances of miscegenation and this was a prime example. For residing in the brothel was a young Caucasian woman named Libbie Rhody.

Upon hearing of this "intolerable" situation the good people of Santa Cruz insisted that Police Chief Matt Rawle go out and arrest the "Celestial panderer." After he was safely tucked away in the jail, rumors of a "neck-tie party" floated around the streets of town.

Miss Rhody, who was eighteen years of age, said that she was forced to leave home because of ill treatment by her stepmother, and the only door opened for her was in the Chinese quarter. When she expressed a desire to reform, she was placed with a kind-hearted woman at the Rescue Home. However, three days later she slipped quietly out of town, never to be heard from again.

Meanwhile, Kee was brought before Justice Craghill's Court on a charge of keeping a house of ill-fame. The all white jury needed just a few minutes of deliberation before they brought in a verdict of guilty. Craghill gave the hapless Chinaman the maximum sentence of one hundred and fifty days in jail and a one hundred dollar fine.

Then Joe Skirm, the ever vigilant pettifogger, stepped in and filed an appeal on behalf of Kee. But even his magic could not stop the wheels of justice from rolling over "the almond-eyed deviate."

So on July 6, 1897, Den Kee paid his fine and entered the county jail. Upon his release on December 2, he found an eager escort waiting for him at the jail house door. With little or no formality they marched him down to the railroad depot and bade a somewhat less then fond farewell.

Next: Harlots and Whorehouses: Lust in the Valley of El Pajaro, Part 1.

Harlots and Whorehouses: Notes and References

Excerpted from: It Is Not My Intention to Be Captured. Copyright 1995 Phil Reader. Reproduced with the permission of Phil Reader.

View similarly tagged articles:

brothels, Chinatown, prostitution


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