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The Century-Old Story Of An Arizona Prostitute’s Run From The Law
Ever heard the words history and dry used in the same sentence? Sometimes fact after fact can get a little boring — we lose the story in history.
But when an archives technician in California opened an old box to process some records and pulled out documents dating back to Arizona’s territorial days, she knew she’d found a story as juicy as any soap opera.
“It was kind of the Wild West out there at that time; you know, gun fights and all kinds of things happening. Loitering in saloons for instance,” said technician Kimberly Gorman.
It was a tale of law-breaking, loitering and lust, which may make it inappropriate for younger listeners. But it’s also historical, told entirely through real documents from the turn of the 20th century.
When I called Gorman, she had been on the job with the National Archives and Records administration for about a year and a half. She’s a set of fresh eyes in a place that deals with really old records — pieces of paper that can be more than 100 years old.
“That’s how I came across the Arizona Territory records, because here in Riverside, our holdings are federal records from Arizona, Southern California and part of Nevada,” Gorman said. “And I happened upon this one case that had some — actually, they had prostitution permit receipts.”
As in, a license giving someone permission to do business as a prostitute. It cost $5 and was issued to a Bertha Reed by the city of Globe. And remember, Gorman found this in court documents. The receipts were actually admitted as evidence in a criminal case again Bertha and a man named Bill Green. The crime? Fornication.
“And so I kind of got fascinated by that. I just thought there’s got to be more to this story,” Gorman said.
So she went digging beyond the box on her desk.
“I kind of became a little bit obsessed you might say,” she laughed.
And she was piecing together a timeline.
“So the first instance I found of Bertha and her story was in the 1890s,” Gorman said.
Bertha was living in Ash Fork, Arizona, at that time.
“At one point she was charged with administering poison, which was morphine, to a Mr. James Gabel,” Kim said. “She had a 30-day sentence for loitering in saloons. And then in 1894, actually there was a man murdered in her room. And she was initially arrested. But then she was released after they found that this gentleman named Martin was responsible for the killing.”
And that was just the 1890s.
Bertha And Bill
“The next time I found mention of her was in Globe in 1907,” Gorman said. “She was known in the town as 'Red-Headed Bertha.'”
Bertha had hightailed it from Ash Fork, maybe to find better luck elsewhere. That brought her to the doorstep of Bill Green, the proprietor of the Mandolin Club in Globe — a gambling man with his own share of baggage.
“Both of them had troubles in their past. But they ended up finding each other,” Gorman said. “And they got together, and then unfortunately they got charged. And that’s where we pick up this fornication case.”
The early 1900s was a time when one could hold a prostitution permit and at the same time be criminally charged for nonmarital sex. The jury found Bertha and Bill guilty.
Then it seems the two decided they did want to marry, you know, do this thing for real and within legal means. But the law wouldn’t let them do that, either.
“Both of them had troubles in their past. But they ended up finding each other. And they got together, and then unfortunately they got charged. And that’s where we pick up this fornication case. ”
— Kimberly Gorman
“Apparently they were not able to get married in Arizona,” Gorman said.
Because Bill was black. And Bertha, as Gorman said, “was known in the town as 'Red-Headed Bertha.”
The court declared — miscegenation. No legal union without marriage, no marriage between people of two different races. The couple couldn’t win.
So they hatched a plan.
“Well that’s when they went to Mexico and they got married there, because in Mexico there were no laws against that,” Gorman said. “That shows a real, you know, devotion and determination. So I feel they had a real solid love story there.”
Gorman said it played out like a movie in her mind: Two lovers escaping a land that always seemed to work against them. It would be nice if, after all the calamity, that story had a happy ending.
But, if it did, Kim wouldn’t know about it. She read about the Mexico marriage in a newspaper article with the headline “Bill Green Killed In Fight With J. Sanford.”
“Apparently Bill got in a fight over a card game,” Gorman said. “He was 42 years old at the time. And he actually ended up getting murdered by the other person who was involved in this card game. The guy that killed him shot him a couple times, but Green was still coming after him. So he ended up basically using the gun and smashing his skull in.”
"Which is really sad. Actually, I looked up on Find a Grave, and I actually found Bill Green’s gravesite. And that was kind of a touching moment for me because I felt so bad, especially the way he got killed and leaving poor Bertha alone.”
An Unsettling Discovery
Months after her discovery, I called Gorman again. She said she had made some new discoveries since we first spoke that threw a wrench into this tragic love story.
“I happened across this one day where there were quite a few adultery charges all at once. And so it got me curious,” Gorman said.
She found out the charges were against a group of French women living in the Phoenix area. They were rounded up and arrested for living with “macs”.
“I’m figuring that’s either like a pimp type figure or one of their regular customers,” Kim said. “So anyway it said that sometimes they compromise the actions against them - which I believe means the criminal charges — by marrying the macs, but they continue being a prostitute.”
It was an unsettling lightbulb in Gorman’s mind. Was Bill nothing more than a client of Bertha’s? Were they ever in love? Or was marriage simply the lesser of two evils that faced Bertha, as a woman of little means, struggling in the grip of the law?
“All that time I had imagined this couple was in love, and they were fighting against the system. And then this whole thing came up and really stirred up some emotions for me. I made it into this real romantic saga,” Gorman said. “It’s still kind of a mystery to me which way to go on this.”
And this whole time, she has been searching for some clue as to Bertha’s fate after Bill’s death. So far, nothing. Bertha Reed disappears from the historical ether.
But given the nature of her written record, maybe that’s a good sign.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to correct the Kimberly Gorman's title.