Belle Le Van cut away the rough edges of life on the frontier to shine as a successful business woman.
The mining town of Tombstone became one of the best-known places in the American West during Arizona’s territorial days thanks to a 30-second standup gunfight near the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881. Its 19th-century reputation for lawlessness and violence was enhanced during the 1950s when the United States was thirsty for the romance of the Old West and couldn’t seem to get enough tales of trigger-happy sheriffs, bloody stagecoach holdups, noisy saloons, crooked card games and, yes, violent shootouts.
But there was another side of life in Tombstone beyond its 30 seconds of fame, and all of it was reported day in and day out in the pages of the Tombstone Epitaph. Serving a population of roughly 5,000, the newspaper focused on the accomplishments of citizens such as Isabella Crowley Le Van, a prime mover on the local social scene. Thanks to this socialite and others like her, Tombstone was transformed into a bright spot in the Arizona desert. Just as regularly, Belle, as her neighbors knew her, was one of the newspaper’s valued advertisers. More than a century before women became widely accepted in the business world, she ran a business of her own in Tombstone and was highly successful at it.
Belle—who was born in Pennsylvania on February 12, 1850, but didn’t talk much about her early days in the East—needed the Epitaph as an effective platform to promote her dressmaking and real estate ventures and later her hotel business. For its part, the paper eagerly reported on her social life, not only because she was an advertiser but also because she represented the kind of people who raised the quality of life to a higher level than was generally expected of Western boomtowns. The Epitaph’s own future depended on convincing mining executives and private investors in the coastal cities that, occasional shootouts notwithstanding, Tombstone was a place with a cultured society that would welcome their families while offering them a potential for great wealth. Thanks to its reports on Belle’s active life, the paper also was able to reassure its local readers that it was just as interested in community life as successes in the mining business. As it happened, Belle was a relatively late arrival in Tombstone, and considering the path she took, it’s a wonder she got there at all.
THE LONG ROAD TO TOMBSTONE
In 1879, when she was running a boarding house in Sacramento, Calif., Belle Crowley had no idea where her life might lead. She may not have even wondered about it.
She had fond memories of the Christmas Eve wedding in Sacramento 10 years earlier when her name was changed from Isabella Augusta Herriott and she became the 19-year old bride of James Francis Crowley. James worked as a managing clerk for the George W. Chesley Company, an importer and dealer in fine groceries, wines and liquors, and a distributor to most of the Western states and territories. The Crowleys’ future prospects couldn’t have been brighter, and they moved into a large two-story house in Sacramento to make the promise of a good life even better.
Their dream of a family to fill the big house started coming true in April 1871 when a daughter, May Elizabeth, was born. Another girl, Alice Marie, joined the family in July 1872; then twin girls, Frances Maria and Helena Philemon, arrived in January 1875. As often happened to young couples in those days, heartache struck when 9-month-old Alice died of pneumonia in the spring of 1873. Belle’s grief was compounded less than two years later when she was widowed 35 days before the birth of her twin daughters. James was a 32-year-old victim of tuberculosis, which 19th-century doctors called “consumption.”
Tragedy struck the family once again when one of the twins, Frances, died six days after she was born. Devastated, Belle buried her beloved husband and their babies in the Crowley family plot at the Sacramento City Cemetery. Then she went to work to get on with her own life. She still had two little girls to support, the surviving twin, Helena, who was called Lena, and her older sister, May. Even though Belle had family and friends in Sacramento and Oakland, Calif., she was on her own. She did have an asset in her nice home, and she decided to convert it into a boarding house. It was just three blocks from Sacramento’s business center as well as the busy loading docks on the Sacramento River, and she had a full house almost every night from the beginning. In remodeling the place, she had left room for herself and the girls to have some privacy, so the arrangement was about as good as it could be. But Belle longed for something more.
A freighter named Ham Light, short for Charles Hamilton Light, often boarded at the Crowley house while his wagons were being loaded with equipment bound for the silver mines around Tombstone, and according to Belle’s daughters, it was he who talked their mother into moving there. But she couldn’t have been in the dark about the opportunities Tombstone had to offer. It was common knowledge everywhere in the West that the silver strike there was easily a rival of the one in Silver City, Nev.—even bigger, some said—and it was a topic of conversation night after night around Belle’s dinner table. She knew, even without Ham Light’s firsthand knowledge, that the new settlement could mean a fresh start for her and her young family.
