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Julia Bulette - Virginia City Madam In The Old West

Updated on March 15, 2017
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis believes it is so important to educate our children on Early American History, for it is what shaped our country.

Julia Bulette, 1832 - 1867
Julia Bulette, 1832 - 1867 | Source

Legendary Darling of the Comstock Lode

In the 1800s women from all walks of life in America, joined the westward movement for a new life in the frontier. Whatever their fate or fortune was, they faced it with courage and determination. Julia Bulette, Virginia City madam, was one of these women who helped, in her own way, to settle the west.

Jule "Julia" Bulette was born in London, England in 1832. She was of French descent. Not long after the great silver strike in 1859, Julia moved to Virginia City, Nevada and became a popular figure with the miners and local firefighters. She quickly became the legendary darling of the Comstock Lode. She supposedly was the first unmarried white woman in the mining boom town of Virginia City. The firefighters loved her so much that they made her an honorary member of Virginia Engine Company Number 1. She was often seen riding the fire engine to fires, with her fireman's hat on, supervising the men during their tasks, and often working the water pump.

Julia was the favorite prostitute of the miners and firefighters. Living in a small cottage near the fire station house, she competed with the more elaborate brothels and women of her trade. She exhibited great generosity to the firefighters with ample gifts of necessary equipment.

When Julia was still quite young, she emigrated with her family to New Orleans. She later married a man named Smith, but they soon separated. When she was about twenty, Julia moved to California and lived in various cities. When she moved on to Virginia City, she took up residence in her little cottage and became very sought after by the miners and firefighters. She was the favorite of the men in the area.

Julia was a tall, slim and beautiful brunette with dark eyes. She had a refined manner, a quick wit and a great sense of humor. She was a colorful and controversial figure of the community. On January 20, 1867, there was kind mention of Julia in The Territorial Enterprise, the Virginia City newspaper:

Most Likely Written by Mark Twain, who was the Newspaper Editor at the Time

..."belonging to that clan denominated "Fair but frail," yet, being of a very kindhearted, liberal, benevolent and charitable disposition, few of her class had more true friends."


Despite Julia's profession and status in life she did achieve a considerable degree of respectability, because of her kind-hearted personality and generosity. In her time, prostitution was an accepted part of local society.

She considered the miners and firefighters her friends, and as a devoted friend stood by them in times of trouble. When several hundred men became ill from drinking contaminated
water she took care of them. Once when an attack by Indians appeared imminent, Julia chose to remain behind with the miners instead of seeking shelter in Carson City.

Julia also raised funds for the Union cause during the American Civil War. Her profession is what she did to survive in a time when it was not easy for a woman to financially succeed on her own. Her dedication to her community and country seems to have made her a woman of substance, with the heart of a Patriot.

Virginia City, 1867

Virginia City in Julia's time.
Virginia City in Julia's time. | Source

Beauty by Current Standards

Though some people of today who researched and wrote about Julia dispute that she was "slim and beautiful", one must remember that back in the days of Julia's life, she was considered beautiful. Women considered attractive then are not necessarily so by today's standards or opinions. Back then, a tall buxom woman was beautiful. Take a look at history and the women who were considered beautiful in their time.

Gloria Swanson was considered a fashion icon in the 1920s and one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood..

Mae West was considered beautiful and a sex symbol from the 1920s through the 1950s.

Marilyn Monroe was a much sought after actress and considered very beautiful by everyone who ever saw her.

And then there was Twiggy in the 1960s. From teenagers to older women, every one wanted to look like Twiggy. The short, simple dresses was all the fashion on skinny women.

All these women were beautiful in their own way, their own time. What is considered beautiful in fashion and figures seem to change with each era - so, one must take into account these changing opinions over time and look back to Julia's time, and what was the opinion of people back then. If Julia had had the magic of Hollywood and the makeup artists and stylists, she would be just as beautiful as any actress today.

One must remember that beauty first comes from within and Julia had an inner beauty that shone forth.

Beauty of Women

Do you think the opinion of what is a beautiful woman changes with time?

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Mae West

Mae West Publicity photo for Night After Night (1932)
Mae West Publicity photo for Night After Night (1932) | Source

Murder and Outrage

In the early morning hours of January 20, 1867, Julia Bulette was murdered. She was strangled to death in her bed by a thief. The thief took her jewels, clothing, and furs, then left her alone in her little house. She was not discovered dead until over six hours later.

The town went into mourning. The mine, mills, and saloons closed down as a sign of respect for Julia. On the day of her funeral, thousands formed a procession of honor behind her black-plumed, glass-walled hearse. The firemen followed behind her, then the miners followed. The Nevada militia also followed and played funeral songs. Julia was buried in the Flower Hill Cemetery.

The Territorial Enterprise ran an obituary article and called Julia "the darling of the Comstock".

