Julia Bulette Red Light Museum
Virginia City, Nevada
Julia C. Bulette was the most famous prostitute from the silver rush era of Nevada. Bulette was in all probability one of many popular prostitutes on the Ponderosa, but a century later she was the only lady of the evening getting regular shout-outs on TV's Bonanza.
The real Julia Bulette came to V.C. in 1863, lived and worked solo from her home on D Street, and was murdered on January 19, 1867. She was found in her room, beaten and strangled (the assailant later caught, convicted, and hanged on circumstantial evidence).
The town mourned and turned out in record numbers for Bulette's funeral procession. As time passed and legends propagated, her role in town affairs grew to distorted proportions.
For a long time, the Julia C. Bulette Red Light Museum continued her legacy in the basement of a building on C Street. Not that she'd have chosen her legacy to be a collection of old vibrators and condoms, a diorama of a back room abortion, and an elephant penis walking stick -- but that's what was displayed in the cellar under a saloon.
It was a collection assembled by a Gordon Churchward (a framed notice reads: "The Red Light Museum took me over 10 years to put together. I spent over $35,000 on showcases, mannequins, and lighting.").
In the last decade, the saloon was replaced by a Chinese restaurant, and the collection of Victorian and frontier brothel artifacts have been trimmed back, including Julia's death scene diorama. But warnings before entering still read "Not recommended for the Weak, Feeble, or Narrow Minded."
It's only a buck to go beneath the Mandarin Garden Chinese Restaurant and examine "Virginia City's Vicarious Vices," as one sign promises. The displays include early medical instruments, contraceptives, quack medicine and cure-alls, and "Bizarre, Queer & Fantastical Oddities."
A blow-up of the only known photo taken of Julia Bulette stands at the entrance into the museum. The exhibits are a bit of a jumbled mess, as if the curator has been out of town for decades, and no one working upstairs comes down except to throw a circuit breaker or check a pipe. Yet the vestiges of the collection are here. Two cabinets filled with laxatives, contraceptives, and early vibrators also include bumper stickers and post cards from the always-ripe-for-a-laff town of Intercourse, Pennsylvania.
There are rows of naughty shot glasses, whiskey decanters shaped like the state of New Hampshire and a Canadian Mountie, and poison arrows next to a cracked human skull and a shrunken head. A framed photo of a 19th century Chinese family is incongruously propped next to one of a 1940s actress/pinup queen in a bathing suit.
A sign states: "Julia is remembered for her golden heart and remains Nevada's most celebrated courtesan as people remember the request that 'her faults be buried with her and her virtues live.'" And if you puzzle over the contents of this museum for long enough, you might see the blurry line between her faults and virtues disappear altogether.