The first chronicler of frontier Montana was Professor Thomas Dimsdale, the local schoolteacher. In his book, “The Vigilantes of Montana,” he wrote that one of the root causes of the violence at this time was the lack of women (p. 8):
“The absence of good female society, in any due proportion to the numbers of the opposite sex, is likewise an evil of great magnitude; for men become rough, stern and cruel, to a surprising degree, under such a state of things.”
A reasonable estimation of the number of ‘good women’ in Alder Gulch at the area’s peak is 100 women, versus 10,000 men. Most of these women were married. How many women of “questionable virtue” there were, that is prostitutes and dance hall girls, is open to conjecture. One can form an idea though, by the fact that there were thirteen dance halls in Central City, one of the smaller population centers of the gulch. For a colorful description of the women whose favors were for sale, see Mollie Sheehan’s description in my essay, “Seeing the Elephant.”
There was a tension between the good people of town and these women that is well illustrated in the following description of a dance in Summit, one of the communities upstream of the Alder discovery by a few miles, during the winter of 1864-65. This account is taken from “Shallow Diggin’s,” compiled by Jean Davis (pp. 96-97):
“…men brought their families to live in the community. Social life was active, and it was decided to have a Christmas party to which everyone should come. At the mouth of the canyon named Hungry Hollow lived a good-looking but somewhat notorious woman. No one would volunteer to bring her to the party. Some insisted that, as to her, exception should be made; she should not be allowed to attend the party along with the decent people of the community; others, perhaps conscience-ridden, refused to cast a stone. Finally, it was decided to draw lots to see who should bring her, and the lot fell to Amos Hall, a handsome and prominent gentleman of the area. With some misgivings, Amos walked the four miles to Hungry Hollow to extend his invitation and received an enthusiastic acceptance.
“Great preparations were made. The fiddlers were the best, and, while there was a scarcity of ladies to fill the quadrille, gentlemen decorated with left arm bands supplied the deficiency. Amos had gone for his lady in a bobsled and was agreeably surprised to find her modestly dressed. No one at the party appeared to better advantage than she. She spoke in a low, well-modulated voice, used flawless English and charmed everyone. At midnight each gentleman presented his lady with an appropriate gift, a gold nugget. When Amos escorted his lady home, she dismissed him with the utmost propriety, assuring him that she would always treasure her Christmas gift.”
The above is one of several examples to be found where, due to how few women there were, men were designated as stand-ins for the fairer gender at dances, and identified by armbands as such. That should tell us how few women there were. Also, that youngsters were sought-after as dance partners, as Molly Sheehan describes, at a time when she was at most twelve. (“Girl from the Gulches”, p. 47).
The backstory of Mathilda Dalton, or Dez in “Calamity” has to be seen in this light. First, her own bare bones account of her family, from “Golden Treasure”, by Mable Ovitt, (p. 254):
“…Bannack City, where we arrived in December 1862. We lived there a year or so when we went to Virginia City, Where Father and Mother took the fever and died within two weeks of each other. This was January 1864, and they were attended by Drs. Smith and Glick. Father was a Mason, and his funeral was the second Masonic funeral to be held in what is now the State of Montana.”
More color is added by Granville Stuart, one of the very first pioneers in the area, from “The Montana Frontier,” by Granville Stuart (p. 261):
“November 10, 1863. Have been ill with Typhoid. Miss Mathilda Dalton, whom I named ‘Desdemona’ in Bannack last winter, because she is beautiful and good, is also very ill of typhoid.”
More interesting still is this passage from “Perilous Passage,” by Edwin Purple (p. 141):
“…Miss Matilda Dalton, a charming Brunette. Miss Dalton was nicknamed Desdemona, and a select few whom she permitted to worship at the shrine of her beauty, familiarly called her Dez. She was a tall, magnificently formed woman, about 22 years of age, dark hair and eyes, regular features, and would turn the scales at 155 pounds. One of the boys said he thought all she eat went down into her feet, they were so large; but he was a fellow that had received his walking papers from her, and couldn’t call her Dez any more. It was said that poor P.C. Woods blowed his brains out because he could not marry her.”
That brings the picture into focus. Dez was an attractive “good” girl, with hundreds of potential suitors.