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Mythic FrontiersRemembering, Forgetting, and Profiting with Cultural Heritage Tourism$

Daniel R. Maher

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780813062532

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813062532.001.0001

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The Hello Bordello and Brave Men Matrix

The Hello Bordello and Brave Men Matrix

(p.144) 6 The Hello Bordello and Brave Men Matrix
Mythic Frontiers

Daniel R. Maher

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

The frontier complex reinforces narratives of heterosexual normativity and white male hegemony by using narratives of femme fatales, madam entrepreneurs, and brave deputies. Following Judith Butler’s critique of gender performativity, this chapter details how brothel madam Laura Zeigler is used as an example of “equal opportunity employment in the West” whereas the “Bandit Queen” Belle Starr narrative demonstrates the value of adhering to “proper” gender roles. Meanwhile, deputies and outlaws alike are elevated to legendary, heroic heights to underscore their “bravery.” The 1872 “Going Snake massacre” involving the Cherokee gentleman Zeke Proctor and Deputy US Marshals is ubiquitously offered as testimony to the lawlessness of Indian Territory and the bravery demonstrated to combat it. Seldom heard is the fact that then US Marshal Logan H. Roots was intentionally “scaring up business” for the federal court from which he was embezzling money. These mythic narratives function to silence, conceal, and legitimate the violent and forcible acquisition of land in Indian Territory that made Oklahoma statehood inevitable.

Keywords:   white male hegemony, heterosexual normativity, Judith Butler, Zeke Proctor, Logan H. Roots, Laura Zeigler, Belle Starr, Indian Territory, Oklahoma statehood

There is some mix-up here. I am Mattie Ross of near Dardanelle, Arkansas. My family has property and I don’t know why I am being treated like this.

Mattie Ross, True Grit

The mythology of the Fort Smith frontier complex is highly gendered. The two main male figures—Judge Isaac Parker and Deputy Bass Reeves—are both held up as models of righteous men, models of “what to do.” They are presented as role models of the highest ethical order to be emulated. As we have seen, the historical facts of these figures do not necessarily square with this frontier-complex tourist narrative. Furthermore, most of the figures featured at the National Historic Site and the Fort Smith Museum of History for the nineteenth century are men, namely, deputies and outlaws. Similarly, the reenactment groups in Fort Smith largely emphasize the roles that men purportedly played in the nineteenth century.

In contrast, the principal women discussed in the frontier complex, Laura Zeigler and Belle Starr, are held up as models of “what not to do,” as models of immoral, decadent, reproachable behavior. Miss Laura ran a brothel, and she and her “girls” are playfully talked about in Fort Smith as the colorful side of the frontier. Belle Starr is depicted as a wild, sex-crazed, Amazon bandit queen who met a brutal end. The fact that otherwise respectable men were clients at the brothels in Fort Smith is made to be part of the joke in tourist discourses.

Tourist narratives of Zeigler and Starr are used in the frontier complex, just as we have seen with Parker and Reeves, as mythic alibis. In this case they disguise the exploits of white men in the frontier, reinforce female domesticity, conceal facts such as men flocking to Oklahoma Territory for easy divorces, and hide the history of soldiers stationed next to Fort Smith (p.145) at Camp Chaffee from 1941 to 1961 frequenting brothels in downtown Fort Smith, not to mention that soldiers at the military fort from 1817 to 1871 were carousing the town for “comfort women” too.

Gender is a malleable social construct, bent by historical context and ideology to suit social purposes and otherwise poetically performed by individuals with motives ranging from capitulation to subversion of the social structure.1 Judith Butler observes, “Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.2 In the frontier complex, women as well as male deputies and outlaws are routinely portrayed in formulaic fashion. In each case, historical facts compared to the tourist discourse illuminate what the alibis of these gender myths selectively omit and conceal. In this context, power, class, race, and gender can be synthesized to show that the primary task of the frontier complex is to inscribe whiteness, manliness, and civilization onto this tourism imaginary.

We have already seen above how civilization is equated with whiteness in the Fort Smith frontier-complex narrative by the federal fort and court taking civilization to the savages, the erection of the First White Child monument, the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the territories, and the marital assimilation of Indians into the family of statehood. Gail Bederman, in Manliness and Civilization, details how “civilization” in the nineteenth century was construed as synonymous with “manliness.” The 1893 Columbian Exposition demonstrated this unilinear notion of progress with “authentic live savages,” while Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his frontier thesis. The removal and restraint eras of the frontier complex were being legitimated by this imagery at the very moment that the reservation era of the frontier complex was being consummated. We will now turn our attention to how representations of “manliness” and “womanliness” found in the Fort Smith frontier complex fit into this national frontier matrix of domination.

Brave Men?

The video It Took Brave Men is shown to tourists at the Fort Smith National Historic Site as part of the permanent exhibit.3 It runs on a continuous loop on the second floor of the 1889 reform jail exhibit and is available on the National Historic Site’s YouTube channel. This video complements (p.146) the Peacekeeper of Indian Territory orientation film shown at the visitor center. The mythical imagery of deputies and outlaws is neatly laced in It Took Brave Men over that of the frontier justice of Judge Parker. The video begins with a dramatic introduction to the frontier that squarely locates the courage and bravery of the men who served as deputies in Judge Parker’s jurisdiction. The sun sits low on the horizon, distant mountains come into view, and then Judge Parker appears on the bench as the narrator intones:

The western edge of Arkansas.

The border of the United States and Indian Territory.

The seat of the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas,

Judge Isaac C. Parker presiding.

Having jurisdiction over Indian Territory, the court sees some of themost wicked, nasty, and despicable characters of the West. The courtrecords chronicle their deeds—assault, larceny, theft, rape, man-slaughter, and murder. The warrants issued by the court initiate thelong arduous process of serving justice.

The exaggerated size of Parker’s jurisdiction as described by the narrator is then cited as evidence of the difficult task faced by the deputies:

Unlike their invincible counterparts in Hollywood, these real law men had the perilous task of enforcing federal law in Indian Territory. They patrolled the vast area stretching beyond the wide Arkansas River.

The narrator’s voice slows down to stretch out the word “vast” and then draws the word “wide” out even further to convey to the viewer just how impossibly huge the jurisdiction was and by association how tenacious the deputies had to be to venture there.

The danger of the jurisdiction is repeatedly emphasized:

The US Attorney General estimated in 1888 that of the twenty thousand white persons residing in Indian Territory, only five thousand are law-abiding. Out of every eleven men convicted in Parker’s court, seven are white, three are black, and one is Indian. Packs of outlaws roam freely.

A scene begins to unfold as three outlaws approach an Indian farm, sexually harassing the wife, and stealing horses from the husband. But then something happens. Judge Parker arrives in Fort Smith. The narrator continues, (p.147) “What had seemed an outlaw paradise slowly begins to change. Ranging out of Fort Smith, a stalwart force of deputy U.S. marshals ride in the line of duty.” The historical facts are contrary to this narrative. The crime rates did not go down in Indian Territory and Parker’s workload did not decline despite his ever-shrinking jurisdiction.

The video depicts deputies arriving at the scene and then tracking the horse thieves. Their manliness is lauded:

There is a stoic toughness about them. As if cut from the same mold, they accept this hard life on the edge. They are noted for determination on the trail.

Then a supposed recollection from a retired deputy is inserted to legitimate the unfolding story:

Dress up the stories of those early days all you like, add anything hair-raising that you may think of, and still, you will not overexaggerate them. The outlaws we dealt with knew neither fear nor honor. We realize that we rode with our lives in our hands all the time, and we lived and thrived on the excitement.

This characterization of the Judge Parker era with the deputies and Indian Territory and outlaws is the standard depiction found in the Fort Smith frontier complex; the day is saved by the arrival of white civilization.

Another point frequently reinforced is how many deputies died in and near Fort Smith:

The cost of policing Indian territory is high. At least sixty-five deputy US marshals are killed in the line of duty during Parker’s twenty-one-year tenure on the bench. Time and again, new men of courage and self-reliance must be recruited for this dangerous job.

There is no question here of their manliness or how it contributed to justice on the frontier. Judge Parker’s words are used to validate this: “Without these men, I could not hold court a single day.”

