"These little chippies who will do it for a burger and a beer, I say they might as well sell it." - Ruby Garrett
Her death in 2012 prompted my inquiry into her life. I'd heard about her at various times from one family member or another, but I assumed she was an exaggeration; a flamboyant somebody buried in the past who was resurrected at family reunions in order to add color to an otherwise run-of-the-mill gathering. What I discovered, however, was that the real Ruby would not disappoint.
My great-aunt Ruby Garrett was the last madam of The Dumas Brothel in Butte, Montana. Not only that, she served two prison sentences: one for manslaughter in 1959 and the other for tax evasion in 1981.
A Little History
The Dumas Brothel opened in 1890. It was the longest running brothel in U.S. History and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Great-aunt Ruby bought the brothel in 1971 and owned it until it closed in 1982 after a robbery garnered some unsolicited publicity arousing the suspicion of the federal government leading to Ruby's arrest and conviction for tax evasion.
The business about manslaughter is a bit more tricky. From what I can tell, Ruby moved from Warroad, MN (my hometown) to Spokane, WA where she married Frank Garrett. They had one son, Victor. She eventually left Frank and moved to Butte, MT with Victor where she eventually lived with her common-law husband, Andy Arrigoni. Arrigoni abused Ruby who, at the time, was going by the name Lee Arrigoni. One day in 1959, unrecognizable from his beating, Ruby walked into a Butte, MT bar and shot him dead while Arrigoni played cards.
The charge was 1st-degree murder, but the jury found her guilty of manslaughter. The judge gave her the fairly lenient sentence of 9 months begging the fact that she was a victim of domestic abuse.
From what I've read and from a recent conversation with someone who knew her, Ruby was a colorful and delightful woman with sex appeal like none other. Those seem like apt descriptors for someone with enough moxie to buy & operate a brothel even after prostitution was outlawed. Ruby, befitting her choice of profession, advocated for the legalization of prostitution. Sex, judged Ruby, was a commodity.
My mom met Ruby, back in Warroad, when my mom was young. I never had the privilege. But if she is anything like my outspoken, fiery great grandmother, Rose, (Ruby's sister) then I believe every word.
The history of The Dumas Brothel is well-documented along with the history of Butte, MT and it's copper mining industry. Butte had a thriving red-light district of which The Dumas was a part. Lots of lonely men + very few women = thriving red-light district. Currently, The Dumas is in the process of being preserved and is open to the public. It was recently featured on The Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures as many believe the ghost of a woman murdered there haunts the hallways.
A little imagination
Ruby's story is songwriting gold (or, in this case, copper). How could I not write a song with such an out-of-the-ordinary member of my family as its main character? But, how does a minister (me) write a song about a husband-shooting, prostitution-advocating, tax-evading great-aunt without aggrandizing prostitution or sentimentalizing the very real and dark history of the American sex trade?
Well, I knew there were three sides to this story: The women, the men, and Ruby serving as the middle (wo)man.
Initially, it seemed most compelling to tell the story from the perspective of a woman who might have worked at The Dumas, but every time I began crafting a story it fell apart. It was too desperate, too sad. When I imagined what it would have been like to be a girl working in one of the "cribs," a room hardly larger than a bed in the basement of the brothel, I discovered there was nothing there I wanted to tell. Reba McEntire's "Fancy" does a pretty darn good job of telling that sort of story already.
Having never met Ruby, I didn't feel I could do her justice. I don't know her well enough to tell her story. Sure, I could do research and interviews and discover who she truly was, but what would I focus on? The fact that she ran a brothel or shot her husband or avoided the IRS for a decade and then went to prison a second time? There's just so much to her dramatic life that I didn't want to get it wrong.
So, the last person in the dynamic was the men.
Who were these men?
Who were these men that visited The Dumas? What was their story? How did they feel when they walked into The Dumas? More importantly, how did they feel when they left?
As I began to ponder these questions and formulate answers, I thought of my own sons. How might I feel if they, as grown men, went knocking on the door of a woman who would collect their money for sex?
If my sons were to do this I know they wouldn't be better off because of this temporary and misguided fix. They would end up loathing themselves and the women who served them. Prostitution dehumanizes both parties. It robs both of love, intimacy, and joy. And, no, "Pretty Woman," is not how things turn out in this sort of scenario.
What I want for my sons is something completely different (obviously). Rather than knocking on a prostitute's door, I want them to be the sort of men who would cut off their left arm before using a woman like a commodity. For the sake of themselves and the woman.
You see, temptation in and of itself isn't going to harm you (or anyone else), but acting on that temptation is guaranteed to do something to you. It will change you. For better or for worse. It may also hurt or destroy someone else.
That's the story I wanted to tell in all of this. I wanted to warn my sons that temptation that promises pleasure usually delivers pain.
So, I imagined a young miner who collected his paycheck from the mining office and sets out for The Dumas Hotel. He wrestles with his impulse as he makes his journey but ultimately gives in.
While most of us can say we would never do the same as this miner, haven't we so often, despite warnings, moved ahead with something we knew might hurt us?
Yeah. That's been me at many stages of my life. How about you?
What if I was like her?
Who knows what happened to all the men who visited The Dumas, and the women who lived there over the course of nearly 100 years, but The Dumas Brothel was a real place that impacted the lives of many, that changed them. For better or worse.
My Aunt, Ruby Garrett, played a part in this history. She didn't play by the rules, she stood up for herself and lived according to her conscience and for those reasons, despite disagreeing with her choice of profession, I'd be glad if someone said I happened to be a lot like my great Aunt Ruby.