Love and death for sale on Jibboom Street
October 30, 2006
Truckee was a workingmans town, and the hard-working men of the railroad, lumber mills, logging camps and other industries had desires that could only be satisfied on the back street, where respectable families didnt tread. Jibboom Street was a scene of dance halls and gambling dens, where alcohol and drugs such as opium and morphine were readily available, and most importantly, where working women plied the prostitution trade. Not all of these women were happy with their place in society and some just couldnt cope with the pressure of being a prostitute. Their final acts were carried out as a last act of desperation in a cold, uncaring Truckee. The hard edge of life in Truckee in the 1870s and 80s cannot be ignored in our history. Perhaps these souls still haunt Truckees Jibboom Street.
In 1877, the Truckee Republican reported that a denizen of Jibboom Street had reached her final reward. In this case it was the death of prostitute Alice Taffe that exposed a little-seen side of the back street of Truckee. Alice Taffe was described as a fast woman. She was a resident of Madam Miriam Halls dance house. About half past nine on a cold November night, Alice Taffe and another woman named Annie Starr walked into the dance house bar room and requested drinks. The bartender set up two drinks, but Alice didnt drink hers. Instead she gave the drink to a young man sitting nearby. She told him to dance with Annie Starr and leave her alone. The unknown man was an old lover of Alices who had jilted her, leading to a long-running quarrel and a broken heart. Alice and Annie soon left the dance house for a short while, then returned and ordered another round of drinks. Alice had an empty envelope with her, labeled poison, and she told Mrs. Hall that she had taken a lethal dose of morphine and was about to die. She said and that would be the end of it. No one paid much attention to her drama, especially her former lover, who was more intent on pursuing other soiled doves attention.Alice quickly got drowsy, then passed out against the bar. Thinking she was drunk, she was taken upstairs to her room and put to bed. In a few minutes, she starting frothing at the mouth. It was then that Madam Hall and Annie Starr realized that Alice was serious. She had crossed the breaking point.Dr. Curless was summoned and gave her every antidote he had, but it was no use. She lingered in a coma until one oclock, when she finally died. It was hard to say what caused her to end her sordid life with the rash deed, but jealousy was suspected. It was easy for Truckees social outcasts, when sober, to take a dim view of life and of what they might have been. Truckee, as most western towns, had a dark seamy side and a host of victims that haunted it. Some were desperate enough, as Alice was, to take their own lives.Alice was only 19 years old, far too young to experience the possibility of a good life. She came from Sacramento, and her remains were returned there, but where does her soul rest?
In January 1880, a similar incident was reported. Jennie Stanley was another resident of the Jibboom Street brothels. She came to her demise through personal neglect as much as anything else. She was born into a seemingly normal family, but her father disappeared when she was an infant. Rather than raise her in poverty, her mother gave Jennie to a Baptist minister who would care for her. The Rev. and Mrs. Peck gave Jennie all the love and support a family could offer. Jennie had been married for several years, and had a 7-year-old son, who had been given up for adoption by 1880. She had taught school in California for a few years, leading a normal life. She was very attractive, and did not lack for suitors. But fate had other plans for her.As a young adult, Jennie began to stray down the wrong road in saloons. Soon she was addicted to alcohol and morphine and was earning her living in brothels of the West. Her slide left her great beauty devastated, and Jennie aged before her time.She was in Truckee for several years, residing on the back street, where her habits were accommodated with ease. This was during a time when prostitutes were common on Jibboom Street, but not allowed to step foot on Front Street. They could drink alcohol in the hurdy-gurdies and dance houses, but county law prohibited them from entering the dozens of saloons on Front Street.As with many prostitutes in Truckee, Jennie was treated with disrespect by the upstanding citizens of town. Readily available was the alcohol, morphine and opium that eased her mental and physical pain. Her death was slow, without the drama with which Alice Taffe went out.Her death was noticed in Truckee, not because of her current habits, but because of her upbringing in a religious family. She longed for the old days and wrote several letters to her adopted father, now a bishop, expressing her guilt at her life of sin. These letters largely went unanswered and she sank further into the deep recesses of mental anguish.Her death was a mystery in many ways. The coroners jury, comprised of respectable men of Truckee, probably knew more than they let into the official record of the proceedings. Jennie was found in the dead of winter, in a Jibboom Street den of vice. The conditions were bleak, and desolate, with a loathsome, dreadful scene presented to the jury.She died somewhere else, but her body was moved to the empty room with no heat or light. The town was convinced that her death, even for a prostitute, was a lesson on the lifestyle of Truckees women of the night. Her body lay in the same position for two days before being taken away. Her funeral in Potters field, that area outside the fences of the cemetery, was not attended by anyone.Bishop Peck expressed his sorrow at the loss, but had really given up on Jennie years before her move to Truckee. Jennies farewell letter contained much regret for her lifestyle, for which she felt no control. Despite her ways, she still had hope of going to heaven. Was that a shadow, or Jennie searching for her salvation?
Morphine was the drug of choice for Gracie Sykes as well. She was a 21-year-old member of the frail sisterhood of Jibboom Street. In January, 1887, without a word to anyone, in a group of her fellow prostitutes, she made a fateful decision. At two oclock in the morning, she took a lethal dose of liquid morphine. She complained to her friends of being cold and fell to the floor. Despite medical help from Dr. LaBrie, she was pronounced dead very soon. The bottle of morphine was found in her pocket. The coroners jury found the death another unexplained suicide of a woman unable to cope with her profession.Gracie had family in nearby Sierra Valley and in Virginia City, but no one came to claim her and she was buried in the anonymity of the Truckee cemetery.Life for many of Truckees men and women in the 1870s and 80s was not always easy. Suicides were not uncommon among both sexes. Perhaps the ghosts of these disturbed spirits still wander Jibboom Street.Gordon Richards is the Research Historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society website at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is email@example.com. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at SierraSun.Com in the archives.