I do not take issue with the claim that it was a dangerous place and time. However, a close examination of the historical record reveals that not all the men were brave and true and that some of them may have died due to incompetence and nefarious plots from within rather than at the hands of dastardly outlaws. Historian Jeffrey Burton suggests that what was going on in Indian Territory and the character of the deputies were (p.148) far more complex than what is heard in Fort Smith tourist narratives. Burton has analyzed the reports of Samuel Galpin, a clerk from the Office of Indian Affairs who viewed the action from Indian Territory. From his vantage point, Galpin paints a very different image. Of the deputies he writes, “Many of them … appear to devote their whole attention and arbitrary power to the arrest and lodgement in Fort Smith of any person, white man or Indian, who is charged, often by perjury, with a petty and technical violation of the Internal Revenue laws, they are no terror to evil-doers or protection to the law-abiding citizen, and are the least valuable members of the body politic.”4 Serving a writ on the more dangerous outlaws required a larger posse to assist them. However, “by working, instead, in ones and twos, the officers might make many more arrests, but they would go in greater hazard of their lives—or be tempted to let the most desperate criminals escape.”5

Brave as they may have been, if they were not getting paid and supported properly, the deputies inclined toward easier quarry. Motives for becoming a deputy surely varied, but fundamentally it was a job. As such, Littlefield and Underhill note, “by cutting expenses, an enterprising marshal could make large amounts of money under this system. But his profit depended on him bringing in prisoners, and he sometimes did not bother to consider whether or not he had jurisdiction in a case.”6 Profit motive, not supreme justice, was a key variable in the calculus of serving writs. Galpin ends his report, cited by Jeffrey Burton, with a point that is at times laughingly cited in the frontier complex. Among the deputies, “some of the present officers of justice, clothed with the full authority and majesty of the law, are well known as formerly horse thieves.”7 On one hand, the deputies are uniformly presented as brave and courageous, and on the other hand, the fact that several of them crossed back and forth between the categories of lawman and outlaw can be cited in the frontier complex as just another example of the wild nature of Indian Territory.

Ultimately, Jeffrey Burton concludes of the federal court that its “difficulties were insuperable: it had too much to do, in too large a territory, through officers of variable character and quality, upon too slender a body of cohesive criminal law, and against too much economic and constitutional constraint.”8 In other words, criminality and lawlessness were inevitable. At worst, Parker’s refusal to appoint commissioners farther out of Fort Smith into Indian Territory compounded these issues and made the deputy’s work more dangerous than necessary. At best, the federal court in Fort (p.149) Smith was holding a plug in the dam preventing an outright flood of white intrusion into the territories. The narratives of mythic justice and mythic gender blend here to conceal this situation.

One of the most touted examples used to illustrate the dangers of Indian Territory to deputy U.S. marshals is the so-called Going Snake Massacre. The incident in which eight deputies were killed happened in the spring of 1872, three years before Parker’s arrival. It is routinely cited by the Fort Smith National Historic Site, the Fort Smith Museum of History, and the U.S. Marshals Museum as unimpeachable testimony to the dangers that Indian Territory represented and the bravery exhibited by deputy U.S. marshals. The gist of the precipitating event is that Ezekial Proctor, a Cherokee, inadvertently killed Polly Beck, an Indian woman who jumped in front of his intended target, a white man named James Kesterson, who by some accounts was said to have been married to Proctor’s sister, Susan. Kesterson had abandoned Proctor’s sister and was allegedly having an affair with the accidental victim of the shooting, Polly Beck. After the shooting, Proctor turned himself in to the Cherokee law official, the Going Snake District sheriff, for the murder of the Indian woman, Polly Beck.

This brief, three-sentence summary of the initial shooting already contains several live rounds of explosive assumptions contained in the popular telling of the story. Two key points need explanation in order to demythologize this incident: the question of legal jurisdiction and the conduct of the marshal at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas at the time, Logan H. Roots. First, while the motives for Kesterson marrying a Cherokee woman are unknown, what is documented is that at this time many white men were intentionally marrying Indian women to get their hands on her economic assets, which would be automatically conferred to him upon becoming an adopted member of the wife’s Indian Nation.9 Thus, as an adopted Cherokee citizen Kesterson gained access to the political and economic benefits offered by his wife’s clan. Also, under the Treaty of 1866, which stemmed from the 1865 Fort Smith Council, since all parties of the incident were Cherokee by blood or adoption the jurisdiction of this case fell legally in the lap of the Indian court, not the district court in Fort Smith. As Jeffrey Burton puts it, “If words have meaning, all jurisdiction in the Proctor-Kesterson case rested with the Cherokee Nation.”10 Following the law, Proctor turned himself in to the Going Snake District sheriff and was put on trial for the murder of Polly Beck by the Cherokee court system.

Dissatisfied with this course of events, James Kesterson overlooked his (p.150) submission to Cherokee law by virtue of his adoptive marital process, traveled to Fort Smith, and roused enough sympathy at the federal court to garner a warrant and a posse of deputies to attend Proctor’s legally sanctioned trial and to arrest him in the event he was acquitted by the Indian court regardless of jurisdiction rights and submission to his adopted nation’s laws aside. The writ executed by U.S. Commissioner James Churchill and given to U.S. Marshal Logan H. Roots was for the attempted murder of a white man, James Kesterson, by a Cherokee, Zeke Proctor, a case that would have fallen to the federal court in Fort Smith, less Kesterson’s adopted citizenship. Thus, Marshal Roots sent a posse of deputies accompanied by Kesterson’s kinfolk to Proctor’s Cherokee trial in anticipation of a miscarriage of white justice.

The second key element that must be defused before proceeding with the story is the conduct of Marshal Roots. He was marshal for the court during Judge William Story’s notoriously corrupt and brief tenure on the bench. Judge Story and Marshal Roots embezzled and extorted tens of thousands of dollars in their positions in the court. Called to Washington to account for his part in the scandal, Story turned in his resignation to escape impeachment. Roots was found in Benjamin DuVal’s congressional investigation to have extorted more than $55,000 from deputies and the court in less than two years.11 Notably, Roots used the equivalent amount of money to become a founding shareholder in the First National Bank of Fort Smith.12 Though removed from office in June 1872, he went on to a successful banking career with impunity and had a military fort named after him in Little Rock in 1897.

The conduct of U.S. Marshal Roots and the quality of deputy he was recruiting were far from brave and far from just, but none of this is disclosed in the frontier-complex narrative. An investigation and congressional report on the court’s corruption is quite revealing. Regarding the services of deputies, the DuVal report states, “On his accession to the office, Roots appointed a large number of [deputies]. They were selected with regard to their energy, enterprise, and capacity to ‘work up business.’ These deputies, with their posse, made a large army, and were sent out in the Indian Territory with instructions to hunt up all offenders and make arrests, no matter how trivial the offense.”13 This was the quality of deputy and behavior at the time of the Going Snake District trial of Zeke Proctor. This small amount of social and historical context drastically changes the complexion of the story of the Going Snake incident.

(p.151) We can now resume the story at the point where Deputy U.S. Marshals Jacob Owens and Joseph Peavy were escorting their posse to the Cherokee trial of Proctor. Kesterson himself, as well as kin of the slain Polly Beck, were members of this posse, given “special deputy” status for the occasion. The deadly affray that lay on the horizon was so telegraphed that the Cherokee moved the Proctor case from the usual courthouse to the Whitmire schoolhouse precisely because it was more defensible. In other words, the shootout was predictable, if not inevitable, before the trial even started. The shootout began almost upon arrival of the Fort Smith posse. Up to eleven men are reported to have been killed—eight from Fort Smith, three in the Cherokee courtroom—and Proctor was wounded. Discrepancies in accounts aside, clearly both sides were prepared more for a battle than a trial.

On the part of the Fort Smith posse, this is hardly a model of conduct of professional officers of the law. The unqualified, overzealous posse of deputies from Fort Smith did not allow the Cherokee justice system to run its course. When we consider that three of the deputized men killed that day had the last name Beck and were kin to the deceased woman, the posse begins to resemble a lynch mob more than a unit of law officers. We will never know if a more subtle, tactful approach to this situation would have been less fatal. However, we do know the context leading up to this hapless event and how both sides in the dispute subsequently used it to reinforce their positions. Marshal Roots cited it as evidence for why more money and support should be given for dampening the lawless unrest of Indian Territory, and the Cherokee pointed to it as yet another example of the United States violating a treaty.

