Julia Bulette was a beloved Virginia City prostitute who tended the sick and was a darling of local firefighters — and her murder on January 20, 1867 outraged this tough mining town (though a few high-society matrons were said to be relieved!).
A Frenchman named John Millian paid the ultimate price for Julia’s heinous murder: he was hung. But was Millian really guilty? And how did Julia become a prostitute in the first place?
We asked Kim Harris, the talented Chautauquan who brings Julia to life in her sizzling performances around Carson Valley. Here’s what she shared with us about Julia’s life and death — including details about Julia Bulette’s story you may not have heard!
Did John Millian really do it?
KH: “Julia had previously helped send a murderer to prison with her testimony. About a week before she was murdered, Julia heard that that murderer was back in Nevada. So it’s quite possible he was the one who actually murdered her. John Millian might just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It’s true that they found some of Julia’s jewelry in Millian’s trunk. A few months after the killing Millian tried to sell some of her dress patterns to a lady in Gold Hill. John Millian also admitted being there outside her house on D Street on the night of the killing; he said he was just acting as the look-out.
“But I think there was a rush to judgment; everyone wanted somebody to pay for the crime. Millian was a French-speaking foreigner; he didn’t understand English well. He had come to the U.S. after serving in the Crimean War, which takes its own toll on a person, and did odd jobs to eke out a living. I believe he became a scapegoat.
“Millian’s court-appointed attorney, Charles DeLong, believed his client was innocent and managed to hold off his execution for a year. The case went all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court — but still he lost, and Millian was hung. Ironically, John Millian was buried just a few feet away from Julia, at the Flowery Hill Cemetery — where the prostitutes and criminals were buried.”
How did Julia wind up becoming a prostitute?
KH: “Julia was what was known back then as a quadroon — one-quarter African-American. Her father was born in France, and after he arrived in the States, he had a plantation in New Orleans. He met Julia’s mother there, who was a well-respected African-American, and Julia was born in Moorehouse Parish. She had brothers and sisters. Their mother died when Julia was two.
“In quadroon society, Julia’s fate was picking cotton and raising her orphaned siblings and cousins. And she didn’t want that. Her Uncle Jules (her father’s brother) would come up from New Orleans to visit and he’d take her on riverboat trips. She’d see these women on board who were beautifully dressed, escorted by gentleman, and ask — who are they?
“‘Well,’ he’d explain, ‘they are courtesans; they entertain gentlemen.’ Julia saw that these women got to travel, to dress well, and go places. When she was 16, she told her uncle, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ So he set her up in business. She had her own apartment; she never worked out of a brothel. Julia was well-read; she could talk about literature and music. Her uncle was like her business manager. He made the arrangements with wealthy gentlemen who wanted company when they were in New Orleans. She was a high-priced courtesan.
“During the Gold Rush Julia came to San Francisco with her uncle and her cousin Paul. But she arrived in San Francisco at the wrong time. There were so many prostitutes she found she couldn’t charge the same as she had been in New Orleans. And the men were filthy and dirty. She and her cousin, Paul, who by then was managing her business, moved on to Sacramento and the nearby gold fields, then eventually to Carson City — and ultimately Virginia City.”
Why did the firefighters love her?
KH: “Julia was the darling of the firefighters because she was so charitable. She did what she could to help the community. She wasn’t wealthy; she was an independent operator, not a madam. Julia had lived in San Francisco, where there were fires and earthquakes, and she became enamored with the fire department there for their heroic work. They were the rock stars!
“At Virginia City the prostitutes would throw parties — they called them balls — basically fundraisers, to help widows and orphans. And Julia and other prostitutes took care of people suffering from smallpox or diphtheria. Wealthy women might donate money to treat sufferers in the hospital, but they wouldn’t actually touch the people themselves. Julia did.”
“Julia had met Thomas Peasley, the love of her life, in Carson City. He was the one who convinced Julia to move to Virginia City. He was the first fire chief; he formed Virginia Company Number One.”
How does it feel to play Julia?
KH: “By the time of Julia’s death, her life had taken several tragic turns. The love of her life, Thomas Peasley, had been murdered at the Ormsby House in Carson City by another firefighter. Her cousin Paul, actually more like a brother to her, was killed in a cave-in at the Ophir Mine.
“She was 34 years old, which was getting up in years for a prostitute, and she couldn’t charge as much any more. She was taking laudanum and drinking. She had been seeing the doctor twice a week; he was trying to convince her to leave Virginia City and go home to her people in New Orleans. She had liquor bills and doctor bills and debts for entertaining. She was very depressed; things were not good.
“Even so, she did what she wanted. She was not wealthy, but she dressed very well and had expensive jewelry — half of it was taken in payment from customers. To play her, I do my best impression of a New Orleans accent. I try to play her with dignity and respect and understanding — she chose that profession, and a lot of women still do. In my chautauqua speech I say, ‘What is wealth? To me, it’s an abundance of the things I desire: friends and admirers. Pretty gowns. I may not live in the grandest of homes, but I enjoy attending operas and balls.’
“She had the largest funeral turnout Virginia City had ever seen up until that time. It was a cold, windy, rainy day; everyone didn’t go all the way to her gravesite. But in town, her funeral was huge. The society women stayed home; but the men in town and Julia’s friends and prostitutes all turned out.
“I’m fascinated and drawn to the stories of women in the Victorian era. The options women didn’t have — we can’t blame them for their choices! You see how life forced them one way or another. You have to understand the position society placed them in.
“I don’t think Julia would have wanted us to feel sorry for her. Here’s how my chautauqua speech as Julia ends: ‘Queen of the Comstock? No, I want to be remembered as Queen of Good Times!’”
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Special thanks to the astonishingly-talented Kim Harris for her research and insight into Julia’s life! Learn more about Kim at her website: http://www.
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