Photo by Kathryn Colestock-Burke
In September 2013 I became enamored with a 177 year-old woman named Mollie Foley. Well, if she were still breathing she’d be 177 years old. Mollie was a prostitute, born in 1836, who died in Silverton, Colorado. All I know of Mollie is from a graveyard epitaph, labeling her “a soiled dove remembered.”
I was introduced to Mollie, and a few other Silverton prostitutes, through an article and photos on the blog Ranger Kathryn’s Arches. In her short post, Kathryn Colestock-Burke examines mining town life and the livelihood of the town’s “unfortunate girls,” or as one tombstone described one of the women, “an inmate of a Blair Street dance hall.”
My heart was broken for these named–and thousands more unnamed–women, who scratched out an existence within the framework of the untamed early American west. I fretted about them. I wanted to hold them. Why did some of them decide to end their lives? Why couldn’t they just leave?
How did these women come to be there? Had they once been in relationships? Were they ever loved enough? Surely so, if someone cared enough to give a standing testament to their lives and ends. Or was it simple guilt that drove those markers into the ground?
We’ll never know, I guess; but pondering the lives of these sad women led me to write the following poem.
My life ain’t endin’ now, it left the week I choked on dirt and rumbled rocks for breakfast, found a stone to be my pillow. A swirling dust, thick like fog, rolled onto our camp; stole my life’s love from me and our child. Her body, limp in my arms, still warm, was cleaned by my tears. I wrapped them in my mama’s blanket, buried them with my heart. Too far to turn a wagon back alone, I went on. My dollars gone, I was left sole heir to pretty blonde curls and one good dress, Mollie took me in, starving. Said I was good for the “gentle” men. There’s a pipe for the pain; a bottle for the forgetting; a piano for remembering I used to love to dance. But now, the top of the canyon calls to me so I’ll jump down into heaven, where her sweet baby cheeks, and his warm kisses wait.