Fancy Ladies, Soiled Doves, Courtesans, Fallen Women, Entertainers, Floozies, Hookers, Hurdy-Gurdy’s, Women of Questionable Repute. Many labels were given to the woman who came to a mining town and they came for much the same reasons as the men. Many were emigrants driven by desperation, both men and women were lured by the tales of fast fortune and droves followed the gold,despite harsh and dangerous working conditions and low prestige.
Lottie’s story is a common tale, not of an extraordinary individual but of the extraordinary role her and others like her, played in the development of mining towns. Women were scarce in California in 1849; 50 to 1. As travel improved and word of the rich gold strikes spread, ‘The First Women’, which is OUR preferred label, began to come to California.
The roles they played were so much more than their profession suggests. They mended socks and sewed on buttons, they were the first to offer aid to injured miners and organize gatherings and funerals. But the real story we have found over and over is of the companionship they provided for a camp of male miners who had very little contact with woman, some for years. “Many’s the miner who’d never wash his face or comb his hair, if it wasn’t for thinkin’ of the sportin’ girls he might meet in the saloons” From The Diary of a Forty-Niner edited by Chauncy L. Canfield.
Born on a farm in Iowa in 1855, little is known of Lottie Johl’s early years or how she came to the rough gold mining town of Bodie, California in 1882 at the age of 27.
“Bodie is second to none for wickedness, bad men and the worst climate out of doors’, It is a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.” Says Reverend. F.M. Warrington. The True Fissure, Candalaria, Nevada May 1881.
German immigrant, Eli Johl, was a butcher and a gold prospector and known to be a kind man. He became infatuated with a new dance hall girl named Lottie and they fell in love. Although she was a prostitute and he knew it would be disapproved of by townsfolk, they married.
Eli had a successful business and was able to buy them a cottage near his butcher shop, and fill it with the fine furnishings. To celebrate their new home, the couple threw a party but some of the townsfolk convinced the others that to attend a party at the home of a former prostitute was not proper and if they didn’t want to be written about in the paper, they’d best not attend. No one came and Lottie was heartbroken.
Eli gave Lottie a gift of paints and canvases to fill her time and she filled their home with her art. Several still exist and are hanging in the museum in Bodie today. Loneliness was a common malady for all women in gold rush towns but for Lottie,it was more than that, it was a life of exclusion and seclusion. As the populations increased, the proper Victorian-era woman moved into town as well. Lottie did not find a place with either class of women.
Mining towns often threw dances to brighten up the difficult life in a mining town. When the Bodie Miner’s Union Hall posted announcements of a masquerade ball, Eli saw this as an opportunity for Lottie to get out and have some fun and let the women of Bodie get to know her without judging her. From San Francisco, he ordered a white satin dress decorated with pink rhinestones and pearls, with a crown to match. She was delighted and went to the masquerade ball disguised by her fine costume. So no one would recognize her, Eli stayed home.
It is certain that Lottie enjoyed the early part of her evening in disguise as her costume was described by the local paper as by far the most beautiful. At the end of the evening, the appointed committee announced her as the winner of the most outstanding costume and she removed her mask as requested. Two men approached her and whispered something into Lottie’s ear and she left the ballroom visibly upset.They would not award the prize to her.
Eli was furious but little was written about the event. Lottie already knew the townsfolk would never accept a woman who had been a prostitute. They lived a quiet life together,sharing their deep love for each other in the solitude of each other’s company, until Lottie became ill in 1899. A doctor was called in to examine her, and a prescription was given. Eli gave Lottie the medication but her condition became much worse and within 24 hours, Lottie Johl had passed away.
Even in her death,Lottie could not escape the town’s gossip.There was talk that she had committed suicide. Determined his beloved wife would never have killed herself, in spite of her unhappiness, Eli demanded an autopsy on her body. The results of the autopsy proved that she had been poisoned, but officials decided that it could not have been intentional and never pursued her killer.
“Sudden Death. A great gloom was cast over Bodie on Tuesday by the death of Mrs. Eli Johl. A mistake having been made, it is said, in taking a dose of poison instead of salts. Doctors Cox and Robinson did all in their power to save her but without avail.” Bridgeport Chronicle-Union November 7, 1899
Eli’s challenge turned to where he would be allowed to bury Lottie. Although she had been a changed woman and married to Eli for many years, town laws still forbid her from being buried on the consecrated ground of the local cemetery. After much debate, it was decided that Lottie Johl could be buried just within the fence of the cemetery. Eli built a memorial for his wife with a tall wrought iron fence around her grave, decorated with a canopy, her photo and every Memorial Day he would drape it with flowers and red,white and blue bunting. It was the most elaborate memorial in the entire cemetery.
Bodie’s days of sin, and wealth, were brief as in many mining towns. As the California gold declined, so did the population, falling from 10,000 in 1879 to nearly zero in 1942. The people who abandoned Bodie left with whatever possessions could be carried in a wagon and great deal got left behind — clothes hanging on bedroom walls, dishes on kitchen tables, boxes of gunpowder on store shelves — and a little cottage where a butcher and a ‘First Woman’ made a life together. Much still remains mostly undisturbed today.
In 1962, it became Bodie State Historic Park and has been protected ever since.
T Lee’s thoughts on designing a collection for Lottie Johl:
‘Designing a collection for Lottie was difficult because very little was printed about who she was. We know little of her past before whatever happened in her life that brought her to the mining town of Bodie. In a small mining town there was often multiple newspapers that printed mostly town gossip and these were the resources I had available to use for inspiration for her collection. Three different publications described her masquerade ball costume. My translation of the lovely pink hue of the pearls sewn on the gown is represented through the gemstones in peice. Pink sapphire, morganite and a huge custom cut rose quartz were the three I worked with. The bodice of the gown was lace and with Victorian style tradition, much of the line detail is organic and layered. I enjoyed designing for Lottie and Ely because his love for her was so clear and there was no precious jewel that meant more to him than she did….reminds me of many of the custom clients that I am honored to have designed for in my career.’ T Lee, December 2016