Dora DuFran – Deadwood’s most progressive madam

Time Before Now, November 1868  In May famous frontiersman, Kit Carson died of an aortic aneurysm at 58 and Union states celebrated the nation’s first Memorial Day, originally called “Decoration Day,” honoring fallen veterans of the Civil War.   American publisher, Robert Brothers of Boston, delighted the readingpublic, publishing Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” Alvin Fellow of New Haven, Connecticut delighted carpenters, patenting the “spring click” tape measure and U.S. postal workers began wearing uniforms. There’s no report as to whether they were delighted or not. 

November 16, 1868

On this day, Dora DuFran, one of Deadwood’s most innovative madams, franchiser of the bordello and coiner of the term “cat house,” was born across the pond in Liverpool, England.

Amy Helen Dorothy Bolshaw was just a year old when her parents, Joseph John and Isabella Bolshaw, first arrived in New Jersey in 1869.  After a lengthy stint of traveling the U.S., Joseph and Isabella picked Lincoln,  Nebraska’s new capital city of Lincoln to settle down.  Considered a welcoming place for recent arrivals, the Bolshaws reportedly became prosperous among the 2,500 or so residents.

Nebraska’s new capital city of Lincoln 

Its unclear how prosperous and by what means, but by 1881 their enterprising 13-year-old daughter, Amy Helen, was doing business in the world’s oldest profession.  Two years later, promoting herself to “madam,” Amy changed her name to Dora and opened her first brothel in the muddy mining town of Deadwood, South Dakota.

Deadwood in the 1870s

She’d arrived a few years behind her closest rival, Madam Mollie Johnson, but was determined not to play second fiddle.  Intent on raising the standards for her establishment, according to contemporary accounts, she sought to hire the best looking young women.  Amid a rather limited supply of applicants, she resorted to recruiting new arrivals on the wagon trains.  If they weren’t all beauties, she at least insisted her employees dress well and practice “good hygiene.”  

Her famous “cat house” sobriquet resulted when an enterprising local mule skinner, Phatty Thompson,  paid young boys in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 25 cents for each stray cat they rounded up.  Thompson brought an entire wagon load of four-legged mouse traps to Deadwood where DuFran installed them in her bordello.  No explanation was given for the town’s dearth of felines. 

Despite her profession, Dora was happily married to Joseph DuFran, (left) regarded as a “personable gentleman gambler” until his death at 47 in 1909.   Loving and supportive, Joseph helped her expand the business.  The couple eventually established a string of brothels in Lead, Sturgis, Miles City and her most popular sporting house, “Diddlin’ Dora’s” in Belle Fourche.

While DuFran and Madam Mollie Johnson were competitors of a sort, there was apparently plenty of business to go around.  Both women were wealthy and well known and there is no evidence the two ever had disagreements. 

Johnson, however, didn’t enjoy the “happily ever after” domestic bliss of the DuFrans.  Soon after arriving in Deadwood, she married music hall performer, Lew Spencer, on the bill at thee Bella Union Theater at the time.  Spencer eventually left Mollie and Deadwood for Denver and got himself arrested for shooting a woman identified as his “other wife.” In addition

Mollie was at least as unlucky in business. After her original brothel burned to the ground in one of Deadwood’s most destructive fires, she rebuilt twice, only to lose both of them in fires, as well.  Johnson left South Dakota in the winter of 1883 and was never heard of again. (Left, thought to be one of Mollie’s establishments.)

Both Dora and Mollie were reportedly kind hearted and charitable, often befriending down-on-their luck ladies. In addition, Johnson was an important supporter of Irish Famine Relief and Martha “ Calamity Jane” Canary (right) spent her last days working as a housekeeper for DuFran at Diddlin’ Dora’s.  Turned out of Wild Bill’s Wild West Exposition, she succumbed to an alcohol related illness between Belle Fourth and Deadwood,on her way to visit Wild Bill Hickok’s grave.  

DuFran survived as a madam into the era of prohibition with a popular brothel in Rapid City.  He died of heart failure on August 5, 1934 at the age of 65.  Dora, husband Joseph and her pet parrot, Fred, all rest in peace in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery just down the way from Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

The Adams Museum, downtown Deadwood, South Dakota includes its  Risky Business exhibit, exploring the town’s seamy past of prostitution, gambling and crime and the lawmen who struggled to bring law and order.  Open daily 9 to 5 May through September, 10 to 4, Tuesday through Saturday October through April and closed for winter holidays. Suggested donation for admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children.  For more information go to, call (605) 722-4800 or write Deadwood History, Inc., PO Box 252, 150 Sherman St., Deadwood, SD 57732. 

A new project from Deadwood History, Inc.,  “The Brothel Deadwood,” opened to the public in August, 2020, Located in the Shasta Rooms at 610 Main Street, the curated exhibit is esigned to neither condone or condemn.  It’s a joint project by the property owners, Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission and NeighborWorks, focusing on the role prostitution played in the community’s early history.  Visitors must be 16 or older and admission is $15 per person.  For information, call (605) 722-4800. 

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.