A Madam, A Murder, A Mystery

Exhuming Arizona's most notorious prostitute

In the conflagration that followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, her mother vanished. Gabe searched the rubble of the city for her, but found no trace. At 15, alone in the world, she hooked up with an older woman and moved briefly to Oakland, then hitched a ride in a horse-drawn wagon with a group heading east.

Nevada was the first stop in what would become a vagrant life. Gabe made the rounds of that state's gold camps, working in hash houses in Reno and Rawhide during the day, and turning tricks for miners in the back rooms at night. She met her first husband while waiting tables in a Las Vegas restaurant, but he was shot and killed two years later, again leaving her with no one.

"Now, while in a courtroom on trial for my life," she testified, "I have experienced for the first time in my life the feeling of having a protector."

Neither the spectators, nor, evidently, the prosecution knew that Gabe's story was largely a con job. She actually was born in France sometime around 1890, and came to this country as a teenager to work as a maid for an Italian couple.

But her inventions played beautifully. So did Rogers' effort to put Leonard Topp on trial. He was in his early 30s, a strikingly good-looking bartender with an eye for diamond scarf pins and cuff links paid for with other people's money. Gabe had lived with him in Prescott for several years, loving him even though he pawned her jewelry and forged checks on her accounts.

When Leonard got into trouble for embezzling money from the local bartenders' union, she covered for his theft and saved him from the penitentiary. "He was handsome and had been a soldier," Gabe testified. "I loved him, and for a while we were happy. He was my master. I was content to do anything he ordered me to do, just so he would reward me by saying he loved me."

Rogers pounded the point home. "Women, so help me, must love something!" he thundered.

Gabe believed Leonard's promise of marriage, and bought him diamond rings to keep him happy. In return, he sold her car and spent the money, and if she complained he beat her bloody. A friend of Gabe's from Prescott testified that Leonard beat her severely three or four times a week. Pearl Valley, described in news accounts as a "substantial blond," said that one of Leonard's favorite pastimes was to "scuff the toes of his boots against her." With such testimony before the jury, all that remained for Gabe was to repeat her contention that she remembered nothing of the shooting.

How did the gun happen to go off? Doran asked.

"I don't know. He grabbed me and tried to take my purse."

Now, what happened after he grabbed your purse?

"I don't recall. Everything was a daze."

How long . . . after you followed Topp into the store did the shooting take place?

"I don't remember any shooting. . . . There was a whole lot of noise, people pushed me about, and then, it seemed days later, I found myself in bed and there were bars across the door."

The defense's closing argument was the final wallop. Frank Dominguez, Rogers' partner, invoked fatherhood: "I say that as fathers of daughters, gentlemen of the jury, you should repent and condemn the malignant and vile action of this man who took from the field of life a defenseless 17-year-old girl and carried her down to lifelong shame."

Repent they did. The all-male jury brought back an acquittal in eight minutes, even before their tears from Dominguez's closing had dried. Foreman Peter Amestoy told reporters that whether Gabe killed Topp intentionally or not didn't matter. "She righted a wrong that had been done her," he said.

In all the copy produced about the case, the best line came decades later in Final Verdict, St. Johns' 1962 memoir. She wrote that with men like Topp, homicide was not only justifiable, but obligatory.

With cameras popping, Yaw escorted Gabe from the jail and drove her to the singer's estate in West Covina. A few weeks among the rich was just the recuperation she needed. "I went through the fire of purgatory," she told reporters from her temporary home. "But it was my creator's way of washing away my sin. From this moment on, I shall live so that good women will not draw aside their skirts when they pass me." She declared her intention to become a nurse.


Gabe's promise to straighten up, it turns out, was another line. By 1920, she had returned to Prescott and was back turning tricks, only now she had moved into management. She became a madam operating out of a series of downtown rooming houses and hotels.

In Gabe's day, Prescott was a wide-open frontier town, a fine place for a career whore to make money. Cowboys worked the sprawling ranch country of Yavapai County, and after roundup descended on the old territorial capital to drink skull-bust rye and beat each other senseless along Whiskey Row, a stretch of saloons dating to the 1870s. Gabe could've lived quietly there, selling $5 tricks and watered-down corn whiskey, occasionally undoing the sash on her red robe to convince the cops that a beating or knifing at her place was no cause for worry. But her radar for trouble was always working.

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