The U.S. Marshals Service webpage describes this event, but the larger historical context is not explained, no question of jurisdiction, no mention of Polly Beck, no names of the suspect posse members. The subheadings of “Ambushed” and “Dangerous Duty” appear accompanying a narrative of brave lawmen.14 In November 2013, at the dedication of the Marshals Museum cornerstone, Marshals Service Director Stacia Hylton addressed the crowd at the Fort Smith riverfront. She cited the high number of deputy marshal casualties in this region as creating a “sacred ground”—and as further evidence of how the Marshals Service “fights evil.” She went on to say, “Those that died at the start of the nation’s journey and those that have fallen since in the line of duty are why we’re here and why we continue to move this project forward.”15 This language functions to reinforce (p.152) a narration of the nation, of the “homeland,” while it elides historical facts and context. The injustices perpetrated by whites in the frontier-complex era of restraint are veiled by mythic narratives in the current frontier-complex era of redoubling.

Clearly, the issue of law and order on the border is not as black and white as it is often depicted in popular cultural memory or the narrative of our nation. The mythic gendered alibi of justice says deputies died because they were brave and because Indian Territory was so dangerous, not because they were incompetent or looking for trouble. These gendered images of male deputies and outlaws are highly essentialized and leave little room for variation in how men are thought to have performed gender in the nineteenth century. Women likewise are portrayed in the Fort Smith frontier complex in narrowly defined gender roles.


We are told by a local historian in 200 Years of Grit, a promotional video made by the City of Fort Smith to attract the U.S. Marshals Museum, that Fort Smith in the late nineteenth century was a place of “equal opportunity in the Old West.”16 It is stated in a manner reminiscent of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis that the nature of the frontier environment made the rule of employment somehow exceptional or different, offering equal employment opportunities to social minorities ahead of the rest of the country:

It wasn’t one aspect of society that was employed by the Marshal Service. We know for a fact that in addition to African American deputy marshals there were Native American marshals and there were some women employed by the Federal Court in various capacities. That, at a time when those things weren’t happening in other segments of society, in other parts of the country, probably had a little bit to do with Fort Smith’s location on the edge of Indian Territory, on the edge of this border situation. You know, this unsettled area is an area that needed some special people to go in there and be able to operate and do that kind of work.17

With this contemporary manner in which the skewed social structure of the nineteenth century is described in Fort Smith, we can critically examine discourses surrounding the roles of women in the frontier complex. While (p.153)

The Hello Bordello and Brave Men Matrix

Figure 6.1. A well-dressed guest in the parlor at Miss Laura’s. He is holding a token with which to compensate a “daughter of joy.”

Photo by the author.

it took brave men taking peace and civilization into Indian Territory, the frontier complex maintains that the Wild West spilled into Fort Smith and lined Garrison Avenue with prostitutes and taverns. Claims of bars and brothels lining downtown Fort Smith are legion and used today as evidence that Fort Smith was on the border between unbridled savagery and staid civilization. Women are essentialized as either good wives and homemakers or some extreme deviation from heterosexual normativity such as prostitutes or wild women. For example, at a presentation given at the National Historic Site by members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 2012 concerning women’s clothing from the nineteenth century, the audience was told quite matter-of-factly that when a woman was widowed she could either learn to make hats or become a prostitute.18

Three women who are shown conforming to the rules of heterosexual normativity are Mary Rogers, wife of town developer John Rogers, and her contemporaries Florence Clayton and Mary Parker, wives of prosecuting attorney William Henry Harrison Clayton and Judge Isaac Parker, respectively. These women are not used to exemplify any sort of active role (p.154) in the frontier, but they are routinely cited as embodying the latest styles and accoutrements of civilized life. Mary Rogers’ portrait hangs at the Fort Smith Museum of History. The caption next to it tells us “this oil on canvas [was] made at New Orleans before Mary came to Fort Smith to join her husband.” Her portrait hangs between John Rogers’ sideboard and a four-poster bed. With severely pursed lips she is framed in domesticity for perpetuity. Of her husband’s chest of drawers we are told, “The marble top and fancy woodwork on this large sideboard announce John Rogers’ ability to acquire wealth and power in Fort Smith. According to family history, John bought the piece in New Orleans, the city where his wife, Mary, grew up.”19 We are not told much else about Mary Rogers, but in a short space she twice mimetically attaches frontier Fort Smith to New Orleans, the closest, most accessible port of civilization in her time. She sits as a portrait of a domesticated white woman amid the otherwise savage frontier.

In the skit about Bass Reeves performed in the frontier complex during my fieldwork, the wives of Clayton and Parker are only referenced and do not actually appear in it. The year is 1882, and the Clayton House has just been completed. We are told that Florence and Mary adjourned to the “poshly decorated parlor where they will talk about the latest East Coast fashions. They will also talk about ideas of starting a public library in Fort Smith.” Mary Parker and Florence Clayton were active members of the Fort Smith Fortnightly Club. While their husbands were imposing whiteness in Indian Territory, their wives were representing it in Fort Smith. Thus, the elite white women of the nineteenth century are used in today’s frontier complex to equate the arrival of whiteness with the arrival of the more refined traits of civilization.

In contrast, the theme of prostitution in the Wild West is featured in the frontier complex with nearly equal prominence to Judge Parker’s gallows. Miss Laura’s and Judge Parker’s histories are commingled by the miniature gallows overseen by a portrait of Parker in the restored brothel. The official Fort Smith Visitor Center is housed in Miss Laura’s Social Club, a nineteenth-century “Victorian home” that allegedly was built and functioned as a brothel at the turn of the twentieth century. The building was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, was restored in 1983, and has served as the official visitors center since 1992.20 There, free maps and brochures about the area’s attractions are dispensed, and tours of the brothel are conducted. In 2012, the guest register at Miss Laura’s Social Club was signed by 12,718 visitors. (p.155)

The Hello Bordello and Brave Men Matrix

Figure 6.2. Miss Laura’s Social Club building. The top of the visitors center can be seen beyond the Fort Smith Railroad yard.

Photo by the author.

Originally called the Riverfront Commercial Hotel, the dilapidated building was saved from demolition by the Donrey Media Group in 1963. It took two full decades before it was opened as the restaurant Miss Laura’s Social Club, and then it was closed within a decade. Don Reynolds Jr. recounts this venture in his book, Crackerjack Positioning: Niche Marketing Strategy for the Entrepreneur.21 The Donrey Media Group made several attempts at leasing the building to be managed as a restaurant. After those failures it took on that role itself. Despite becoming a “Fort Smith landmark and tourist attraction,” it was not a financial success.22 After conducting some research Reynolds concluded that the restaurant was considered a tourist attraction or a venue for special occasions but not appealing for return trips from locals. He adds that “the structure was located in an industrial area next to a railroad track and rendering plant. A switch engine was usually parked on the track, not far from the restaurant. The switch engine’s diesel engine was noisily running most of the time.”23 Similarly inhospitable conditions continue there today.

Despite its rivaling the popularity of the Hanging Judge Isaac C. Parker’s Courtroom, the existing tourism trade was insufficient to make the (p.156) restaurant a going concern. Reynolds notes in his 1993 publication, “The Fort Smith tourist market was shrinking. Visitor count at the Fort Smith National Historic Site of Old Fort Smith was steadily declining.” He specifically notes the loss in the popular frontier-complex imagination: “It had been a long time since John Wayne rode out of Fort Smith as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.” Then, citing the increasing competition in the tourist trade, Reynolds concludes, “Fort Smith is not the unique historical attraction it once was.”24 Unable to cultivate a consistent, competent, and committed business, Donrey “purchased a large padlock and closed the restaurant.”25 Within a year of its failing as a for-profit business venture, the city of Fort Smith took it over in 1992. Since then women have been dressing in costume to portray the more colorful side of the frontier complex for tourists.

Tourist materials in Fort Smith describe the brothels from Miss Laura’s day as a row of “pleasure palaces,” and the brochure for Miss Laura’s Hello Bordello coyly teases, “Our brothel still takes care of visitors!” Tour guides at Miss Laura’s routinely tell visitors, “Miss Laura’s girls had it pretty good. They got three dollars instead of one, like at the other houses on the row.” Guests are enthusiastically told, “Miss Laura encouraged her girls to go see the theater when it was showing in town.” The idea that this was most likely a way to advertise for business is not mentioned. Rather, the good life that prostitutes had in the establishment is emphasized.

The brochure for Miss Laura’s begins by sharing some background. Though operated as a hotel between 1896 and 1963, the first line locates Miss Laura’s squarely in the mythic frontier: “At the turn of the century, Fort Smith, Arkansas was a raucous border town perched on the edge of a yet untamed Oklahoma, which was known then as Indian Territory.” Oklahoma is described as untamed although by the early 1900s there was no part of it that had not been “civilized” by railroads and federal courts. The brochure narrative then taps into the mythic character of the kind of people entering the territories: “Cowboys, outlaws, outcasts, as well as God-fearing pioneers, all streamed through this wild little city. Each sought different adventures, different pleasures. An eager-to-please Fort Smith accommodated all requests.”

