A Madam, A Murder, A Mystery

Exhuming Arizona's most notorious prostitute

Salome's founder must have been seeing mirages when he started a town on this barren desert. Iowa-born DeForest Hall is one of a long line of characters who emigrated to Territorial Arizona, shed his skin and invented an entirely new man, even taking a new name, Dick Wick Hall.

In one way he found huge success. Hall came to Yuma County in 1904 and later started the Salome Sun. He filled his newspaper with witticisms and country humor and distributed it to travelers out of his business, the Laughing Gas Station. His work was noticed by a New York editor, and by 1921, Hall was contributing to the nation's most influential magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. Over the next five years, he developed a national following writing about such characters as the Salome frog, who was 7 years old and still hadn't learned to swim.

But the Hall everyone thought they knew, the corny philosopher, was mostly bunk. Behind the façade was a hustler of shaky mining stock, thought by some to be as much swindler as sage. If the truth be known, he didn't pump any gas out of his station and hated Arizona's summers so much he fled to Los Angeles. Still, Salome hosts Dick Wick Hall days every fall, and the image of his frog is still plastered on buildings all over the place, testimonies to the value of mirages.

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.

Dollie's Salome is a different, darker place, straight from the pages of the controversial 1934 noir novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Her old business, now called the Free Lunch Cafe, is a virtual copy of James M. Cain's fictional Twin Oaks Tavern. Nothing but a roadside sandwich joint, Cain wrote, like a million others, with a lunchroom part, a house part, a filling station and auto court. The Free Lunch has a few wobbly tables, sticky menus, and is divided into two parts, with a lounge on the far side, accessible through bat-wing doors that thump when you let them go.

The bar has a warm beer smell, Shania Twain is playing on the juke, and the sign on the mirror behind the cash register reads: "Sorry, We're Open."

Dollie is still a celebrity here, almost four decades after her passing, and when someone comes around asking questions about her, it doesn't take long for word to get out. Old-timers heat up the phone lines and the stories about her are told again. Like the time she leashed her beloved poodle to the bumper of her car, forgot it was there and drove into town. The poor pooch ran alongside as long as it could, then collapsed and bounced like a beach ball along the highway the rest of the way. The dog was badly roughed up, but survived. An accident, they say around here, simple forgetfulness. Dollie was heartbroken, they say, and that might be true.

But, as with every story in her life, you have to wonder. Maybe it wasn't an accident at all.

The similarities between Dollie's life in Salome and Cain's Postman go beyond the look of the cafe. The book's main character is Frank Chambers, a young tough on the loose, wounded by life and so wrung out he's begging for more. He lands in a cafe outside Los Angeles, orders a breakfast he can't pay for, and before long, hell is collapsing in pieces around him. His mistake is falling hard for Cora, the cafe owner's wife. Their passion leads to a murder plot that goes wrong and finds Chambers, in the last chapter, preparing to meet his executioner.

Cain got the idea from a sensational real-life murder case in L.A. in 1927. A woman named Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, conspired to murder her husband. They concocted an alibi in which Judd would be out of town the day of the killing. Snyder saw Judd off by handing him a bottle of booze spiked with enough arsenic to kill the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The story of George Wiley's poisoning began, naturally enough, with one of Dollie's whores. Mae Moore Grisson, a skinny dishwater blond from Madison, Kentucky, had worked for the madam at the Rex Arms in Prescott, and followed her to Salome.

The 42-year-old Grisson probably saw it as a good career move. The Wileys catered to highway travelers at a time when drivers were just beginning to brave the trip across the desert to the west coast. Hundreds passed through each day, and if they had more than pie on their minds, the red light shining from Wiley's building let them know this was the place. It attracted a fair helping of men who wouldn't look you in the eye, the beer parties sometimes got raucous, and there was that odd, sweet smell hanging over the highway on warm, summer nights. Before long, even Salome's churchgoers knew it was marijuana.

Grisson's good idea turned bad on November 23, 1940, when she and George got into an argument in the cafe. At issue were some furs she had left behind in Prescott. She demanded that George pay the monthly fee to store them, but he wanted no part of Dollie's business or her girls and refused. The fight heated up, and the normally good-natured businessman snapped, lunging at Mae. She lost her balance and fell back off her stool, hitting her head on a water cooler. She couldn't be revived and was taken to the hospital in Wickenburg, 60 miles east.

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