Today we’re going to discuss frontier brothel owner and all-around cool person Madam Lou Bunch. There is, in fact, a holiday dedicated to her (the third Saturday of June) that is widely celebrated every year in Central City, Colorado (once called ‘The Richest Square Mile on Earth‘) due to its prospecting success–apparently $75 million in gold was mined there.
Madam Louisa (“Lou”) Bunch was a major personality during the gold rush days, running what would ultimately become Central City’s last brothel, while also being a successful business woman and political figure in other areas. Her brothel was right off main street, and right next to the mines, a strategic location to put her girls close to their customers while also maintaining a prominent location in town.
As there were three men to every woman in town, demand was quite high and business was good for Madam Lou. That’s not to say she didn’t have her share of troubles. Prostitution was illegal, but officials mostly looked the other way. To help solidify her position, Madam Lou became very friendly with most of the town and helped to support local organizations, like the county baseball team.
When the town was hit by a terrible epidemic (I’m not sure of what), Madam Lou helped out by closing up her business to help keep the contagion from spreading and instead threw her energies into running a makeshift hospital with her sex workers nursing sick miners back to health.
It wasn’t solely out of the goodness of her heart that she did this. Ever the savvy businesswoman, she knew that the town’s economy (and the security of her own business) relied solely on active and healthy prospectors. That was the major industry, and she was going to get it back on its feet–risks to her own health be damned.
Despite the risque nature of Madam Lou’s business, the yearly festival is a town-wide, family friendly event that includes a ‘Madams and Miners Ball’, historical presentations on the town during the gold rush, mass neo-Victorian cosplay by residents and visitors, and a series of ‘brass bed races‘, which are exactly what they sound like:
A man and a woman sit in a brass bed with wheels, while a second man pushes them down the street, attempting the fastest time.
The festival tradition began not at any point during Madam Lou’s life, nor even after her death in 1935, but rather in 1976 when Goldie Hawn and George Segal filmed a comedy western in the town called The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox. The film did really poorly and Madam Lou is not listed as a character in the film.
However, the connection between the film, the festival, and Madam Lou is as follows: in the film, they had a scene in which people are pushed through the street on a brass bed. The scene ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor, but it coincidentally (?) mirrored a local legend about Madam Lou. It is rumored that she was caught in bed with the mayor by the mayor’s furious wife. The wife then ran Madam Lou out of town, pushing her beyond the city limits in the very brass bed she caught her in.
This story is almost certainly apocryphal, if for no other reason than that Madam Lou was extremely heavy and it is extremely unlikely that a single woman would have managed to get a double bed outside and into the street with Madam Lou still in it and then push her such a distance.
The festival remains probably Central City’s biggest event and tourist attraction. There isn’t a great deal of biographical information about Madam Lou, but if anyone can provide me with further details, I’d be happy to include them here.