Monday, January 9, 2012

Chicago Joe

What are you up to this week, history buffs? Tomorrow I'll be presenting a fun and informative program: “Helena on the Light Side,” a humorous view of the city's past including Helena’s love affair with the hangman’s tree, its bawdy ladies, and its earthquake-resilient citizens. Details in Friday's Independent Record here or call Patti Shearer 202-1766.

And speaking of Helena's past...
Josephine “Chicago Joe” Hensley was one of Helena’s several well-known madams. Her infamous Coliseum Theater in the 1880s and early 1890s carried a payroll of one thousand dollars a week. Hensley earned her nickname because of the attractive girls she imported from Chicago to work for her. At the height of her success, Hensley owned more than $200,000 worth of real estate, helped many financially, contributed to local causes, and anonymously educated two younger sisters, two nieces, a nephew, and a half brother.
From No Step Backward by Paula Petrik. Original in the Montana Historical Society collection.
In later years she cut quite a figure presiding over her cash register wearing an enormous Elizabethan collar and a dark, flowing velvet robe of purple or green, her ample waist encircled by a jewel-studded golden sash. Jewels sparkled everywhere on her person that one could be pinned. Hensley died of cirrhosis of the liver following surgery in 1899. E. W. Toole, brother of the governor, rode behind her coffin in an open carriage, an unheard-of gesture. Hensley’s generosity was admirable, and so was her intelligence. She accomplished what few others could, especially when you consider her handicap: she could neither read nor write. Hensley’s remains lie in an unmarked grave beneath modern-day Robinson Park where the Catholic cemetery used to be.

From Montana Moments: History on the Go

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