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Fannie Porter- The most iconic “Madame” of the Old West

Ian Harvey

At the turn of the 20th century, San Antonio, Texas had one of the most popular tourist attractions around. It was called the “sporting district” but was, in fact, the red light district.

There were so many saloons, brothels, and roadhouses that a guide was published. “This Directory of the Sporting District is intended to be an accurate guide to those who are seeking a good time,” stated the twenty-five cent booklet.

Fannie Porter
Fannie Porter  Photo Credit

One of the most popular brothels was owned by Fannie Porter, a native of England who came to the United States with her parents as a baby. She began working as a prostitute when she was fifteen, and by the age of twenty, she owned her own brothel.

By the end of the 1900s, her establishment was one of the most visited in the west. She employed young women, usually five to eight at a time. The 1900 Federal Census shows Porter as head of the household for a boarding house at the age of 27.

Her Home in 1900 was San Antonio Ward 2, Bexar, Texas, Race: White, Gender: Female, Immigration Year: 1874, Relation to Head of House: Head, Marital Status: Widowed, Father’s Birthplace: England, Mother’s Birthplace: England, Occupation: Boarding house.

Members of household: Maud Smith  Age: 21 Boarder,  Annie Williams Age: 22 Boarder, Daisy Turner Age: 24 Boarder and Thora Armstrong  Age: 19 Boarder.

Porter’s “boarding house” was luxurious with fine glass fixtures, plush carpeting, silk sheets and lace curtains.

Painting by William Hogarth
Painting by William Hogarth

She frequently served champagne and fine food to her special customers, who included Butch Cassidy and his famous Hole in the Wall Gang, and Kid Curry and the Wild Bunch. Porter chose the most beautiful girls and insisted upon good manners, cleanliness, and only the best personal appearance. She always looked out for her “boarders” and if one had a bad experience, the offending customer was dismissed and unable to return.

Porter frequently concealed outlaws from authorities, but oddly enough her home was also popular with lawmakers such as William Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

Known for her discretion and excellent manners, she was respected everywhere. Porter is said to have remarked that Pinkerton treated her “like a lady”. One of her “boarders”, Della Moore, began a serious relationship with Harvey Logan-aka Kid Curry. Another, Etta Place, is rumored to have met Harry Longabaugh –aka The Sundance Kid, through Porter. A female member of the Wild Bunch, Laura Bullion, may have also worked for Porter at the turn of the century.

By the time Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had escaped to South America in 1901, after being the guests of honor at a going away party hosted by Porter, the public began to frown upon openly operating brothels.


The WIld Bunch
The Wild Bunch Photo Credit

It was about that time that Porter closed her house on the corner of Durango and South San Saba Streets. In 1914 it was sold to the Carmelite Sisters of Divine Charity and operated as a day care center. The property is now home to the Girls & Boys Town of San Antonio.

No one knows what became of Fannie Porter. Some say she retired as a wealthy woman and lived in seclusion for the rest of her life, while others believe she married a wealthy man. Some say she returned to England.

It is also believed by some that she was killed in an automobile accident in El Paso, Texas in 1940.

There are no records to substantiate any of these claims, however, and Fannie Porter has faded away into one of the many legends that surround the Old West in America.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News