In the frontier complex, prostitution is never depicted as a demeaning or dangerous line of work for women. No mention is made of syphilis, violence against women, suicide, destitution, unsafe abortion, shame, or (p.157) women’s displacement from their homes and communities. The brochure touts that “houses of ill fame catered to one of many vices that were practiced, and enjoyed, openly.” The “fun” of nineteenth-century prostitution is evidenced by the kitschy items that tourists can consume at Miss Laura’s, such as red garter belts and replica tokens. On the tour of Miss Laura’s, we learn that the women used these tokens instead of money so their customers could not rob them, nor could the girls rob Miss Laura. I was informed by tour guides on several occasions that “replica tokens are especially popular around Christmastime for wives to put in their husbands’ stockings.”

On a wall of the gift shop parlor are several photos of women that the tour guides point out: “These photos were found in the attic, but we do not know for certain if they were all Miss Laura’s girls.” In one photo, a young woman in a short dress stands on a swing as two older men pose in front of it for the picture. In another photo, a woman in a full-length dress with sleeves down to the wrists stands holding a tree branch. Still another image has five women sharing a swing, smiling and laughing. In one picture, three women wear short skirts and sun bonnets and shade themselves with a parasol. They lie on a hillside interlaced with each other in coquettish fashion. Their shoes are fastened by straps that crisscross up to their knees. On one tour, a couple visiting from Chicago was taking in these photos when the woman pointed at the shoes and gleefully declared, “Oh, look at those cute shoes! Aren’t they just soooo cute!”

At the end of each tour, women are presented with replicas of a “Certificate of Clean Health,” while men are given tin deputy badges that have “Live the History” printed on them. We learn on the tour that “Miss Laura’s girls had monthly health inspections and had to pass them in order to work.” The words “Inmate House of Prostitution” are stamped across each certificate. When I inquired what that meant, I was told that “the women were inmates. They were not free to just go around town whenever or wherever they wanted—they might run into one of their customers on the sidewalk with his wife, and that just wouldn’t do.” But still, “Miss Laura’s girls had it pretty good.”

The adulterous behavior of the men in the story is not questioned, while the sequestered and behaved manners of the inmates are reinforced. This is heard on tours repeatedly and seen in the brochure that brags how Miss Laura’s “ladies were known to be the most refined and the healthiest of Fort Smith’s ‘daughters of joy.’ Miss Laura herself was a poised and attractive (p.158) lady who was known to have occasionally confronted a rowdy customer with a loaded .45.” The image projected is that Miss Laura’s was a respectable place, replete with good times,

filled with song, dance, gambling, and, of course, other pleasures. During a good business month, champagne was chilled in an upstairs bathtub and served at no charge to appreciative customers. Fort Smith’s first player piano banged out popular tunes there while patrons of all classes mingled with the ladies. Many prominent local figures also were known to frequent the flourishing bordello, and Miss Laura reaped the profits.26

The key elements of champagne in the tub and the player piano were worked into every one of the more than ten tours I took over the course of my fieldwork. Everyone, including the prostitutes, is presented as having an enjoyable, pleasurable, and profitable time. On the Miss Laura’s Social Club brochure, the letter “i” in the spelling of “Miss” is dotted with the shape of a heart, obfuscating the sex industry under the guise of love.

The fact that Laura Zeigler paid off her bank note on the building within two years is seldom skipped. It is claimed in the brochure and on tours of the brothel that Zeigler turned a handsome profit on its sale in 1911 for $47,000. Research has revealed, however, that the actual figure on the title of sale was substantially less, $5,450.27 The cumulative effects of repeating these mythic elements are that structural gender inequalities are elided and neoliberal gender ideologies are reinforced with the success of the individual female entrepreneur’s capitalist venture.

Miss Laura’s brothel was the featured cover story in the August 2012 issue of 2NJOY magazine. In the article, Carolyn Joyce explains how the former brothel was part of the Wild West on the edge of Indian Territory, which was full of violence and bandits.28 The champagne in the tub is mentioned, and Joyce maintains that “Miss Laura’s ‘girls’ were well trained—never seen on the first floor unless fully clothed.” And “rather than permitting the girls to walk the streets and shop, merchants brought goods to the house for them to purchase.” On the occasions when they went to the theater, Joyce says, “they sat in the balcony as targets for hostile stares from wives seated below; I imagine many men slouched down and stayed face forward in their seats.”29 On tours of the bordello, which is “still furnished much as it would have been on its busiest evening,” one hears “a delightful (p.159) story of the early days of the frontier.” As the delightful frontier drew to a close, so too, goes the narrative, did the good times at Miss Laura’s.

The story of Miss Laura’s in the cultural memory of the frontier complex begins to fade shortly after 1910. By then, we read in the visitor center brochure, “the golden days had passed” and the “community had tired of the frontier permissiveness.” In 1911, Laura Zeigler sold her business to Bertha Gale Dean, who operated the hotel until she died in 1948. Soon after Dean purchased it we are told, “business slowed and the neighborhood declined to slum status…. During her ownership, the property became an informal haven for drifters, drunks and gamblers.” This important shift in the story line leads us to believe that prostitution was curtailed soon after 1910 and was a behavior that was contained within the frontier era, not something that lingered into the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first. The reenactment character of Miss Laura was invented by Carolyn Joyce in 1992 for marketing Fort Smith’s frontier past.30 After more than twenty years of performing the character, she playfully quips, “Miss Laura’s story has not changed from 1903 to today. Miss Laura has always taught us that ‘It’s a business doin’ pleasure with ya!’”31 This mythical projection of highly gendered behavior into the frontier complex does not align with historical facts about prostitution in Fort Smith.

Though Laura Zeigler opened her hotel in 1903, Miss Laura’s girls are routinely depicted as overlapping the late nineteenth-century Parker era. In some skits, Judge Parker is actually put in the same time frame, though he died in 1896. In the frontier complex, decades of difference are conflated to project a unified myth of the wild western frontier. Just as with Judge Parker and Bass Reeves, I do not doubt the veracity of every detail of their stories, but some are clearly mythic. Fort Smith was indeed the home to much prostitution. Unlike the stories of Parker and Reeves in which I believe their exploits are exaggerated beyond historical fact, the mythic alibi of Laura Zeigler actually minimizes and conceals an even greater and longer-running business of prostitution in Fort Smith. The alibi of Miss Laura says prostitution was confined to the frontier time frame, and as soon as the frontier ended, so too did prostitution. In fact, it may have been just getting started at frontier’s close.

Fort Smith has a checkered and corrupt past when it comes to prostitution. In April 1895, for example, the chief of police was caught using city money to purchase items including a stove, wallpaper, and paint for a (p.160) “bawdy house.” Chief Henry Surratt resigned in apparent embarrassment, but the city council turned immediately around and reinstated him.32 A survey of the Fort Smith City Police docket from 1895 reveals that at the start of every month, twenty to thirty women were found guilty of being “inmate[s] of a house of ill favor,” charged five dollars, then released by the police until the start of the next month, when police would bring them in again to collect the same fine from the same women.33 On May 4, 1904, fifty-one women were arrested and found guilty. Among the names listed in the police docket were Laura Zeigler (spelled Zegeler in the docket) and Bertha Gale Dean. Their names recurred in the docket for several years before and after the opening of Miss Laura’s.

What is usually excluded from the narrative of the frontier complex is that Fort Smith experimented with legalized prostitution between 1907 and 1924.34 After 1907 the city made essentially the same amount of money as from the fines collected at the start of each month when prostitution was illegal. Individual women had to pay for their certificates of clean health. “Similarly, all keepers of the houses of prostitution were required to purchase licenses for engaging in prostitution within the district. Both of these groups made monthly payments to the city of the exact same amounts that they had been paying monthly in the way of fines.”35

The ordinance legalizing prostitution in 1907 states, “All prostitution in the City of Fort Smith, Arkansas, shall be confined to the district embraced between North ‘C’ Street on the North; the alley in Blocks No.s 2 and 3, City of Fort Smith, on the East; North ‘A’ Street on the South; and Arkansas River on the West, and there only.” This neighborhood is essentially the first few blocks on the immediate northwestern side of Garrison Avenue, one block from Judge Parker’s old courtroom. Ben Boulden, who has written extensively for a local newspaper on the history of Fort Smith, notes, “The most significant innovation was the introduction of the bimonthly health inspections by a city health officer. According to the ordinance he was to inspect both inmates and keepers and to revoke their licenses if they were found to be sick and to withhold their licenses until they were restored to health.” In effect the city functioned as a pimp. The law was revoked in 1924, Boulden explains: “Amidst a wave of law-and-order vigilantism and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan statewide and locally in the 1920s, the city board of commissioners acted to repeal the 1907 ordinance. With sweeping words, the new city law established a fine of $25 to $100 for use of any place or thing for ‘illicit sexual intercourse, fornication or adultery, (p.161) or as a place of assignation.’”36 Obviously, this did not bring prostitution to an end in Fort Smith, and I suggest its peak had not yet been reached.

