County Historian: Quaint Victorian Actually a Whorehouse

The Foster Family in front of their new Nevada City home.
The Foster Family in front of their new Nevada City home.

Nevada City, CA — When the Foster family was relocating to Nevada City from Fremont, CA, they wanted to make sure that they purchased a house with character. Jim and Daphne Foster and their three children wanted a house with history. And according to local historian Dan Braggart, they “got just that: a whorehouse.”

“The real estate agent said nothing about the specifics of our new house,” said Mr. Foster in front of his Nevada Street home. “She just said it had an interesting past. And that it was hooked up to city water and sewer.”

According to Mr. Braggart, the current Foster home housed one of Nevada City’s most popular and controversial whorehouses this side of the Mississippi River. In its heyday in the 1860s, the house was run by famous madame Josephine “Chicago Joe” Hensley, who later relocated to Montana.

At the age of 23, the perky, curly-haired girl established Nevada City’s first house of ill-repute in a hastily built log cabin, which burned to the ground in 1861. It was immediately replaced by a  large Victorian home in 1863. Providing a full orchestra as additional entertainment for her customers, Henley’s business was an immediate success among her customers, who soon dubbed her “Chicago Joe.”

Josephine "Chicago Joe" Hensley. Source: Library of Congress
Josephine “Chicago Joe” Hensley. Source: Library of Congress

“Joe was a force in the Nevada City scene,” noted Mr. Braggart. “She wielded a lot of silent power due to her understandings of what went on in the home. She was tough and quiet, and no one messed with her. However as time when on, there was an outcry from religious leaders to clean up the town and move all whorehouses 5 miles outside the city limits. Joe didn’t like this idea, so she moved operations to Helena, Montana in 1872 where no one would bother her.”

Despite the home’s checkered past, the Fosters are happy with their new abode.

“We love our new home,” continued Mr. Foster gesturing back towards the home. “We would have bought it even if we knew its history. However, it wasn’t the kind of history we were looking for. Not sure we’re keen on sharing the house’s history with anyone. We’ll probably just tell everyone it has an interesting past.”

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