Tahoe Nugget #82:
Julia Bulette: Queen of Tarts
June 1, 2006
The day she died, the hard-rock miners of Virginia City cried a river of tears. The vicious strangling of 35-year-old Julia Bulette on January 20, 1867, stunned residents on the Comstock. Julia may have
been a prostitute, but that didn't stop the citizenry from organizing an impressive funeral for their favorite lady of the evening.
The Comstock boom was barely four years old when Bulette arrived in Virginia City in 1863, but the area was populated with thousands of young, single miners. The town had the busiest saloons in the West
where liquor flowed freely and the miner's boisterous behavior was legend.
Prostitution was the single largest occupation for women on the Comstock. At a time when laundry or domestic pay was less than $25 per month, many women turned to the sex trade in a desperate attempt to
pay their bills. Although some members in the community looked down on prostitution, the mere presence of women had a soothing effect upon the predominantly male society.
Julia Bulette lived and worked in a small frame house on D Street in Virginia City's red light district. In 1861, Nevada Territory had adopted the English Common law that deemed brothels public
nuisances but not illegal. Although her cottage was small, Julia decorated it tastefully. For her customer's enjoyment she stocked a small bar with whiskey, port, claret and rum.
Bulette's reputation as an "accommodating woman" grew over time. Testament to her acceptance by many men in the community was her successful election as an honorary member of the Virginia
Fire Company No. 1 "in return for numerous favors and munificent gifts bestowed by her upon the company." Fire Co. No. 1 was comprised of the city's elite firefighters, energetic men who thrilled to
the excitement and exertion inherent in fighting dangerous fires.
Virginia City was built of wood and perched on a wind-swept mountainside. Sparks from wood burning stoves frequently set the city on fire. To protect the town, Fire Company No. 1 was equipped with one of
the most powerful engines on the Pacific Coast. It carried 600 hundred feet of hose and was manned by 65 men. When the brave men of Company 1 were on the scene fighting a fire, Julia Bulette could often be found
working the brakes of the hand-cart engines.
On January 19, 1867, Julia Bulette dressed and went to see a performance at Piper's Opera House. Prostitutes were required to sit in a special viewing box with the curtains tightly closed so the
"proper ladies" in town did not have to see the "working girls." As the story goes, when Ms. Bulette refused to sit in the section reserved for women of the red light district, she was escorted
out of the theater and returned home to enjoy a late dinner.
The following morning when Julia's next-door neighbor Gertrude Holmes brought her Sunday breakfast, she found Bulette brutally murdered. She had been struck with a pistol, bludgeoned with a piece of
firewood and strangled. Most of her costume jewelry and fancy dresses were missing. The town was shocked by the violent act, and the citizenry demanded a prompt search for the killer. The Gold Hill Evening News
insisted on an immediate hanging as soon as the culprit was caught.
On Monday, January 21, Julia Bulette's funeral was held at Engine House No. 1. It was a bitterly cold day, with gusty winds and snow squalls. Despite the adverse weather, hundreds turned out to hear
the Reverend William Martin's eulogy. Extolling the virtues of a known prostitute is not easy for a man of the cloth, but Rev. Martin's sermon was well received and considered to be "most appropriate to
the occasion." The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise described her as "being of a very kind-hearted, liberal, benevolent and charitable disposition few of her class had more true friends."
Her fellow firefighters in Engine Co. No. 1 took up a collection and purchased a handsome silver-handled casket. After the sermon, the Metropolitan Brass Band led about 60 members of the fire department
on foot, as well as 16 carriages of mourners, to the Flowery Hill Cemetery. Attendance would have been greater, but the snowstorm and muddy roads kept many at home. Although Julia Bulette was given a Catholic
funeral, the populace could not let a women of easy virtue be buried in consecrated ground. She was entombed in a lonely grave half a mile east of town. A simple wooden plank with the name "Julia" painted
on it was all that marked her final resting place. As the mourners slowly filed back into town, the men of Engine Co. No. 1 sang "The Girl I Left Behind." Virginia City was draped in black, and for the
first time since President Lincoln's assassination, all the saloons were closed in respect for the somber mood.
After the funeral, authorities got on with the business of capturing her killer, but due to a lack of evidence no one was apprehended. Several months later, prostitute Martha Camp was awakened by someone
approaching her with a weapon. Her screams sent the man fleeing, but she later recognized him on the street. He was identified as Jean Marie Villain, commonly known as John Millian, a French baker and drifter.
Millian was arrested and thrown in jail. The next day, a search of Millian's house and storage trunk at the bakery revealed some of Julia Bulette's possessions.
Jurors quickly convicted Millian, but his attorney appealed the case to the State Supreme Court. The judges upheld the lower court's ruling and on April 24, 1868, John Millian was escorted to the
gallows where more than 4,000 spectators witnessed the execution. Among them was Mark Twain who was touring the country following a trip to Europe and the Middle East.
Photo #1: Julia Bulette and an Engine Co. No. 1 helmet.
Photo #2: Prostitution is legal in Nevada in designated rural areas. These 3 brothels are located on Highway 50 east of Carson City.
#3: One of the major changes favored by the brothel industry in Nevada today is that prostitutes will no longer be considered employees of the brothel owner. They will work as independent contractors and be
responsible for their own tax burdens and weekly medical examinations.