A Madam, A Murder, A Mystery

Exhuming Arizona's most notorious prostitute

"Connie knew about Dollie, but she'd never say anything. Oh, my gosh, no," says Dorothy Matthews, another club member who still lives in Salome. "They'd sit side by side and talk about sponsoring local girls in 4-H competitions and things like that. They'd never talk about prostitution. They were ladies."

But even Dollie's friends figured her for a killer. One of those is 86-year-old Hayden Brown, a retired highway-department worker and a good friend and former employee of the Wileys. He thinks Dollie probably killed George, but he kept going to Wiley's bar and taking his beer with her just the same.

"What're you gonna do? It was one of those deals. Back then, people didn't get so worked up about things."

Dorothy Davenport Reid narrates Dollie Wiley's story as Gabe the prostitute in the 1928 film The Red Kimona.
courtesy of Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee
Dorothy Davenport Reid narrates Dollie Wiley's story as Gabe the prostitute in the 1928 film The Red Kimona.
The Rex Arms Hotel in Prescott circa 1930 where Gabe operated her brothel for many years.
courtesy of Sharlot Hall Museum
The Rex Arms Hotel in Prescott circa 1930 where Gabe operated her brothel for many years.

Hayden explains that back in the late 1930s, the only other bar in town was an open-air job, a patch of dirt surrounded by an ocotillo-rib fence. It had no chairs, only a makeshift countertop to belly against.

When the sun is beating down and the lizards are running, a roof, a chair and 10-cent bottles of Apache Beer can bring a lot of forgiveness.

What Salome thought it knew about Dollie Wiley was only a shadow of the truth. Her life is a wicked little puzzle. Every rock you flip turns up something nasty. A savage beating here, a sidewalk assassination over there. None of the men she loved, and even a few she didn't love, escaped her assembly-line mayhem.

One by one, they wound up dead or insane. She might have been the model for crime-novel women, the original dame. Tough, beautiful, always working the angles, a lover of sparkling diamonds and Saturday-night men with absolutely nothing going for them.

Oh, and one more thing: You never, ever wanted to cross her.

Early evening, January 1, 1915. Darkness had just fallen over West Seventh Street in Los Angeles as Gabriell Dardley, about 25 years old, walked along the sidewalk. She stopped at a liquor store window, peered inside and saw the man she'd been hunting.

Leonard Topp, her pimp. He had promised repeatedly to marry Gabe, as she was known in those years, but never made good. Instead, he stole the fortune in diamonds she had earned working Prescott's tenderloin district, then skipped town to marry someone else.

Gabe grinned and kept walking. She went a few feet past the window and stopped. The hatred she had been containing for weeks broke loose inside of her, and for a moment she was blinded by it. The city blurred before her eyes. Her breathing quickened and her heart bulged into her throat. She wondered if she could go through with it. But when her eyes focused again, she knew she could. Hadn't she told friends in Prescott that Leonard had better not leave her? Hadn't she told Leonard himself, straight out, "Leave me, and I'll kill you"?

Yes, she had. He got his warning and split anyway.

Gabe was clad in silk and furs, a muff covering her hands. The fur should have kept her warm against the ocean chill. But her fingers were bloodless, almost without sensation. She wondered if they'd work at all. She shifted the small black revolver from one hand to the next, thinking the movement would loosen the muscles. The steel of the gun was ice to the touch. But when she tightened her finger around the trigger, she felt a returning warmth. The fury in her grew bigger than the whole world.

Sorry, Leonard, darling, but it is time to settle up.

Gabe turned and walked into the liquor store. She stood behind Topp for a few seconds before speaking.

"Hello, Leonard," she hissed.

He spun around.

Without removing the gun from the muff, Gabe fired a single shot into Topp's chest. The ex-soldier -- a six-foot-tall, 190-pound part-Chippewa Indian -- proved hard to kill. The bullet nicked his heart, giving him a few precious seconds to live. He used them to beat Gabe. He knocked her down and repeatedly smashed her head against the floor. When she passed out, Leonard staggered to his feet and said, "Well, I guess I'm about through for good," then fell over dead.

Topp's killing isn't difficult to piece together given the level of detail in the newspaper stories about it. His death and the subsequent murder trial caused such a sensation in southern California that on some days it knocked World War I off the front pages.

The facts were so shocking then. Words like pimp and "sporting woman" had never been bandied about in such a public way. Reporters crowded into Gabe's jail cell, brooming the ground for every morsel about her past. The coverage in the Los Angeles Evening Herald was written by Adela Rogers St. Johns, then a 21-year-old working her first story. In the vernacular of the time, she was known as a "sob sister" whose job was to make readers cry. Day after day, St. Johns delivered descriptions of Gabe that read like something from a 25-cent pocket paperback, circa 1949:

"In her blood pulsates the forces of fiery love and quick revenge. And in her wonderful gold-green eyes, fire flashes as she calls for her sweetheart -- calls again and again, unaware that she is calling across the gulf of an open grave."

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