A Madam, A Murder, A Mystery

Exhuming Arizona's most notorious prostitute

Scottsdale resident John Brusco, whose family knew Gabe as well as anyone, says she was at one time reputed to have the largest diamond collection in the state. They added to the mystery surrounding her, and, at the same time, let the world know she had risen from her beginnings and had made it.

Gabe's profile rose considerably past midnight. After she closed shop on the second floor of the Rex Arms Hotel, where she ran her business for much of the 1930s, she sometimes escorted her girls around the corner for a nightcap at Whiskey Row's Palace Saloon. The girls were decked out in feathers, boas and stage makeup, but the madam was never so flamboyant.

"She wasn't a floozy, let me tell you," says Mary Swartz, 84, whose late husband, Bob, managed the Palace at the time. "She was plump, pretty and usually dressed in suits. Very businesslike. But she had a different shade of red hair every time. Those dye jobs didn't cut it in those days."

Her face bruised from her pimp's final blows, Gabriell Dardley poses for a jailhouse photo in 1915.
courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Her face bruised from her pimp's final blows, Gabriell Dardley poses for a jailhouse photo in 1915.

Swartz says Gabe cared for her girls, even paying to put several through a local business college. "She did that for three girls I know of who didn't have family of their own. One of them was a friend of mine. She did a lot around here, and everybody thought she was great, except the Sunday-school people. They didn't like her much."

But the cowboys loved her. Texas-born Leonard Black, now 95, remembers the commotion Gabe caused when she raised her rate to $5 from $3. "She was one of the first whores to do it, and believe me, she got it, too," he says, sitting on the front porch of the Arizona Pioneers' Home, a great brick building on a hill above downtown Prescott. Leonard wears jeans and boots and a shirt that snaps up the front, his eyes shaded by a beat-up straw cowboy hat.

"At the Rex Arms, you could stay all night for $12," he remembers. "They'd ask for $15, but they'd take $12. But you didn't get to know Gabe too well. It was just business with her, and it was business with me, too. I tried her a few times, and she was about like the rest. I tried every whore around here one time or another. When I was a young cowboy, why, I'd ride anything with hair."

Frank Polk lives a few miles south of Prescott in the tiny town of Mayer. He lives in what used to be the Mayer State Bank, a square-front brick building that looks like one of those banks that movie outlaws are always holding up. The safe is still inside. It has a huge black door with a silver handle, and you have to screw up all of your strength to tug it open.

In his day, Frank was well-known around Arizona as a cowboy, rodeo rider, sculptor, boozer and brawler. The pictures hanging on his walls are all of horses, corrals and one that he swears is Wyatt Earp faking a quick draw. He shuffles around his one-room home with the help of a walker. But he remembers Gabe, and even dedicated a few passages to her in his 1978 autobiography.

"Yeah, in those days she was quite a high-toned gal," he says. "She bootlegged and had some slot machines at her place. We'd come to town after roundup, and first thing we'd do is hit the Palace Bar and get a bath in back, then we'd get ourselves a new shirt, and go see Gabe. Everybody went to Gabe's. We'd drink and fight."

He tells of the time he and some other cowboys finished a roundup and hurried to Prescott to see Gabe. But Frank had to stop at the dentist first. By the time he got to the hotel, all the girls were busy. Gabe loosed the sash on her trademark red robe and said, "Come on, Frank. I'll screw you."

"Her pussy was so big she had to reach down underneath and squeeze it around my pecker just to keep it in there," he says without hesitation. "Now that's something that don't happen every day.

"No, far as screwin' was concerned, she was awful poor. She was wore out, I guess. But she was a good ol' gal, I'll say that much."

Both Black and Polk were probably lucky that their relations with Gabe were strictly commerce. Anything more and they might've fallen before the curse that followed the men in her life.

Gabe referred to the first one in her 1915 court testimony. He was Ernest Presti, an Italian-born drifter, gambler and prize fighter, known throughout the Southwest and California. He boxed under the name Kid Kirby. He and Gabe were married in the gold-mining town of Congress, Arizona, on October 6, 1909.

It was a match made of the police blotter. In 1910, Presti was shot and seriously wounded in a Tucson bar fight, and early the following year, he was arrested and fined $75 for beating a Prescott prostitute. Newspaper accounts do not name his victim, but it likely was Gabe. The two had divorced months before, and she was earning her living in the same district. In May of 1911, Presti was murdered on a Prescott sidewalk by Bill Campbell, a shoe-shine man. The papers called him a "Negro bootblack." He'd given Presti a $20 check to pay off a blackjack debt, then stopped payment on it. Presti responded by walloping his adversary behind the ear with brass knuckles. A short time later, after buying a .38 caliber pistol, Campbell ran up behind the boxer and shot him in the back.

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