A little over a year later, Julia's murderer was caught and hanged for the crime. He was a French drifter whose name was John Millain. On April 24, 1868 he went to the gallows, swearing he was not guilty of having killed Julia, but had been only an accomplice in the theft of her jewels. However, a trunk he had left with a baker in town, contained Julia's jewels, clothing, and furs. Among the thousands who gathered to witness the hanging, Mark Twain, was there.

Virginia City, Nevada in Julia's Time

Lore and Legend

Like most famous and controversial figures, legends and lore spring up like wild fire after their deaths. It is reputed that Julia charged $1000.00 a night for her "company". Other lore tells of how she used her earnings to build a magnificent mansion in the Rococo style and named it Julia's Palace. It was said she imported French wines, women and beautiful clothes for her "girls" to wear.

Whether all the lore is true or not, Julia was loved and respected by her community. Her profession was an accepted part of life back then. She was always ready to help where and when needed to the benefit of Virginia City.

I have visited Virginia City at least twice a year since the early 1960s and have never seen "Julia's Palace". I have seen an old faded picture of her up high on a wall in one of the saloons. I have also often seen a wispy, floating image of a ghostly figure in the second story windows of the Washoe Club in town where prostitutes lingered. Does Julia still linger where she was once loved?

Murder of Julia Bulette

© 2010 Phyllis Doyle Burns


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    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Mary. Yes, she was a colorful character alright and she did do her part in forming the west. She was quite a lady. Thanks, Mary, for reading and commenting.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      5 years ago from New York

      I'm glad I got to read this Phyllis. Your history hubs always give us something to think about and wonder about the past.

      Evidently Ms. Bulette was a colorful character who helped form the west.

      Voted up, useful, and awesome.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      You are welcome, Jodah. I am glad you enjoyed reading about Julia. Thank you so much for commenting and voting.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      6 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Thank you for re-sharing this Phyllis. I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Julia was obviously a remarkable and well-loved character in early Virginia. I always love your historical hubs and this was no exception. Voted up.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      New video has been added, so you can get a better idea of the way it was in Julia's time.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      SzyMsLizzy, hello and thank you for the visit and comment. It is much appreciated. Julia Bulette was quite an interesting woman. I really enjoyed learning more about her. I am glad you like the hub.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      7 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Most interesting, indeed. I have visited Virginia City a couple of times in my life, but had never heard of Julia before. Nor have I been lucky enough to encounter any spirits....though, the last time I was there was before I developed an interest in the paranormal, and may not have been "open" to them.

      I had heard of the actress, Lotta Crabtree, in connection with that town, but she probably only performed there, as she retired in Massachusetts...

      Voted up and interesting.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting, RealHousewife -- it is much appreciated.

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 

      7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Fascinating! Phyllis I love this kind of history. I think this lady was pretty smart for her time, really. I wonder how many women were married to abusive guys and miserable in that day and time? I think it sounds like she enjoyed her life and made positive contributions to society!

      Mae West was very glamorous - I always loved that quote, "some time when you ain't got nothin' to do and a lot of time to do it in? Come over and see me Big Boy!" hahaha

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      8 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi ThoughtSandwiches, thanks for stopping by. As far as I know, Julia was buried in the historice cemetery in Virginia City. I also live in Reno and have been up t VC often. I have never gone into the Julia Bulette museum, but, intend to do so next time. Maybe we can meet for coffee and follow Julia's story together.

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image


      8 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      hi Phyllis...

      Hailing as I do...just down the hill from Virginia City (in Reno) I can't wait to get back up there and follow Julia's story from on the ground. Is she laid to rest in the historic cemetery there?

      Awesome local history!


    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      9 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi healingrose. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, the story of Julia Bulette is interesting. Next time you get to Virginia City, check in a book store there. There used to be one right across the street from the Old Washoe Club. The store had some old books on the history of Virginia City and some of their residents. I was in there several years ago and was reading about Bulette. When I came out of the store I looked up to the second story windows of the Washoe Club and I swear I saw the spirit of Julia passing by one of the windows. Maybe it was my imagination then, encouraged by the book I was reading -- but, I have seen the same vision several times there.

    • healingrose profile image


      9 years ago from Northern California

      What an interesting story. I have been to Virginia City however I did not know of Julia. I'll remember to look when I go next time.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      9 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you, Tony. It is nice to hear from you. And thank you for following me. There is so much history in the little town of Virginia City. I love to go there in the summer time.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      What a brave and interesting person Julia was. Thanks for sharing this fascinating bit of history.

      Love and peace


    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      9 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Well, thank you, James, for the lovely comment. I really enjoyed writing this article because I love to research history and interesting people.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      I so enjoyed reading this fascinating article. What a gal! Too bad she came to a bad end. Tough racket. You are right fine writer, M'am. Thank you for the good read.


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