Women of the West

The women who settled the west were formidable by necessity. Survival required that trait. Whereas many women migrated west with their families, others traveled alone, often fleeing hardship, abuse, or scandal. Some, like their male counterparts, were seeking fortune in the boom-towns of the American West. However, there weren’t many lucrative financial opportunities for independent women at the time. Women without husbands, or male relatives, were often forced into sex work to survive financially.

Though there were many notorious madams in New Mexico in the 1800s and early decades of the 1900s, there are some who exemplify the dichotomy of saint and sinner, investing their fortunes, and hopes for the future, into their communities. Mildred Cusey, aka Madam Millie, was the most prominent madam in Silver City from the turn of the century to the modern era.

Madam Millie (1906 1993)

Madam Millie
Millie posing with a yucca near Lordsburg.

Willette Angela Fantetti, aka Mildred Cusey, aka Madam Millie was born in Paducah, Kentucky in 1906. Her parents were immigrants from Italy. Unfortunately, they died during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. Millie and her older sister, Florence, became orphans. The girls were placed with an abusive family, ultimately running away to Kansas City, Missouri. The sisters were squatters in an abandoned tenement until the local authorities caught up with them. Judge Harry S. Truman (yes, THAT Harry Truman) placed the girls in separate foster homes.

Millie’s family starved and abused her, forcing her to find side hustles to survive. Those early experiences introduced her to the women who worked the streets. The local prostitutes paid Millie to run errands.

Eventually, Millie’s foster family sent her to live with Florence’s family. However, their joyful reunion was short-lived. Within months, doctors diagnosed Florence with an aggressive form of tuberculosis. The foster family sent Florence to a Catholic home in Deming, New Mexico, hoping the dry air would help. Millie accompanied her. At the time, she was 14 and needed to figure out how to pay for her sister’s expensive medication and treatment.

Madam Millie
Millie in Juarez, with one of her many dogs.

Harvey Girl

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Harvey Girls were synonymous with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, working as waitresses at Fred Harvey’s restaurants and hotels throughout the American West. The ideal Harvey Girl was single, young, intelligent, and virtuous. Harvey placed ads in publications in the Midwest, and throughout the eastern seaboard, looking for women between the ages of 18-30.

Millie didn’t fit the bill, but she was clever, charming, stubborn, and resourceful. She lied about her age to get a job in Deming as a Harvey girl, but she quickly realized that she wasn’t going to make enough money to cover Florence’s medical bills. By the time she was 16, she was turning tricks to supplement her income. Though she was almost beaten to death and raped on one occasion, there was no other way to financially support her sister.

Santa Rita open pit copper mine near Silver City, New Mexico
The Santa Rita open-pit copper mine has been in operation since the early 1800s.

Silver City Red Light District

During the late 1800s, Silver City was one of the largest mining boom towns in the territory. Originally founded as a Spanish settlement in 1874, Silver City was the epicenter of the mining boom in the late 1800s. Prospectors found rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc throughout the Gila. The central rail hub was in Silver City, making it the nexus for mining camps in the area.

Where there is mining, there is money. Prostitution was commonplace by 1884, with a hierarchy of options, from cat houses to extravagant bordellos. Silver City’s red-light district was home to a colorful cast of characters, with the drama that you would expect when you combine large sums of money, sex, jealousy, a lot of alcohol, opium and laudanum addiction, guns, and limited law enforcement.

When Madam Millie set up shop in the 1920s, she took over Silver City’s “scene” quickly, setting up her first brothel on Hudson Street. She expanded her empire rapidly, opening four brothels in southwest New Mexico, as well as one in Laramie, Wyoming, by the time she was in her 20s. She eventually expanded her chain of bordellos to the mining camps in Ketchikan, Alaska. However, she didn’t limit her investments to illicit businesses. She invested the profits into an extensive property portfolio, including restaurants, beauty parlors, bars, and parking lots. Over the years, she cultivated an enormous network of influential “friends” and became quite wealthy. That allowed her to support Florence until she passed away in 1936.

Madam Millie with some of her girls
Millie (center), with some of her “girls.”

Madam & Matriarch

Madam Millie’s compassion for others went beyond her sister. She looked after her “girls” and took care of Silver City for decades, becoming a local legend over the course of her long life. She opened her doors and heart when people needed help, financially supporting the families of miners who were injured or killed, generously donating to local charities, and establishing a college scholarship for local kids. Her desire to protect the most vulnerable extended to animals as well, with numerous rescue dogs and cats finding a home with her over the years.

Millie ruled the roost in Silver City for over forty years, rubbing elbows with the famous and the infamous. When her last brothel closed in 1968, she remained in the area. She passed away in 1993 at the age of 87 and was buried next to her third husband, James Wendell Cusey, at the Fort Bayard National Cemetery.

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