Bertha Gale Dean’s (formerly Laura Zeigler’s) brothel continued to function into the 1960s; writer Kay Dishner notes that “the occupation of the roomers did not change, but the auspices under which they operated did.”37 Local history and personal interviews attest to at least five motels in downtown Fort Smith that effectively functioned as known brothels up until the late 1970s: the Como, Palace, Saint Charles, Ozark, and Rex Rooms. None of these is mentioned in the frontier complex, and their existence is muted in the city’s history in general. Widespread oral accounts attest to prostitution and gambling in Moffett, Oklahoma, during this time frame. Moffett is just across the bridge from downtown Fort Smith. Today it consists of very few residences and a few very large, well-supplied junk yards. But anyone who has lived in Fort Smith more than forty years might recall hearing that back in the day, all military personnel were banned from entering Moffett and that the town was full of dangerous establishments replete with drinking, gambling, and whoring. To date I have found no written record of this military ban despite the preponderance of tall tales that abound about it in Fort Smith.

In these legends of Moffett lies the clue to the flourishing prostitution in Fort Smith proper: military personnel stationed at Camp Chaffee, adjacent to the eastern border of Fort Smith. This connection is directly stated in Dishner’s Insight 2000 article: “The Row, along with surrounding saloons and boarding houses, was torn down in the 1920s to make room for a growing furniture industry. Yet, Bertha Gale’s rooming house survived the wrecking crew and business continued as usual, right up to and through the next heyday for prostitution, when Camp Chaffee was opened in the 1940s.”38 The claims of Moffett’s wildness deflects the cultural memory away from Fort Smith and away from the men stationed at Camp Chaffee from 1941 to 1961 who frequently paid for sex in downtown Fort Smith. Another article by Dishner in the likewise links prostitution in Fort Smith of the 1940s to World War II: “The jewel of Bordello Row, known today as Miss Laura’s, had one last flourish of vigorous business during the 1940s when Camp Chaffee became the training center for thousands of soldiers being inducted into the U.S. Army. Garrison Avenue was flooded with soldiers looking for a good time whenever they could get a pass to come into town, and Bertha’s Place once again became a place for a good time.”39

C. Calvin Smith reveals that a near-epidemic of syphilis broke out at (p.162) that time: “In Fort Smith, the growth in reported cases was so alarming that Circuit Judge Sam Woods called for a grand jury investigation.”40 Dishner reports a sordid detail about this particular impact the war had locally: “Of the total number of cases there were more girls in the 14-year-old bracket than any other. The ‘Victory Girls’—those young girls who performed ‘patriotic’ sexual favors for men in uniform—had arrived in Arkansas.”41 The power of the mythic narrative that Miss Laura’s girls had it pretty good conceals all of this.

I believe we can minimally conclude that prostitution is not as fun or safe as it is depicted and that the tourist narrative in Fort Smith selectively sequesters prostitution to a narrow time in its history. There are a few newspaper accounts from the Miss Laura era of prostitutes committing suicide, but these are not mentioned in the frontier complex. Distinguishing the facts of prostitution from the mythic gender projections of Miss Laura’s girls is quite easy but very rarely done in Fort Smith, with one notable exception. A former employee of the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau told me, “Miss Laura’s is all about marketing. Many facts of prostitution are not exactly ‘family friendly.’ When they moved Miss Laura’s they found fetus bones in the walls.” The actual building was moved about sixty feet when it was remodeled for the Visitor Center. While the claim of finding fetus bones may be as suspect as that of Miss Laura’s girls having fun, this reference to a consequence of the sex industry was a rare moment of candor about the ugly nature upon which Fort Smith has built its tourism industry.

The myth of Miss Laura’s brothel reflects an attempt to sequester prostitution in a distant time and place, to convince us that prostitution has been left in the past. Not only was prostitution stimulated during Camp Chaffee’s heyday, but the Fort Smith Police Department still regularly makes arrests for it. In January 2013, a former city director was caught in a sting for soliciting prostitution online at Backpage.com, and a local hotel was busted for renting rooms by the hour for selling sex.42 The outlandish nature in which nineteenth-century prostitution is playfully discussed in the frontier complex becomes apparent when contextualized in its contemporary surroundings. Two establishments catering to the sex industry have operated within very short distances to Miss Laura’s. The Cheyenne Gentlemen’s Club, a strip club, is five minutes down the road, and Pleasures by Kasey, a sex-toy shop with pole-dancing classes, was located in the 500 block of Garrison Avenue. I conducted very brief fieldwork in both of these (p.163) establishments in order to bring some basic perspective to the otherwise lighthearted treatment of prostitution in the frontier complex.

The Cheyenne Gentlemen’s Club is euphemistically referred to as the “Oklahoma Ballet” in Fort Smith and jokingly known as such by many people. The venue is one big, wide-open room with a bar along one side, a large stage with a stripper pole along the front wall, and a second pole and stage on the other side. Near this second stage is an entrance to the VIP Room, a.k.a. the Champagne Room, to which one can gain access with one of the employed dancers by buying her a $35 drink. In my one visit to the club I tried my best to sit inconspicuously along a wall and observe the entire scene. There were at least fifteen to twenty employed women working the room. It was early in the evening, before the bars in downtown Fort Smith had closed, so the place was only about half full, with seventy-five to eighty men. Many of the patrons had strippers at their tables, while others were watching the dancers on the stages; all seemed to be in their own internalized worlds. Several women led men into the VIP Room. Nudity, sexual touching, and mimicked sex were on full display.

As I sat there taking in what I found to be a horrific scene, the phrase “Miss Laura’s girls had it pretty good” began to ring in my ears. With that pithy quip juxtaposed to the events transpiring in front of me, my stomach turned in revolt at the romanticized narrative at Miss Laura’s as much as at the unfolding scene in the Cheyenne. I could not help but wonder how visitors to Miss Laura’s Visitor Center would feel about coming to the Cheyenne. Would they find the employees’ outfits “just sooo cute”? Though less than five minutes from Judge Parker’s courtroom, the Cheyenne Gentlemen’s Club is “othered.” It is a different sort of manifestation of the present redoubling era of the frontier complex where Fort Smithians go for strip clubs and gambling, with the Choctaw Casino and the Cherokee Casino adjacent to the Fort Smith–Oklahoma border.

Pleasures by Kasey was an adult-oriented store with a pole-dancing studio. It had been in Fort Smith for a few years, but when it moved to Garrison Avenue in March 2012, it caused a minor uproar, including the city board reviewing its policies of sexually oriented businesses. In the end, it was found that Pleasures by Kasey was not a sexually oriented business because less than 10 percent of its merchandise was directly sexually oriented.43 The few times I entered the store it had no other customers and little merchandise to browse. The storefront operated for about six months but then closed while the business offered pole-dancing classes for a few (p.164) months before finally closing altogether. Though a minor flap to be sure, this incident revealed that while Fort Smith can build its tourism industry around making light of women who engaged in prostitution in the past—even declaring, “It’s a business doin’ pleasure with ya!”—but commercial efforts to provide people with sexual pleasure today are not found so colorful or business-worthy. Women giving men pleasure for hire in the past is romanticized, while women giving themselves pleasure in the present is vilified. As we take up the case of Belle Starr, we will see how this rule applies even in the past.

