By Bob McCracken – “Nye County History”
Prostitution is often referred to as the world’s oldest profession. This may or may not be the case, depending upon one’s definition of the term “prostitution.”
The origins of females trading sex for profit lie deep in antiquity. A big male chimpanzee, for example, will climb a tree and kill a monkey and share the meat with the female who, in turn, rewards him with sex. That’s pretty close to my definition of prostitution.
The practice of prostitution has varied widely around the world for at least the last several thousand years, as have society’s efforts to deal with it.
One thing history shows is that attempts to stamp out prostitution are essentially never successful. Over the last 150 years, a very effective method of dealing with prostitution has been developed in Nevada and is currently in place in 10 rural counties, including Nye County.
This system of regulated prostitution has roots in the thinking of a Dutch physician named Bernard Mandeville who lived in England most of his life. Writing in 1724, he called for the establishment of publicly licensed brothels in which the women would be medically examined.
Brothels can be places where drama abounds and emotions run high — especially 100 years ago in frontier Nye County.
The following true story begins in Tonopah in 1905. Too bad there isn’t a William Shakespeare around to really tell it.
The first we hear of Birdie Kelly — first name variously spelled Birdie, Berdie, Bertie and Berde — was when she and another resident of Tonopah’s red-light district got into a late-night scratching and hair-pulling contest in front of Riley’s Dance Hall. Birdie was apparently getting the best of things when someone broke it up and, as the Tonopah Daily Sun put it, “they guided the warring ‘belles’ bastileward.”
“The two went before Judge Sawle and, as it was their first offense, he let them off, warning that their next appearance would require ‘golden sacrifices.’”
The next time we hear of Birdie Kelly is five years later. Described as a woman “of the half world,” she was employed at the big Casino, Tonopah’s largest dance hall/brothel. She had been drinking heavily for three weeks. She sobered up at times but on Jan. 2, 1910, had a particularly bad day. She was in a room adjoining her own, upstairs in the Casino. She had been there for some time, drinking.
At 10 p.m. that night, she walked into her own room, where a young man with whom she lived was present. She opened a bureau drawer and took out a revolver, a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson.
Saying, “Nobody cares for me; I’m going to leave them all behind,” she put the gun to her chest, pulled the trigger, and fell to the floor.
Help was immediately summoned and Birdie was taken to the hospital, where Dr. Hammond was called and in an hour he had brought her back to consciousness. The .38 slug had passed into her breast close to her heart, severing an artery and exiting under her left arm. The wound was obviously very painful. Birdie passed a fairly good night, then commenced to suffer. Her chances for recovery were thought to be even money.
Quite apart from her profession, Kelly was well thought of in Tonopah. As the Tonopah Sun put it, “She is spoken of as one of the squarest women in a business way in the lower end and her word is good at the stores. She seldom uses profane language and, when sober, is ladylike at all times.”
Suicide, it seems, had not been only recently on her mind. Approximately eight months earlier, she had entered into a suicide pact with a woman named Stella Campbell, presumably also an employee at the Casino known as “Brick,” Campbell took antiseptic tablets and died several days later in the Miners’ Hospital. But Birdie lacked the courage to go through with it as agreed.
Yet, she had brooded over the idea ever since and had made several half-hearted attempts to exit this world. About a month before, she had turned on the gas in an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Three days after she shot herself, Birdie Kelly’s chances for survival, according to a report in the Tonopah Daily Bonanza, were improving rapidly, and unless complications were to set in, she would be fully recovered in a short time.
But there is more to the story. It seems that while Birdie Kelly was working at the Casino, she became acquainted with a 28-year-old man named Walter Decker.
Decker had been an employee of the Nye and Ormsby County Bank for three years. He had many friends in Tonopah and was at one time engaged to be married to a Tonopah girl.
But he met and fell in love with Birdie. And apparently he was unable to get her off his mind. When the bank where he worked closed, he returned to his home in Carson City where his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister resided.
In the meantime, Birdie Kelly had recovered sufficiently to be released from the hospital in Tonopah. On January 11, she traveled to Oakland, Calif., accompanied by a sister, who had come to Tonopah for that purpose.
It turns out that Kelly’s real name was Berde Specht, residing at 1007 Harrison Street in Oakland.
Back in Carson City, Walter Decker’s affections for Birdie persisted, but she just wasn’t interested in him. He tracked her down in Oakland with the intention of killing her.
On March 26, 1910, Walter Decker shot himself twice, in the temple and behind the ear, in Harrison Park in Oakland. Apparently he had intended to take Birdie with him.
At the site of his suicide, Decker left an unmailed letter addressed to Berde Specht, saying, “You can be thankful that you are in the land of the living today. The night we went to the city, I intended to end it all and take you with me, but my plans were foiled by you giving me the slip. However, I will bid you a fond farewell. Goodbye, as ever, Yours, Walter.”
The police, of course, questioned Birdie. She was located based on the letter that Decker had written. She made the following statement: “I knew Walter Decker in Tonopah. We met the other day but I had not seen him since Tuesday when we went across the bay together. His actions at the time appeared strange, and becoming afraid, I left him at the first opportunity. I did not know that he intended to commit suicide and cannot believe that it was because he loved me. I was formerly married but separated from my husband several years ago.”
Walter Decker’s remains were taken to Carson City for burial. He had departed Carson for Oakland on March 3. At the time, he possessed $180.
But apparently Decker was short of money, of which his family was unaware. Pawn tickets on his body showed that he had obtained $27.50 on a gold watch and $2.75 on a pair of cuff links.
On March 29, 1910, the Tonopah Daily Bonanza ran an article headlined, “SPURNED BY WIDOW, NEVADAN KILLS HIMSELF.” Then in smaller letters, “OAKLAND PAPER GIVES BRIEF ACCOUNT OF DECKER’S SUICIDE.”
Quoting from the Oakland Tribune, the item in the Tonopah paper stated, “Spurned by a dashing young widow, to whom he has been paying attentions for some time past, and despondent over a shortage of funds, Walter Decker, son of a wealthy brewer of Carson City, Nevada, shot himself in Harrison Square last evening, within full view of the house of the object of his affections, Miss Berde Specht.”
The remains of Walter Decker were transported from San Francisco to Carson City, where a large number of the deceased’s friends escorted the body to the home of his parents, where his funeral was held.
No information regarding what became of Berde Specht, a.k.a. Birdie Kelly, is available at this time.
I intended to end it all and take you with me, but my plans were foiled by you giving me the slip.”