Molly B’Damn in Murray, Idaho

On a fall trip from Polson, Montana to Walla Walla, Washington for a Women Writing the West conference, I stopped by Wallace, Idaho, one of Idaho’s famous mining towns. It is also one of the West’s most famous Red Light Districts. I was in the beginning phases of researching a book for Farcountry Press on Idaho Madams and I wanted to tour the brothel museum there. I was too late in the year and the museum was closed for the season. I hadn’t gone far enough into my research to know that Molly B’Damn’s gravesite was just 20 miles away in Murray, Idaho.

A Hero’s Act

 Molly B’Damn is one of Idaho’s well-known Madams and a local folk hero. In 1884 Molly crossed Thompson Pass to Murray, Idaho with a pack train in a blizzard. Part way across the pass Molly risked her life to help a woman and child struggling to keep up. Legend has it that she stopped and put the woman and child on her horse with her. They were not dressed for a blizzard and Molly became concerned for their safety. Molly found a ramshackle shelter and held up with the woman and child there, telling the pack train go on without them. They would catch up in the morning. The rest of the people with the pack train left, never expecting to see them again. Covered in Molly’s furs and warmest clothing, the three huddled together for warmth, until the blizzard passed.

In the morning they rode into Murray, Idaho together on Molly’s horse. Molly ordered food and shelter for the woman and child, and paid the bill, earning instant admiration. She had likely saved their lives. She turned down an offer for a room at the hotel and announced, instead, that she’d be taking up residence in Cabin Number One, the cabin reserved for the Madams of mining, logging, and railroad towns. Phil O’Rourke asked her name and she replied “Molly Burdan”, the name she had taken on when she married. Her marriage failed but she kept the name. Molly had a strong Irish brogue and O’Rourke thought she said “Molly B’Damn”. The name stuck.

A Heart of Gold

Molly was born Maggie Hall in Dublin, Ireland December 26, 1853. Having a restless spirit, she left home at the age of 20 and took a boat to America. Things were rough in America and had not gone the way she’d planned. By 1884 she’d been traveling the western states as a high-end prostitute for several years. When she arrived in Murray, the people welcomed her with open arms. She had finally found a home.

 Molly was the quintessential prostitute with “a heart of gold”. She took care of the sick, returned stolen goods, fed the poor, and contributed to charitable causes. The legend states that she took good care of the women who worked for her and treated them fairly. Her biggest and last great deed took place in 1886 when a stranger rode his horse into town, drank whiskey, and fell over dead of small pox, exposing the town.

Soon others were dying. While most people stayed inside trying to avoid the scourge, Molly set out to tend to the sick. She rallied the women who worked for her, and lectured the town’s people, telling them that they needed to care for each other and not hide inside. Along with O’Rourke, she cleared out the local hotel to use as a makeshift hospital. She worked tirelessly, without adequate sleep or nutrition, caring for the sick. Many people died, but her efforts undoubtedly saved many others.

May Arkwright Hutton

I recently read Mary Barmeyer O’Brien’s book, May: The Hard-Rock Life Of Pioneer May Arkwright Hutton, based on the true story of May Arkwright Hutton, who also went west chasing her dreams and seeking new opportunities. May, an outcast, orphaned in her youth, opened a one-table restaurant at Wardner Junction, Idaho, another mining community across the mountains from Murray. May was a determined, out spoken woman who dressed in bright, showy dresses, and “scandalized the ‘proper’ women of town”. May married Al Hutton and worked tirelessly for women, children, and miners. She helped win women’s right to vote in Idaho and Washington. She went on to be a great philanthropist, supporting many social projects in the Pacific Northwest.

Crossed Paths

In her book, Mary Barmeyer O’Brien states that May Arkwright Hutton met Molly B’Damn in Eagle City and admired her. She indicates that May wished that Molly could have been her maid of honor when she married Al Hutton. From O’Brien’s book: “That would raise some eyebrows…but in May’s mind, Molly was the kindest, most generous woman in Idaho Territory.”

They were two young women with hopes and dreams. They were both independent, strong-willed, and good hearted. They both set out to take their chances in a wide-open world, wanting a good life, eventually finding opportunity in Idaho Territory’s boomtowns. A twist of fate took May Arkwright Hutton down one path were she found happiness and purpose. A different twist of fate took Maggie Hall down another path scattered with heartbreak. I can’t help but think that when their paths crossed they were soul sisters, kindred spirits, full of courage and resolve. They must have touched each other’s heart, knowing what it is to stand up again and again, to make the best of a bad situation.

Molly B’Damn Days 

The people of Murray, Idaho still honor Molly with the Molly B’Damn Days each August. I’ve never been to Murray but I intend to go next summer, after the snow melts. I’ll visit Molly’s gravesite where, as I understand it, people still leave flowers. And I’ll leave my own flowers. It is said that Maggie Hall came to America full of light, a Catholic, no-nonsense girl, full of wit and charm. She turned bad luck and compassion into a business, but she never forgot about being a good neighbor. I’ll likely go by way of Thompson Pass and follow the route Molly Burdan took. By then I’ll know more about the road Maggie Hall took to Molly B’Damn and Murray, Idaho.

Copper Sky cover

The Swan Keeper cover

 

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