Victim of Circumstance

A cursory glance at the literature on Myra Maybelle Shirley, famously known as Belle Starr, reveals her long list of dramatic titles: “A Cleopatra,” “The Bandit Queen,” “The Female Jesse James,” “The Dashing Female Highwayman,” “A Daring Amazon,” “King Philip,” “Tecumseh,” “Powhatan,” “Sitting Bull,” “Geronnymo!!” “The Petticoat Terror of the Plains,” “The Prairie Amazon,” and “Queen of the Outlaws,” just to name a few.44 From these labels, she was attributed with being “braver than Joan of Arc” as well as “excessively erotic, [but] weak in maternal feeling … [having] an excessive desire for revenge, cunning, cruelty, love of dress, and untruthfulness, forming a combination of evil tendencies which often results in a type of extraordinary wickedness,” while possessing “superior intelligence,” and deriving “wild pleasure of the chase.”45

It is said that the name Belle Starr “struck terror to the hearts of the timid and caused brave men to buckle an extra holster about their loins before setting out through the territory of her operations.” Apparently, men could not resist her. A man named Middleton “had loved Bella [from the time] he had first laid eyes on her, and determined to win her if it were in his power.”46 One observer ventured, “To sum up her character in one trite paragraph, I will simply state that Belle was a maroon Diana in the chase, a Venus in beauty, a Minerva in wisdom, a thief, a robber, a murderer and a generous friend.”47 Reflecting on this list of labels and characteristics of the person originally known as Myra Maybelle Shirley, it is clear that we have left the domain of historical fact but also of ordinary language and have entered the domain of myth.

The historical veracity of these tall tales has been debunked by Glenn Shirley in Belle Starr and Her Times, in which he separates historical wheat from mythical chaff. He observes that at the time of her death, to most, “the (p.165) woman’s name meant nothing. The Vinita Chieftain, in Indian Territory, gave her ambush murder only a paragraph.”48 Rather, the entire dramatic story behind her was fabricated through the network of Richard K. Fox, who ran the National Police Gazette out of New York as well a lucrative business in dime novels. Fox “perceived Belle Starr as a circulation builder and dispatched Alton B. Meyers … to Fort Smith.”49 From there the legend of Belle Starr was born and soon perpetuated as subsequent authors elaborated on the initial fiction.50

Knowing that the wild stories about her are fiction makes the rapacious energy with which they are told all the more fascinating. In a presentation given in 2012 in the Fort Smith frontier complex, Belle Starr was introduced in high mythic fashion:

This is something you may not know, but Belle Starr attempted to assassinate Clayton at the Sebastian County Fair. Belle Starr was friends with Jesse James and the Youngers. She was outlawing and bootlegging. In the Starr gang she was the brains of the gang and would plan the robberies. When she was tried by Parker for stealing horses, Clayton did not call Belle Starr to the stand because she was too smart, but Sam Starr was dumb and he could confound him. Well, Fort Smith is known as Hell on the Border because of the terrible prison conditions, so Parker looked for a more humane place to send them. Belle Starr served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections and then immediately went back to her old ways. She was almost as feared as Jesse James! Men feared her. She shot first and asked questions later. When she was shot dead, people were not upset about her death. The townspeople could [not] have cared less.51

Such hyperbole so readily consumed by the popular imagination and firmly embedded in the cultural memory of Fort Smith demands academic attention. The only question that must be asked about Belle Starr is Why? Why must she be described in such exaggerated terms? These wild claims were fabricated for a reason, and they still resonate today for a reason. It is my contention that the story of Belle Starr is another mythic alibi of the frontier complex. In the case of Belle Starr, I suggest the alibi goes something like, “I wasn’t an intelligent, free-thinking woman in the late nineteenth century. I was a gun-toting, sex-crazed, wild woman. That’s why I was gunned down.”

To see what the myth surrounding Belle Starr is covering up, it is useful (p.166) to look at what historical facts we do know about her. We know she was born and raised in Carthage, Missouri, and was well educated. Her biographer Glenn Shirley notes that at the Carthage school, “Myra Shirley was one of the first to master its curriculum of reading, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, deportment, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and music, and she learned to play the piano.”52 We also know that she was arrested twice for horse theft, went before Judge Parker both times, was found guilty one of those times, and spent six months in the Detroit House of Corrections. We know that she had a series of husbands who had a habit of breaking the law. Clearly, she did not associate with the most genteel of men.

On February 3, 1889, while riding her horse sidesaddle near the Canadian River, she was shot in the back with large buckshot from a shotgun and then again with smaller shot on the side of her face and neck; she subsequently died from these wounds.53 None of these basic facts fully explains the manner in which the character of Belle Starr became so wildly exaggerated after her death. There is more here than meets the eye and far more than meets the historical facts of the matter. To get to the bottom of this, we need to travel from Younger’s Bend near Eufaula in the Choctaw Nation to ancient Greece.

There is a Greek myth of the Amazons, powerful women who lived alone on an island, who had pearls and gold, and who only admitted men into their domain for reproductive purposes. This myth led some explorers to search for these exotic, eroticized women and their fabled treasures. European explorers were well acquainted with the myth. Virginia Bouvier, in her Women and the Conquest of California 1542–1840, asserts that the myth was serialized in popular literature and read widely by sailors and explorers in the New World. In these stories, the violent tendencies of the Amazons who live on the island of California are tamed by white, male, European Christians.54 The names of the Amazon River and the state of California are thus derived. More significant, this pervaded Europeans gendered and racialized consciousness of people in the New World, legitimating conquest in the process.

In this Greek myth, the Amazon women lived as warriors and as steely, reserved women who only needed men for sex. When European explorers made contact with the New World they mistakenly believed they had found this lost tribe of Amazons. The mythic narrative established a highly gendered dichotomy. A tribe of “strong, independent women who fiercely defended a kind of female utopia, the Amazons taunted a population (p.167) of male conquerors from afar.”55 Bouvier argues that in the conquest of California the Amazon myth constructed a “basic gendered hierarchy of power.”56 The fundamental paradigm it created was one of “conquest as a male venture enacted upon a ‘feminized’ population.”57 This is paralleled in the story of Belle Starr, who while holed up at Younger’s Bend taunted the lawmen in nearby Fort Smith. Turning Belle Starr into an Amazon not only policed the boundaries of heterosexual normativity, it also assisted in transforming Indian Territory into grounds upon which the mythic justice of Judge Parker and his deputies were imposed. White peace and civilization were being taken to the savages.

Amy Kaplan, in The Anarchy of Empire, argues that the encroachment of the imperial United States created border friction that systematically called into question the safety of the hearth, the home, and whiteness and subsequently fostered the fear of miscegenation. The response to this fear was to shore up the boundaries of domesticity in tandem with manifest destiny to create what Kaplan calls “manifest domesticity.”58 The murder of Belle Starr, an intelligent, capable woman living on the frontier, called into question the safety of the domestic sphere at a time when the U.S. populace was being encouraged to migrate west and fill the “great void.” The murder of a white woman in the frontier era of reservation necessitated a cover-up, an alibi, to sustain the illusion that westward expansion was safe for white women and families, but it also reinforced the importance of conforming to the hegemonic rules of heterosexual normativity.

The mythologization of Belle Starr as an Amazon and femme fatale establishes an excuse for why this white woman was killed in Indian Territory. The alibi says Belle Starr was not killed because she was living in a dangerous environment; that is not where she was. Rather, Belle Starr was killed because she was a crazy Amazon woman who dominated men and used them for wanton and lustful purposes. Given that her murderer was never found, the myth is a way to conceal the fact that an educated white woman was murdered on the frontier. This was not tolerable to the mission of manifest destiny. It was not tolerable to have bald facts expose that it was a dangerous place for women. The reason the myth is so exaggerated and so often repeated in the frontier complex is to rationalize her murder. She was killed because her persona was too far removed from the boundaries of normal domesticity that was being reinforced at this very moment in U.S. history.

Belle Starr can now be placed among the pantheon of deities in the (p.168) frontier-complex mythosphere with Judge Parker, deputies and outlaws, Bass Reeves, and Miss Laura” Together the set of alibis, embedded in popular tourist narratives in the Fort Smith frontier complex, function to distract us from observing the significant, harmful, debilitating, and irreparable harm done to entire populations in achieving the goal of manifest destiny in the nineteenth century and the global ambitions of the United States in the twentieth. The overarching myth of the frontier serves as a container of impunity for all the misdeeds perpetrated in the name of westward expansion of the political state. When it comes to gender, the frontier complex creates essentialized images of men and women in stark, binary terms.

