A Madam, A Murder, A Mystery

A summer morning in Salome, 107 miles west of Phoenix. The day starts cool and impossibly bright. No place on earth is brighter.

The heat comes later, but soon enough. Early in the afternoon the horizon begins to shake under the immense sun, and by 3 o'clock, it's a boiling lake surrounded by three weeks of desert. Tourist brochures and toothy salesmen will tell you a dry heat is better. Reptiles know this is so, but everyone else begs for relief that never comes.

Salome is flat, with a handful of trees, no shade, no water, only burning sand on either side of the two-lane highway that splits the town on its way west to Blythe and Los Angeles, or east back to Phoenix. The witness-protection people should put Salome on their list. A person could settle in here and vanish. Get a double-wide with a propane feed, a Sony big screen and say goodbye to the world.

When Gabriell Dollie Wiley moved to Salome in 1937, with her whores and her fifth husband, she must've believed she'd found her Eden. The longtime madam had just married an ex-whiskey peddler and hard-rock miner named George Wiley, who operated a combination liquor store, cafe, auto court and gas station in Salome, and was actually turning a profit, no easy task in the lingering Depression.

Good-natured George loved Dollie so much that he didn't squawk when she began running girls out of the cabins behind the cafe and from the three shacks in the backyard of their home. The Wileys lived a quarter-mile east of Sheffler's Motel on the south side of U.S. 60.

As houses in Salome go, it's still among the nicest. Cement-block, five rooms, set into a depression off the road, the front porch shaded by a few pecan trees. The rear room was set up as a kind of lounge. When a customer arrived, he tossed his fedora onto the flowered couch and sat jiggling his knee and sipping whiskey until his girl came in, working her imitation desire.

If the scent of her nickel perfume didn't knock him out, off they went to one of the shacks. Each consisted of a single room spacious enough for a man to pull off his boots, a mattress on the floor and a bathroom, nothing more.

The business that went on there was entirely private. Even if the whiskey led to trouble, papering it over was a simple matter. A lot of evidence could vanish before the sheriff made the 140-mile drive from the county seat, 85 of those miles over an unpaved, washboard road.

In those days the nearest lawman was Yuma County sheriff T.H. "Pete" Newman, a gangly Texan who ran his jurisdiction like a good friend. When the Sheffler brothers came to town from California to open their restaurant and drug store, they brought in a truck full of slot machines. Gambling was against the law in Arizona, but the slots offered businesses along the highway help paying the light bill, and before long most were in on it.

When shocking reports of illegal gambling filtered back to Yuma, Pete sprang into action. His investigative technique involved phoning ahead to let everyone know he was coming. Minutes after the call ended, all of Salome was alerted, and slots were stuck under counters, covered with blankets or stashed into back rooms. A few hours later, Pete breezed in, chatted with his friends as they whistled at the ceiling, then drove off, never discovering much to burden his sleep.

An aging madam incapable of following any law but her own could find a lot to love about Salome. She could live as she wished, follow her own voices. She could even trick her husband into drinking a glass of rat poison without fear that Pete might cobble together a murder case.

Early on the afternoon of January 10, 1941, George Wiley was found on the floor of his bedroom, the bottom portions of his body cherry red from blood pooling caused by cyanide. A fellow doesn't get much deader.

It came as only a small surprise that sweet George should die that way. Ever since Dollie arrived in Salome, she'd been followed by whispers and the sound of clucking tongues. Everyone knew she'd worked as a whore in Arizona's Territorial mine camps, prior to statehood in 1912, and later a madam in Prescott, northeast of Salome. A few had even heard about the man she had supposedly killed in California.

Her past generated considerable disgust in town, but it was blunted somewhat by her personality. She was generous when out-of-work miners and stranded travelers stopped at her restaurant, and she carried herself with a pleasant reserve unexpected for one in her profession.

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Leo W. Banks