When Murray, Idaho Sheriff Ron Wilson describes Molly B’Damn Days as “a family oriented thing,” you might think he’s being sarcastic. After all, since when is a beer and gun filled celebration of a prostitute a family event? But Sheriff Wilson isn’t being sarcastic at all. In fact, sarcasm doesn’t seem to exist in Murray, Idaho.
Molly B’Damn, whose real name was Maggie Hall, is the most famous figure in the history of Murray, Idaho, a small town west of Thompson Falls whose population was larger than Boise when Idaho first became a state, but is now hovering around the 75 people mark. Molly B’Damn was a madam, first and foremost, but she was also the most notable humanitarian in the history of this dusty little town. When the area was booming with gold mines in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many miners were stricken with smallpox. Molly and her girls earned a name for themselves by traveling to the surrounding mining camps and nursing the men back to health. How much of that nursing was actually medicinal and how much of it was what Marvin Gaye would call “sexual healing” will never be known, but somehow, Molly and her girls got the miners up and about and back in the hole, as it were. Murray residents are quick to point out that, while Molly was no saint, she was a regular churchgoer, took care of sick kids, clothed their mothers and returned stolen gold to prospectors when she found it among thieves in her bordello. All in all, you couldn’t ask for a better scripted “hooker with a heart of gold” story.
So every August for the past 12 years, Murray residents and mountain folk from surrounding areas gather to celebrate Molly B’Damn with what amounts to the largest game of “dress-up” in eastern Idaho. The streets are filled with 60-something women wearing bustiers, outlandish makeup and, on occasion, fishnet stockings. But this isn’t all fun and games. These women are actually “working girls,” in a sense.
As local Molly look-alike Katherine Lacey puts it, “We walk the streets and do whatever we have to do in our little costumes to get donations. Whoever gets the most donations is the queen.”
Jody Kennedy wears enough makeup to make Josephine Baker blush, but it’s all part of the act. She explains that the women raise this money (in “decent” ways) to pay for Murray’s park, street lights and fire department. Indeed, it seems Molly B’Damn Days are about the only income generator this town has had since the gold mines stopped bequeathing their precious nuggets.
“It’s for a good cause, so we’re excited to be a part of it,” Kennedy says.
While the women walk the streets in gaudy clothing, the men have their part to play, too. Mostly, this involves dressing up like cowboys and shooting guns into the sky at the exact moment when they know it’ll make you spill beer on yourself. The men stage a reenactment of a shootout between the Boot Hill gunfighters and the Clark Fork Gang, whom the crowd boos and hisses as the “the bad guys.” Before the reenactment, one of the gunfighters takes a moment to speak seriously to the children in the audience: “You should know that guns are not toys,” he says, adding, “But you can have an awful lot of fun with guns.”
In a day full of classic one-liners, the grand prize went to a Galactic Cowboys biker, one of many Hells Angel types who was drawn to the festival. Inside the Spragpole Museum, a tribute to the history of Murray, several old-fashioned beer bottles were displayed. The Galactic Cowboy took one look at the exhibit, and then turned to his friend.
“They don’t even have any Miller Lite in here?” he asked.
Attached to the Spragpole Museum is the Spragpole Bar, a permanent fixture in Murray, aside from Molly herself and a Masonic Temple dating back to 1888. Folks from far and wide gather under the warm wooden roof of the Spragpole for cans of Bud Light, as well as to partake in the Molly Daze raffle (the winner gets a new grill and a gold-nugget necklace). Inside the Spragpole, the people, both cowboys and working girls, still talk about Molly, the town’s short-lived boom time, and occasionally about the sign behind the bar, which reads, “Will Log For Food or Sex.” Without a movie theatre, a gas station, or even a pay phone, Murray seems to have little to do besides talk about the past. Fortunately, this is a hobby that Murrians seem to enjoy.
Molly’s past is somewhat obscured, as are all great myths. Everyone knows that she was sold into whoredom by a British man to a New York millionaire who soon tossed her out, but no one knows how she got to the Montana territory. And sometimes, it’s better with a bit of mystery. It gives people something to talk about for years to come.