In 1898, a young Mr and Mrs A. Hatton moved to the burgeoning frontier town of San Angelo, and bought the newly completed number 18, East Concho St.
The marriage failed almost immediately, and the pair were divorced in 1902. The settlement was simple – they split the building in half. He got downstairs, which became a respectable dry-goods store, she was allotted the upstairs rooms. Her half was slightly less respectable…
Miss Hattie’s Bordello was, for fifty years, the most notorious bawdy house in West Texas. Regarded with equal amounts of shock and indulgence, its discreet services were enjoyed by several generations of lonesome cowboys, soldiers and ranchers until the Texas Rangers raided it one last time in 1946, boarding it up forever.
“This was no cathouse,” insists Mark Priest, whose jewellers shop now occupies the ground floor. “The entrance was on the first street of commerce – not down a back alley.” Miss Hattie’s understated staircase leads into a glittering peacock of an apartment, adorned with plush velvets, gleaming satins and silks, exotic feathers and gilded stamped-tin ceilings.
Chaise-longues and brocades, golden mirrors and hand-woven carpets jostle with glimmering Turkish lanterns and rococo-style writing desks in an authentic tableau of early twentieth century brothel life.
“She ran a tight ship,” continues Priest. “None of her girls was allowed to drink excessively or take opium, and in return she paid for their medical bills and fed them well.” Miss Hattie also made the girls bathe regularly, as the little hip baths in the rooms attest – and she invested in new-fangled luxuries – hers was the first place in San Angelo to boast a flush lavatory.
Perhaps surprisingly, many of the original customers have come forward with stories. Now in the autumn of their lives, a visit to the re-opened Miss Hattie’s Museum is a vibrant and often moving reminder. They talk of the girls, of shenanigans in the waiting rooms, of long card games, eccentric customers and general camaraderie in this unlikely venue.
Again and again Miss Blue – whose star status gave her the best room in the building, closest to the bathroom, Miss Rosie – who always wore pink, Miss Mabel – who turned tricks to pay for her consumptive husband’s medication, actually having a child while she lived there, and the tragic Miss Evie – who was turned out after imbibing once too often, crop up in the locals’ stories. Mark Priest has high hopes that one day he will be able to speak candidly with the owner of a local ranch which has “close connections” with the establishment.
“He’s not speaking yet – but has promised he will when the time is right,” says Priest, anticipation crackling in his voice. Priest hopes that this will turn out to be the legendary ranch of ‘Miss Kitty’ who received the farm in her former lover’s will, the ultimate Pretty Woman fantasy.
Such stories tumble from the very walls of Miss Hattie’s. I smile a little sadly as we traipse through Miss Blue’s bedroom, noting the peep-hole, the dolly-shaped lamp by the bed and the heart-rending satin cushion, home-stitched with “Camp Stewart, GA.” In the corner, a changing-screen hosts a pair of hastily tossed nylons across its folds.
For something so seemingly seedy, Miss Hattie’s never gets vulgar – there is a cheerful bawdiness that overrides even the most prudish. It wasn’t always so tolerant. The God-fearing Miss Hattie used to pile the girls into her Model T every Sunday, visiting a different church each week to prevent reprisals.
Possibly the best areas are not actually the bedrooms themselves. Not everyone could afford the exorbitant fees, but there was always The Gentlemen’s Waiting Room, where one could dance to the phonograph with Miss Juanita, drink and play cards. A coffin in the corner alludes to the bordello’s most eccentric customer, Elmo.
Whilst he couldn’t afford to buy the girls’ services or join in the card games, he kept everyone entertained with wild stories, rude jokes and a ready harmonica. Swearing that Miss Hattie’s was the best place on earth, he requested to be buried there. He isn’t, but his wake was held in the waiting room.
Local legends of a tunnel between the bordello and the bank next door are almost accurate. The basements of the two buildings adjoined, and gentlemen who did not wish to be seen going into such an establishment merely opened accounts at the bank, then quietly filed down to the cellar…
Similarly, a door in Miss Rosie’s room leads out to a catwalk next door in case of a raid. Raids were regular, but perfunctory, since it’s alleged half the San Angelo Police Force were regulars.
In the end it took the Texas Rangers to close Miss Hattie’s down, but they did it good and proper. The place was boarded up and forgotten about for over thirty years, waiting to be rediscovered. When downstairs was finally sold, the new purchaser prised open the doors with the intention of using the space for storage. “It was a time capsule,” breathes Mark Priest.
The people of San Angelo, if not actively proud of their bawdy past, at least tolerate it with a knowing wink. The bank next door is now a restaurant, ‘Miss Hattie’s Café and Saloon,’ decked out in similarly sumptuous extravagance and serving the alleged favourite dishes of each girl, and Miss Hattie’s itself is open on certain days, though the key is still kept at Legends Jewellers next door.
Don’t expect a guidebook, postcards or the usual museum paraphernalia, just a twinkle in the locals’ eyes.
Miss Hattie’s Bordello, 18½ , East Concho Street, San Angelo, Texas.
This feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…