Hurdy-Gurdy Girls

Since this blog is about imagining history, I’d like you to indulge me for a few minutes.

Imagine yourself as a young single woman as the Civil War drew to a close. Because of this long war, men were scarce, and many of those who managed to survive the war unscathed wanted more from life than to return to the farms and factories of the east coast. Single men poured into the west in search of adventure and to find their fortunes. If a woman wasn’t married by the time she cimages-1ame of age, her choices were limited. If she had any kind of education, she could become a governess to a wealthy family, or a schoolteacher. But without any formal education, her choices were slim. She could either work in a factory, become a mail order bride, work as a waitress in one of the restaurants serving the railroad lines, or strike out on her own. For those with a zest for life in the wild western frontier, and if a girl could carry a tune or had a good sense of rhythm, one of the options available was to become a hurdy-gurdy girl.

What Exactly Is A Hurdy-Gurdy?500px-louvet_drehleier

A hurdy-gurdy is most similar in appearance to a violin, but the sound emanating from it is a cross between a fiddle and a bagpipe, since in addition to a melody string, there are also two drone strings. It has a rotating wheel that is turned by hand. Its origin is from Europe or the Middle East, sometime around the 11th century. At various times, it was made popular in both the upper and lower classes, and made its way into the rowdy establishments in the western United States. You can hear what a hurdy-gurdy sounds like on the wikipedia site here:

What Exactly Was A Hurdy-Gurdy girl?

Since the west had more saloons than it did women, enterprising men found a unique opportunity. Girls were offered jobs as dance hall girls. images-2
They’d perform a song and dance routine on stage and then, after they finished their performances, they’d make their way onto the dance floor where men were sold dance tickets and could claim any of the women to dance with, as long as he had a ticket. Tickets cost a dollar each, dances lasted from five to fifteen minutes, and a good hurdy-gurdy girl could average fifty dances a night. When the girls weren’t dancing, they served drinks to the patrons.images For those of us old enough to remember a short-lived television show, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. will remember Brisco’s love interest, Dixie Cousins, (Kelly Rutherford,)  who performed nightly on stage, and then mingled with the crowd afterward. The American west was certainly not the only place one could find a hurdy-gurdy girl. They were also popular in the Canadian gold fields, in Australia, and all over Europe.


Kelly Rutherford

A hurdy-gurdy girl straddled that fine line between the two types of woman in the west: a good, respectable woman with solid moral fiber and a bad, promiscuous one. Some saloons, in the interest of keeping their girls safe, posted rules for interacting with the girls, which included things like the girls not being able to leave the premises during work for any reason, nor could they accompany a man to his home. Depending on who you spoke to, they were considered “good women,” mostly by men, but good women didn’t find them “respectable.”

Hurdy-Gurdy Girl Dora Hand


Dora Hand

In Dodge City, the best hurdy-gurdy girl was a woman named Dora Hand, a trained opera singer who had been born in Boston in 1844. Her voice suffered because of tuberculosis, and she moved west in the hopes the dry air would cure her malady. She sang nightly at the Grey Lady Saloon where she became friendly with the town’s mayor, James Kelley, nicknamed “Dog.” She also was a very charismatic and giving person, never too tired or ill to help others. She visited the sick and injured in Dodge City on a regular basis and shared her money with some of the city’s less fortunate. Dora was also a regular member of the church choir. Another suitor, Spike Kenedy, much younger than Dora, became aggressive towards Dora one night in the saloon and was tossed out of the Grey Lady by Kelley.

When James Kelley became ill and needed surgery, Dora moved into his cabin with another entertainer, to keep an eye on his place. Kenedy had been following Kelley’s movements and thought he’d break into the cabin and get rid of him. Instead of Kelley, Kenedy mistakenly shot and killed his beloved Dora. He was arrested a few days later by Bat Masterson, astonished that he’d put an end to Dora’s life instead of James Kelley. Dora’s funeral was attended by nearly every person in Dodge City, and she’s buried in Boot Hill. She may have been the inspiration behind the character of Miss Kitty Russell in the long-running Gunsmoke television show.

Personally, I think it’s time for another hurdy-gurdy girl with a heart of gold to tell her story.

Soiled Doves: Prostitution In The Early West, by Anne Seagraves