BUTTE, Mont. — The fate of Montana’s last operating house of prostitution feels precarious as one tours the museum it has become.
Skylights are cracked. Walls are water-damaged. The stairs are a construction site.
But the Dumas Brothel still has stories to tell.
Growing up Mormon in southern Idaho, Travis Eskelsen never expected to be the one to tell those tales, but he’s become an expert on Butte vice and the latest to try to save the Dumas.
He and partner Michael Piche bought the building and its artifacts for back taxes in 2012. They announced plans to restore the building and to operate some of the rooms as a hostel.
Then Piche, 34, died in January. Eskelsen wrestles with how to go on without him but recently announced he would open the museum for summer tourists and to develop a fundraiser to tackle facade restoration.
The Dumas Brothel, which was in business for 92 years — a run longer than any other brothel in the country — and closed in 1982, speaks to Butte’s once legendary red-light district. Butte’s working women, like the miners, conducted business 24/7 in three shifts. Each shift had 800 working girls in 1910, according to some accounts.
French-Canadian brothers Arthur and Joseph Nadeau opened the brothel in 1890, and it’s celebrated as a vanishingly rare example of “Victorian brothel architecture,” which apparently is a genuine architectural style.
In 1917, the federal government shut down red-light districts to protect World War I soldiers from venereal disease, which in Butte pushed prostitution into cave-like basement rooms where the “women of the line” worked in cribs.
In the Dumas’s basement are the bleakest cribs.
Many women took to drugs or drank to cope with their profession. “Between 1895 and 1901, coroner’s dockets record the deaths of a great number of prostitutes in Butte. Suicide was also common. … Even if the family of the dead could be found, they often refused to claim the body,” Jan Macken wrote in Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains.
In 1942 with another war on, the federal government shut down houses of ill repute (even those of the best reputation). What that meant for the Dumas was that the passages connecting it with the rest of Butte’s underground were closed. The cribs in the basement were sealed and remain time capsules of misery. The Dumas Brothel became the Dumas Hotel, though its operation was otherwise unchanged.
The last madam of the Dumas was Ruby Garrett, aka Lee Arrigoni.
She was convicted of evading federal taxes on the illicit income from the brothel and sentenced to six months in prison and fined $10,000. Services were going for about $20 when the Dumas closed in 1982 after her conviction.
“She was providing a public service,” many objected when she had to shut down after a talk with Sheriff Bob Butorovich, the Montana Standard reported at the time.
She let the brothel go, selling the building to Rudy Giecek, who spent 22 years trying to restore the brothel. He created a museum and raised money for the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
But the sailing wasn’t smooth. He was in a spat with the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education organization, which planned Whore Camp for the Mining City. He suffered a burglary of Dumas artifacts in 2005. Strokes and diabetes derailed his efforts.
Garrett died at age 94 in 2012, and Giecek followed in 2016.
As Giecek’s health declined, the demands of the building overwhelmed him — the leaking roof damaged walls, ceilings, plaster and the very structure of the building. He had to close it as a tourist attraction, though a former Dumas patron put up $25,000 to replace the roof and save the former brothel from certain destruction.
The brothel is a favorite for those interested in the paranormal and has been featured on national television programs such as Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel.
Eskelsen has his own theory on Elinore Knott, who is said to haunt the brothel. Officially called the “housekeeper” at the Dumas, the story is that the madam died in 1955 by her own hands after being thwarted in love.
Eskelsen’s theory is her lover would have arrived to whisk her away if she’d just waited a little longer. He muses her death may have involved foul play. It seemed mighty convenient.
Visiting the Dumas Brothel
The Dumas Brothel Museum is at 45 East Mercury St. in Butte, Mont.
The brothel is scheduled to be open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday-Sunday in the summer. Admission is $10. Stop by or call ahead, 530-7878.