DuFRAN,  Amy  Helen Dorothy  'Dora' [1868-1934]

On a visit to the graves of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane in the Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, South Dakota, a guide drew my attention to the adjacent grave, the resting place of Dora DuFran. He explained that she was one of the leading brothel madams at the time of Deadwood’s gold rush of the late 19th century and that she came from my home town. These Liverpool legends just keep leaping out of history from the most unlikely places.

Dora DuFran was born in Liverpool on 16th November 1868 to Joseph John Bolshaw and his wife Isabella Neal (née Cummings) and christened Amy Helen Dorothy. Joseph was a butcher by trade and had married Isabella on June 11th 1866 at St Anne’s Stanley Church, the records showing that he was the son of customs officer and was living in the Toxteth Park area. At the time of Amy’s baptism the family were living on West Derby Road but she had barely entered the world when the family emigrated to America. First living in Bloomfield New Jersey, they later moved further west to Lincoln, Nebraska where according to the 1880 US census Joseph was still in the butchering business and accounts suggest that the family achieved some degree of comfort and prosperity on their new surroundings.

Known to the family as Dora, she gained work as a maid and was by reports an exceptionally beautiful young girl. Astonishingly, from the perspective of our times, by the age of 13 she had decided that the best way to extract a good living from her looks was via the world of prostitution. Most accounts of her life suggest that this was a simple career choice, and we will perhaps never know what pressures or influences were at play in her change of occupation. What we can be sure of is that her choice led to a life of considerable financial success as a female entrepreneur, a good reputation amongst society for her character and charitable works and a prominent place in the history of the old west.

By the age of 15, after a spell as a dance hall girl,  she had arrived at the boom town of Deadwood with a clear plan to become a brothel madam, and to ensure that her’s was Deadwood’s finest establishment. She met two people who were to be significant in helping her achieve her goal. One was a local gambler noted for his kindliness and gentitlity, Joseph DuFran, who became both her husband and her business partner. The other was a prostitute in her employ by the name of Martha Canary, better know to posterity as ‘Calamity’Jane, who helped her find the well-dressed, well-groomed type of girl that Dora wanted in her establishments. Dora DuFran opened several more brothels across South Dakota, the most popular of which was known as Diddlin Dora’s. In a number of accounts she is credited with coining the term cathouse for a brothel after she was sent a small army of cats to address her mouse problem.

When, in 1903, Calamity Jane returned to Deadwood, her health destroyed by alcohol, Dora DuFran took her in, giving her work cooking and washing in her brothel in Belle Forche SD. Jane died in 1903, and after her husband died in 1909, Dora moved her business to Rapid City SD where she continued her business success, even through the years of prohibition. She died aged 65 in 1934 and was buried in Deadwood, alongside her husband.

Dora DuFran features in the Larry McMurtry book, Buffalo Girls, about Calamity Jane, and when HBO made it into a TV movie she was played by Melanie Griffith. In the HBO series Deadwood, the character Joanie Stubbs is loosely based on her.

Dora DuFran's grave, Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, South Dakota.

The four ornate bowls at each corner of the plot are representative of her four brothels. Adjacent to the plot her friend Calamity Jane lies alongside Wild Bill Hicock


There is a fairly useful Wikipedia entry. Other accounts of her life can be found on a website entitled Prostitution and Marriage on the West Frontier. and a site entitled Head on West.  There is an interesting video on YouTube by the Montana Historical Society in which an actress plays the part of Dora DuFran recalling her friend Calamity Jane.