A freelance researcher, writer and heritage consultant, Linda J. Eversole spent many years researching the life of Stella Carrol, a wealthy madam in in early 20th century, for Stella: Painted Lady, Passionate Life.
Fort McLoughlin: Historical Background. The Branch, 1982.
Giscome Portage: Historical Background. B.C. Heritage Conservation Branch, 1984.
Stella: Painted Lady, Passionate Life. TouchWood, 2005.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Stella: Unrepentant Madam
Stella: Unrepentant Madam (Touchstone $19.95)
Estella Hannah Carroll, the subject of Linda J. Eversole’s biography Stella: Unrepentant Madam (Touchstone $19.95), arrived in Victoria in 1899 to spend christmas with a friend. The Christmas dinner was a sumptuous feast of game and poultry prepared by two cooks, lots of champagne, spirits, music and merrymaking lasting well into the night.
It was actually more than a seasonal festivity, for the friend was celebrating the transfer of her home—an upscale brothel—to a new owner. When the new owner fell downstairs in the early hours of the morning, she died instantly. Stella was shocked, but the accident provided a wonderful business opportunity.
In San Francisco she had acquired all the skills necessary for running a “parlour house” with a very genteel clientele. However, that city was already well-served with high-class brothels, and Stella was ambitious. Her early life had been hard. At fourteen she’d become the protector of three younger siblings, and she’d raised them in a sod house in Kansas. Now she aspired to be nothing less than the top madam in her city, presiding over an elegantly furnished house and offering fine food, good wines, and beautiful women. Victoria seemed the ideal place.
The establishment that fell so conveniently into her lap was on Broad Street between Yates and Pandora, an area of small, quiet brothels and saloons. There she occupied the two upper floors of the Duck building, named for Simeon Duck, a colourful character known as a freethinker and believer in the spirit world. A businessman who served in the legislature periodically, he appreciated the profits that came from renting buildings for “sporting houses.”
Stella operated her place like a boarding house, renting out rooms and making money from food and liquor while the girls kept their earnings. The city fathers turned a blind eye to the red light district in the city centre, as they did to the quiet places at the south end, which catered to the influential businessmen who were members of the Union Club. Then everything began to change.
Simeon Duck died. The San Francisco earthquake brought an influx of madams and their employees to Victoria, and the moral reformers gained ground. The Temperance and Moral Reform Association was joined by groups such as the Purity League and the Christian Temperance Union. In 1906 Alfred James Morley was elected Mayor. A racist and avid proponent of Asiatic exclusion, he also closed saloons on Sunday, and decreed that no house of prostitution should be allowed to sell liquor. He became Stella’s nemesis.
The Broad Street madams moved to other locations, and Stella migrated to two properties on Chatham and Herald Streets. The opening of the Empress Hotel in 1908 brought an increase in business, but she was subjected to constant harassment for violations of the liquor ruling. She appeared in court so often that it was said Magistrate George Jay saw more of her than her customers did. He got so fed up that he hardly listened to the evidence against her. On one occasion he found her guilty more or less because she’d been found guilty of the same charge the previous month. At this, her lawyer James “Tod” Aikman sprang to his feet:
“I object. I would point out to Your Honour that you cannot consider the previous convictions.”
“Oh yes I can.”
“Oh no you can’t.”
So it went on until Jay handed down a $90 fine. Aikmen declared his intention to appeal.
Jay’s reply was “Next case.”
She was sentenced to jail several times but managed to avoid doing time, though on one embarrassing occasion she was escorted to the prison at New Westminster. She arrived to find that the Attorney General, William Bowser (later premier of B.C.) had ordered her released. There were no federal prison facilities for women anyway.
In September 1908 Stella purchased her most splendid home. This was Rockwood, designed by the architect John Teague for the pioneer brewer, Joseph Loewen. It was a 12-acre estate adjacent to the Victoria Gardens Hotel in the Gorge area. It suited her purpose very well. She could keep the Herald Street establishment but if things got too dangerous she could transfer her entire operation to Rockwood.
In spite of the grand houses, the beautiful gowns and jewels purchased during European travels, Stella’s personal life was far from decorous. She gravitated to violent men and the police were called several times to defend her from the assaults of husbands and lovers. The worst incident was a shooting at Rockwood. It was probably not the accident that she and her lover subsequently claimed, and it resulted in the amputation of part of her leg. After a long convalescence, she returned to work, racing in her horse-drawn buggy between her businesses. But eventually, her businesses went downhill, debts accumulated, and she lost all her Victoria properties. Even Rockwood was registered in the names of her brother and sister.
In 1920 she returned to California and operated a legitimate boarding house. She even married again, for the fourth and last time. In spite of an outburst of jealous rage against her sister at the wedding (the groom complimented the sister a little too enthusiastically), the marriage was a happy one.
Stella was devastated by her husband’s death twelve years later. When she died at the age of 73, she was poor, lonely, and in pain. She lived alone in a small rented frame cottage with bare floors and poor furnishings. For company she had only cats and rabbits, and memories of the days when she swept to the entrance hall to greet her guests, calling out, “Company, ladies,” to signal the arrival of clients.
This is a beautifully produced book full of fine photographs, many of them the legacy of Stella’s personal vanity. She was photogenic as well as handsome, and adored posing in her elaborate outfits on all ceremonial occasions. The pictures are also the result of the author’s tireless efforts in seeking out material. Eversole spent 20 years researching Stella’s life, traveling to California to meet the descendants of Stella’s siblings, and gathering archival documentation. In the manner of all good biographers, she manages simultaneously to tell a life-story and evoke a historical period, and to make both narrative strands very lively. 1-894898-31-1
Article by biographer and novelist Joan Givner who has written critical studies of female characters, including Katherine Anne Porter and Mazo De La Roche.
[BCBW 2006] "History"