Civilization and Its Discontents

Mythic images of the Wild West in novels and film are drawn from the time frame 1871–1907, when Judge Parker, Bass Reeves, Laura Zeigler, and Belle Starr lived, from placement of the federal court in Fort Smith to Oklahoma statehood. This is the end of the restraint era and the start of the reservation era of the frontier complex. It is from these eras that the collective set of Wild West images are drawn that burst into television westerns and Hollywood films from 1940 to 1960, in the middle of the recreation era of the frontier complex. Film and TV westerns exploited the already hyperbolic accounts from the late nineteenth century, and it is from those westerns that the contemporary reenactors in the current redoubling era retrieve mythic images from the frontier attic with which to conjure their performances for tourists today. What this means is that frontier reenactors are copying the westerns on which they grew up, which were copies of late nineteenth-century pulp fiction promoted by the frontier club that had no counterpart in reality. It is the copy of a copy of a fiction.

The late nineteenth century was a contested time in gender and sexual relations. Though homage is paid to Sigmund Freud in the subhead here, Michel Foucault is more helpful for seeing that in Freud’s time sexuality was simultaneously muted and excessively discussed as the boundaries of heterosexual domesticity were being created and policed.59 The mythic frontier, and subsequently the frontier complex, provided a vast environment in which to explore the poetics and performativity of gender.60 The nation was expanding its boundaries across the continent and beyond while also shifting from an agrarian to an industrial, from a rural to an urban, and from a producing to a consuming society. Industrialization provided the (p.169) tools for making manifest destiny and global imperialism a reality; it also created an environment in which individuals anxiously negotiated their gender performances.

At this moment, many East Coast urbanites suddenly found themselves wracked with the pangs of neurasthenia. George Beard and S. Weir Mitchell, late nineteenth-century physicians, described and diagnosed this ailment as early as 1881.61 Sometimes it was called sexual neurasthenia, or more often it was simply called “hysterics,” the “vapors,” or “brain sprain” in the popular press. Just as the grandeur of taking civilization to the savages was nearly complete in Indian Territory, Beard claimed that same civilizing force to be a debilitating one for urban white people. He argued, in Michael Kimmel’s description, that neurasthenia “was the result of ‘overcivilization’—changes such as steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, and the sciences had so speeded up the pace of social life that people simply couldn’t keep up despite their tireless efforts.”62

The result was a set of a maladies including “insomnia, dyspepsia, hysteria, hypochondria, asthma, headache, skin rashes, hay fever, baldness, inebriety, hot flashes, cold flashes, nervous exhaustion, and brain collapse.”63 Men and women who found themselves living in large cities in small homes and working office jobs that no longer required strenuous physical activity were particularly prone to contract these afflictions. In Kimmel’s Manhood in America he assesses an underlying cause among men of the times: “The question was how to participate in the business world, find their rung upon the ladder, and still maintain a sense of their manhood.”64 What the disorder fundamentally amounted to, in Beard’s opinion, was a case of too much civilization. Total immersion in the modern milieu, he maintained, was making men and women alike forget their traditional gender roles, lose their moorings, and experience a plethora of emerging diseases.

Men no longer knew how to be men, and women no longer knew how to be women. The simple remedy laid out by the likes of Beard and Mitchell was for each sex to return to the purported womb of its gender, to bathe and be reborn refreshed and clarified in thought and action, recalibrated to proper gender specifications. Women of the late nineteenth century were given the “rest cure” of sitting at home to meditate upon the domesticity of their position, while men were sent west to dude ranches to take on the role of cowboy and acquaint themselves with guns and horses or recover their primal urges by playing Indian.65 Charlotte Perkins Gilman chronicled the remedies for neurasthenia in The Yellow Wallpaper. She was told by Dr. (p.170) Mitchell to “live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.”66 Fortunately, she did not take her doctor’s advice but instead picked up the pen to champion the cause of women confined to the home, to the domestic sphere.

For men, coming into contact with the great outdoors became a cure for just about everything. This was the era of the Frontier Club described by Christine Bold, when the white men who were the captains of the political economy were fashioning popular fictional narratives that lionized the very actions that made them prosper. Michael Kimmel also chronicled how Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, and William Kent belonged to groups for men like the “Boone and Crockett Club to encourage big game hunting.” Philip Deloria expands this portrait of turn-of-the-century gender negotiations to include how children were sent to Camp Minnewawa, Camp Mirimichi, Camp Pokanoket, and other such settings to play Indian and be restored by nature’s healing forces. The Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls were born out of this same presumably felt need to retreat from excessive civilization, to escape from what some described at the time as being “imperiled by an effeminate, postfrontier urbanism.”67

Three famous men who suffered from neurasthenia and reclaimed their health by traveling to the frontier were Owen Wister, Frederic Remington, and Max Weber. German sociologist Weber was in such ill health with the hysterics that he had to resign his professorship from 1897 to 1904. It was ultimately his 1904 trip to the United States, where he delivered a paper at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and his subsequent foray into Indian Territory to Guthrie and then for a week in Muskogee, that propelled Weber out of his dark period and invigorated his writing until the time of his death in 1920.68

Weber was cured by the leisure activity of traveling by train to the frontier, which his white-collar position afforded him. In that very same moment he formulated his critique of the Protestant work ethic, which he argued led to a value system that increased the wealth of its adherents in direct proportion to sucking them dry of their manhood; they became, in Weber’s words, “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.” Modernity had supplied the ailment and the cure: buying tourist experiences on the open frontier that might restore the manhood taken from them in the urban office space.69

(p.171) Owen Wister created icons of western frontier imagery in fiction and Frederic Remington in painting after being inspired by the West themselves. As was Max Weber, they were complicit in constituting the cure as they partook of it. Wister was a banker before he made his fateful trip and realized his masculine potential at a dude ranch in Wyoming. At the ranch, Kimmel notes, Wister “slept outdoors in a tent, bathed in an icy creek each morning, spent hours in the saddle, hunted, fished, worked in the roundup, and helped to brand calves, castrate bulls, and deliver foals.” Within a very short time of being there Wister wrote, “I am beginning to be able to feel I’m something of an animal and not a stinking brain alone.”70 With health restored, in 1902 he wrote The Virginian, which sold more than three hundred thousand copies from 1903 to 1907.

After decades of taking civilization to the savage Indians in the West, suddenly white men wanted to go out and experience nature to regain contact with their inner savage-selves. Here is the point where we can see race and gender being embedded in the frontier-complex narratives. It is not African Americans, Indians, or women, but rather it is fictitious depictions of white men on the frontier embedded in tourist narratives that veil the injustices of their imperialist, capitalist, racist, and sexist vices. By the time Wister arrived in the West, it was a highly modernized one. To him “the West was ‘manly, egalitarian, self-reliant, and Aryan.’” It was very important to Wister that the West was where whiteness was possible: “To catch the deeper meaning of our life, one’s path must be toward that Western verge of the continent where all white men are American born.”71

Frederic Remington’s story is similar. He was the son of a newspaperman and himself an aspiring journalist at an East Coast college before he was directed out west to cure his neurasthenia. His paintings of the West, of cowboys, of the rugged living of the frontier are among the most popular of that genre today. Remington actively rejected the urbane East as “he rejected effete conceptions of beauty, of the ‘cards and custards’ of the eastern establishment, and he hated Europe with its ‘collars, cuffs and foreign languages.’” While Wister’s campaign of whiteness was subtle, Remington’s was blatant. With vitriol, he declared “Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns—the rubbish of the earth I hate. I’ve got some Winchesters and when the massacring begins, I can get my share of ’em, and what’s more, I will.” Of African Americans, he lamented that in the Civil War, “so many Americans had to be killed to free a lot of damn niggers who are better off under the yoke.”72 Wister and Remington, following in Buffalo Bill Cody’s (p.172)

The Hello Bordello and Brave Men Matrix

Figure 6.3. Coming thru the Rye, Old Cowtown Museum, Wichita, Kansas. Visitors are welcomed by the boisterous image of the Wild West in Frederic Remington’s statue.

Photo by the author.

footsteps, projected highly racialized mythical images of the western frontier into the American psyche, up into the frontier attic.

Ironically, it was not until railroads and reservations had tamed the “Wild West” that it could be constituted as such. As early as 1880, most cattle ranches were downsizing or put out of business entirely.73 Barbed-wire (p.173) fences and railroads quickly closed the open range as beef production was industrialized. As the cowhand was being displaced, the cowboy was invented. There had been cattlemen, ranchers, and steer drivers, but there had never been the co-opted, commoditized, mythologized image of a cowboy. It is truly mythic because the activity to which the word “cowboy” was originally attached no longer existed. The mythic frontier was created as a substitute for the historical reality.