At the time, Belle was 29 years old, quite attractive and very intelligent, and she realized that Tombstone was still too rough and wild for a genteel lady like herself, certainly not a good environment for little May and Lena. She decided to wait Tombstone out until she felt the time was right to make a move to Arizona Territory.
Belle sold the Sacramento house sometime in 1879 and moved to San Francisco, where her late husband’s family lived, and took a job at the fashionable Lace House of San Francisco. It was one of three Lace Houses that specialized in fabricating the latest fashions, the other two being in New York and Paris. The company imported fine lace and made high-end men’s and women’s garments, as well as its specialty, lace parasols. Belle would hone her dressmaking skills for her new profession and learn to run her own shop. She contracted with E. Butterick & Co. of New York to become an agent and distribute its printed clothing patterns, sewing supplies and the very popular women’s magazine, The Delineator.
While Belle was working, she placed her oldest daughter May at the Mission Dolores Girl’s Day School, and Lena stayed home with Grandmother Crowley. Belle and her daughters became baptized Roman Catholics at San Francisco’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.
During the spring of 1881, Belle decided it was time to make the bigger move; in her judgment Tombstone had calmed down enough by then, and she was ready to go. She left the girls behind with their grandparents and set out for Arizona Territory, where they would join her after she found a place to live and rented space for her dressmaking and sewing supply business. She moved into the Cosmopolitan Hotel and leased a shop space on Fremont Street in the east end of town. She then sent word to San Francisco to have her machine, her supplies and her personal belongings shipped to her new address.
The women of Tombstone welcomed Belle with open arms as a professional dressmaker, which they all agreed the town badly needed. She found a warm welcome socially, too. Many of her San Francisco friends had arrived ahead of her, so she wasn’t a total stranger in this drab and dusty little desert town.
NEW LIFE IN THE ARIZONA DESERT
On June 22, 1881, shortly after Belle arrived and established her new business, a devastating fire leveled Tombstone’s business district, including the building where she had set up her shop. Belle Crowley didn’t let that setback stop her. The very next day, an ad appeared in the Epitaph announcing that she had relocated to a new space and that she had acquired a partner, Miss Retta J. Bush. The move was to 306 Fremont St. (three blocks west of Belle’s original location), a rental building originally owned by William Harwood, Tombstone’s first mayor. The building was 10 feet wide by 20 feet deep and had two furnished rooms. Belle probably used that building to temporarily store inventory and supplies that she salvaged from the fire as she advertised 306 Fremont Street for lease a few days later and moved her business once again, this time to 118 Fourth St.
Harwood’s building was located next to the vacant lot where the gunfight pitting the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday against the Clantons and McLaurys would take place four months later. Buck (Camillas Sidney) and Mollie Fly’s photography studio was located at the opposite side of the vacant lot to the east. Belle’s friend Ham Light was lodging across the street at the Aztec Hotel. From his room there, Light would witness the famous October shootout.
The dressmakers’ advertised their new Fourth Street location in the June 27, 1881, Epitaph:
B.A. CROWLEY & R.J. BUSH
FASHIONABLE CLOAK AND DRESSMAKING
MRS. CROWLEY LATE OF THE LACE HOUSE OF SAN FRANCISCO
THE MOST ARTISTIC AND SKILLFUL WORK EXECUTED WITH PROMPTNESS AND AT THE LOWEST RATES
118 FOURTH STREET OPPOSITE P.W. SMITH, TOMBSTONE, A.T.
At the time of the street fight, the Crowley and Bush dressmaking establishment was quite likely filled with local ladies getting ready for the coming holidays. That shop had not only Belle and Retta as dressmakers but also seamstresses, cutters, a Singer Sewing Machine Company agent and a milliner, Mrs. Frary. Men might still be shooting each other elsewhere in town, but that didn’t stop the ladies of Tombstone from wanting to look good in civilized society.
A NEW LEASE ON LIFE
Shortly after her arrival in Tombstone, while Belle was establishing herself in her new surroundings, Ham Light introduced her to a local man named William Allen. Billy, as he was known around Tombstone, was originally from upstate New York, where his two children still lived with their late mother’s parents. A witness to the so-called Gunfight at the O.K. Corral that October, Billy testified on November 1 at the Spicer Hearing. He was part owner of the Occidental Saloon, but in the fall he sold his interest to finance a two-story building on Allen Street opposite the new Bird Cage Theater. By that point, he and Belle seem to have fallen in love, and they decided to get married. It was at that time that Billy revealed to Belle his real name, William Allen Le Van (not to be confused with the William Allen who shot Doc Holliday in Leadville, Colo., in 1884).
