Long ago when Phoenix was just a new territory city, it had its share of saloons and brothels just like its neighboring Arizona mining towns. Where office buildings and hotels stand in downtown Phoenix today, you are witnessing the stomping grounds of the pioneers of Phoenix. The next time you are standing in a building near Van Buren and 1st Street keep in mind there once stood a house of prostitution at that location. And, back in 1893, one of the girls met her untimely death at that spot.
Tessie was merely 17 years old in May of 1893. She was a working girl and employed by madam Minnie Powers at her house of prostitution on Van Buren. Ms Powers had left for the evening for a night at the theater. And while the cat is away, the mice in the “cat house” will play. Tessie and another one of the girls, Ruth, decided to go on a wild buggy ride with a few of the gentlemen callers.
After a night of carousing and drinking, the party ended back at the house. Tessie was more than a little tipsy and was very defiant about going back into the brothel. The gentlemen were forced to carry her into the house and down to her room. The whole time Tessie was kicking and screaming not wanting to end her drunken spree. In the scuffle, she accidently knocked over a lamp from a small table stand. Striking the floor, the lamp exploded.
The explosion spewed coal oil in the hair of one of the girls preparing the bed in Tessie’s room. Unfortunately for Tessie, the fire from the explosion burned this once beautiful girl from her head to her knees. The gentlemen, not wanting their reputations tarnished for being inside this house of repute, fled the scene. The ladies of the house, however, acted fast. One of the girls snuffed out the flames on Tessie and the carpeted floor with old clothing while another managed to drag the water hose into the house to extinguish any remaining embers.
Poor Tessie was placed on a bed and the doctor was summoned. With her parched face all blackened and cracked by the heat, there was not much anyone could do. Her charred face and stomach presented a ghastly spectacle. Her nose had been burned away. Tessie died later in the day from inhaling the fire which resulted in shock from the burns.
Tessie’s mother in El Paso was telegraphed. They contacted her sisters in Globe and Tombstone, who may have been working as soiled doves too. Another sister in Bisbee, AZ died just a few weeks earlier. Tessie was known by many names—Blanche Russell, Tessie Murray, Mrs. C. W. Wright—but the name she is buried under is Letitia B Rice. A plot in Loosley Cemetery, located in Phoenix’s Pioneer & Military Memorial Park, was donated to her and her simple tombstone reads:
17 yr 1 mo 24 days
Gone but not forgotten
You can visit the grave of this unfortunate soiled dove on Thursdays and selected open house Saturday’s at the Pioneer & Military Memorial Park.
And now you know why you have felt a little extra warm as you stood on Van Buren and 1st Streets…and it’s not just because “it’s a dry heat.”
For more information:
Pioneer & Military Memorial Park
14th Avenue and Jefferson Street
Learn more about Arizona gravestone preservation