In 1882, Buffalo Bill Cody took his Wild West show on the road, and in 1883 the first rodeo was held. The cattle hands who had been put out of work as their occupations were overtaken by technology could find employment in the burgeoning field of western tourism. Cattle ranches that had gone bankrupt from the closing frontier reopened as health spas for city folks who had just been diagnosed with the disease of civilization, or neurasthenia, and needed to go out West to fill their prescriptions. Only after “civilization had been taken to the savages” could urbanites escape civilization by traveling to the West.

Wister freely admits in the preface to The Virginian that it is a “colonial romance” set in Wyoming between 1874 and 1890—a simulacrum, at best. He suggests, “Had you left New York or San Francisco at ten o’clock this morning, by noon the day after to-morrow you could step out at Cheyenne. There you would stand at the heart of the world that is the subject of my picture, yet you would look around you in vain for the reality. It is a vanished world.”74 Though a different part of the frontier from Indian Territory, that process holds true and the mythologizing carries throughout the West: the West is conflated, again. To paraphrase Trouillot, the “American frontier west” is not a place, it is a project.75

As the national scene of gender jockeying unfolded, the newly created Oklahoma Territory, split from Indian Territory in 1890, became a haven for renegotiating marital contracts. Besides the abundant advertisements designed to lure recently freed African Americans from the South to Oklahoma Territory, a separate advertising campaign was aimed at men and women on the East Coast who were looking for easy divorces. The allure of divorce described by Littlefield and Underhill adds complexity to the narratives of land runs and criminality and reveals another concealed facet of what the frontier offered.76

Just as relationships between husbands and wives were strained and waning from neurasthenia, New York urbanites were being shown a way out of unpleasant relationships. They could read advertisements of a far-off (p.174) land that provided another kind of cure for what afflicted them. Circulars were distributed in the city that “extolled the virtues of Oklahoma’s divorce laws, emphasizing particularly the ninety-day residency requirement and inviting the unhappy and distressed to come west.”77 Thus, the brave and courageous deputies and the violent criminals were joined by men and women who lacked courage to end their relationships back East.

North and South Dakota openly competed for these divorce emigrants, but their six-month residency requirement and harsher climates made ninety days in Oklahoma’s milder climate far more appealing. The town of Guthrie not only was the starting point of land runs but also promoted as “an ideal resort for divorce seekers. It was scenic and friendly, legal fees were reasonable, and court appearances often unnecessary.”78 Divorce emigrants were drawn from the West Coast too, with deceptive advertisements in papers that “reported that a man could get a divorce in Oklahoma, then move out of the territory within thirty days, without his wife knowing about it.”79

Opponents of easy divorce actively worked to curtail this lucrative business. As public sentiment and changes in the law were bringing the era of easy divorce to a close, people rushed to Oklahoma to file. The scene was so intense in some district clerks’ offices that “the editor of the El Reno News compared the situation with the ‘runs for homestead filings at the land office at the opening of an Indian reservation.’”80 It was not until 1906 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that out-of-state divorces did not adequately notify defendants, extending it to one full year of residency required, that the divorce mill in Oklahoma closed. Within a year, this divorce haven would use a mock wedding to symbolize its creation. The courtship between Mr. Oklahoma Territory and Ms. Indian Territory effectively granted a divorce to the United States from its entailments with Indian Nations.

The net result of this mythic representation of frontier gender is the creation of a starkly binary past when men knew how to be men and women knew how to be women. Some cling to this fictionalized account of gender in the frontier era as a talisman to ward off fears and anxieties over contemporary gender trouble. The projected myth of men and women knowing their place provides assurances to some that their contemporary ideas of narrow gender roles have a basis in history. In my five years of fieldwork, I heard this sentiment expressed many times by the more enthusiastic reenactors. Several told me they felt they were just born in the wrong time. By clinging to an imagined past, they can comfort themselves from their (p.175) unease of the perceived confusion of gender roles, race relations, and government intrusion of today, when in fact the past was fluid, malleable, and oppressive.

All of this mythic projection of gender conceals the reality of men profiteering off industrial advancement and stealing land from Indians and African Americans while they sought easy divorces and other escapes from unsatisfactory marriages in a heartless age of iron horses and what Max Weber called “iron cages.” These facts must be covered up with romantic images of self-assured men claiming what is rightfully theirs, defending the sanctity of heterosexual normativity, and protecting whiteness. This is why the military fort must be keeping the peace, why Isaac Parker must be the Hanging Judge, why Bass Reeves must be a rule-abiding illiterate, why Miss Laura’s girls must be enjoying themselves, and why Belle Starr must be a Bandit Queen.


(3.) Paskowsky, It Took Brave Men. The video is shown for visitors to the site in the context of a jail exhibit.

(5.) Ibid., 65.

(8.) Ibid., 65.

(p.260) (11.) Benjamin DuVal, “Congressional Investigation,” DuVal Family Papers.

(13.) Benjamin DuVal, “Congressional Investigation,” 6, DuVal Family Papers.

(14.) “History—Line of Duty Deaths Prevalent in Old West,” U.S. Marshals Service, http://www.usmarshals.gov/history/line-of-duty-old-west.htm.

(15.) Hylton in my field notes and transcription of audio recording, cornerstone dedication ceremony, Fort Smith, November 9, 2013.

(16.) “Equal Opportunity in the Old West,” U.S. Deputy Marshals: 200 Years of Grit, video, Fort Smith Advertising and Promotion Commission, 2005.

(18.) Author’s field notes, “How the West was Worn: Women’s Clothing at Fort Smith from 1817-1896,” presentation, Fort Smith National Historic Site, June 30, 2012.

(19.) John and Mary Rogers, exhibit, Fort Smith Museum of History, 1986.

(21.) Reynolds, “Miss Laura’s Social Club,” in Crackerjack Positioning, 139–146.

(22.) Ibid., 139.

(23.) Ibid., 142.

(24.) Ibid., 144.

(25.) Ibid., 146.

(26.) “Miss Laura’s Social Club,” brochure, Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau.

(27.) Ben Boulden, “Living under the Red Light,” Arkansas Historic Preservation program, 1994, archive, Fort Smith National Historic Site; Ben Boulden, e-mail to author, April 17, 2013.

(28.) Marilyn Collins, “Carolyn Joyce: Yesteryear’s Madam Today’s Lady,” 2NJOY, August 2012, 25.

(31.) Ibid., 28.

(33.) These police dockets are in storage at the Fort Smith Museum of History. I thank Connie Manning, Leisa Gramlich, and Caroline Speir at the museum for providing access to them.

(34.) Ben Boulden, “Fort Smith Had Strict Prostitution Rules,” in Insight 2000, ed. Steel, 86.

(p.261) (37.) Kay Dishner, “Miss Laura’s Still Providing Hospitality,” in Insight 2000, ed. Steel, 86.

(39.) Kay Dishner, “End of War Brought Last Hurrah to Bordello Row,” in Insight 2000, ed. Steel, 169.

(42.) “Police: Fort Smith Hotel Manager, Employee Promoted Prostitution,” Times Record, January 17, 2013.

(43.) Aric Mitchell, “‘Pleasures by Kasey’ Seeks Acceptance, TV Show,” City Wire, May 10, 2012, http://www.thecitywire.com/node/21939#.U_qD5PmwLdd.

(45.) Ibid., 6, 10, 11, 14.

(46.) Ibid., 17, 180.

(47.) Ibid., 18.

(48.) Ibid., 3.

(49.) Ibid., 4–5.

(50.) For further sensationalized accounts of Belle Starr see Booker, Wildcats and Petticoats; Rascoe, Belle Starr; Rau, Belle of the West; and Steel, Starr Tracks.

(51.) Author’s transcription, introduction to a skit about Belle Starr’s trial performed at the Clayton House, October 14, 2012, in honor of the birthday of prosecuting attorney William Henry Harrison Clayton.

(53.) Ibid., 234–236.

(55.) Ibid., 5.

(56.) Ibid., 17.

(60.) For the poetics and performance of gender see Gilmore, Manhood in the Making, and Herzfeld, Poetics of Manhood.

(64.) Ibid., 103.

(67.) Kimmel, Manhood in America, 136, on men’s clubs; Deloria, Playing Indian, on children’s camps, 108, and on urbanism, 96.

(69.) For Weber’s thoughts on Protestant ethic while in Oklahoma, see ibid., 74; Weber quoted in Kimmel, Manhood in America, 104.

(71.) Ibid., 151.

(73.) Ibid., 148.

(77.) Ibid., 21.

(78.) Ibid., 23.

(79.) Ibid., 24.

(80.) Ibid., 30.