Although she had found a new love interest, Belle’s interest in Tombstone social life didn’t slow down. Accounts of her activities in the Epitaph provide a glimpse not only of her life but also of the lives of other Tombstone socialites:
[August 13, 1881] Mr. & Mrs. Glover, Mrs. & Miss Colby, and Mrs. Crowley leave today for Burton’s Hotel at Camp Huachuca where they will have an enjoyable time, without a doubt, for the office of the post, as well as the genial host and hostess spare no effort to make everything comfortable. More of the people of Tombstone should avail themselves of the change and comforts to be found at that beautiful spot.
[September 15, 1881] A very pleasant social party was given on Tuesday evening at the residence of Mr. Hixon [sic], on Second and Bruce Streets, in honor of Mrs. Belle Crowley’s birthday. Those participating had a very enjoyable time.
[December 31, 1881] Mrs. J.P. Rafferty and daughter and Mrs. Crowley will receive callers on New Year’s Day (Sunday) from 1–10 PM, #633 Allen Street.
Belle’s delightful presence was always good copy, and the Epitaph social columnist seemed to enjoy picking her out of a crowd to set the tone for the reporting. It was no coincidence that Belle and the society reporter frequented the same gatherings. They were both keys to the success of black-tie galas, the ladies’ afternoon domino parties and all the other notable social occasions in-between. Belle helped organize these events, and the Epitaph was usually on hand to cover them. For instance, here’s the report on a May 13, 1882, event:
The necktie party [sic] held last night in Schieffelin Hall for the benefit of the Catholic Church was largely attended, and resulted in much money being collected for a good cause. The hall was filled with couples that followed the mazy figures of the dance until early morning. The party was truly a perfect success, and credit is entirely due to the Catholic ladies of Tombstone, who have labored for days in perfecting arrangements. Mrs. Crowley and Miss Mugan were indefatigable in waiting upon the refreshment tables, and their wit and laughter constituted one of the main sources of attraction. This was one of the most pleasant reunions of the year.
Belle got on with her busy life as a dressmaker and sewing supply retailer, and Billy Le Van was busy, too. His new building was ready for leasing in March 1882. Disaster struck Tombstone again in late May when a fierce fire leveled another part of the business district. Billy’s building narrowly escaped the flames, but the town’s best boarding houses and hotels, including the Grand and the Cosmopolitan, were reduced to ashes. It seems likely that Belle had been living in one of those hotels or at least nearby, because two days later, she and Billy Le Van headed out to the little town of Benson, where a well-known local priest, Father P.J. Gallagher, married them. Although they had decided to get married months earlier, the date was set rather suddenly, possibly because Belle had been burned out of her home and needed a place to live. At any rate, the Epitaph was pleased as everyone else when she sent over her wedding announcement. The newspaper reported on June 2, 1882:
A note received at this office last evening, with the compliments of the bride, announced the marriage of Mr. William A. Le Van to Mrs. Isabella Crowley. Accompanying the information was a couple of bottles of sparkling krug in which the Epitaph drinks health, long life and abundant happiness to the happy pair. May the smiles of fortune brighten their paths through life and may the roses of prosperity wear them a perennial bloom.
The happy couple and Belle’s daughters then moved into an upstairs apartment in the Le Van building. Within weeks, Belle had supervised the modification of the rest of the second floor to create rooms for boarders and travelers. It was called the Le Van House, and although Billy identified himself as its proprietor, it was Belle who actually ran the place. The Epitaph noted on June 20, “Mrs. Le Van has some handsome furnished and unfurnished rooms for rent on Allen street, up-stairs. They are pleasantly situated.”
Later that year, another special event was held in Tombstone, giving local ladies and gents a chance to get gussied up and have a good time raising money for what everyone agreed was a great cause, a benefit for Civil War veterans. Reporting on the benefit on December 2, 1892, the Epitaph described the attire of many elegantly dressed ladies in attendance, and again at the top of the list was Belle in one of her finest gowns:
Great Dance Ball at Schieffelin Hall for the Grand Army of the Republic. Mrs. Le Van was elegantly attired in black brocaded velvet, with satin corsage cut high, finished with white lace and tea roses, hair in coil and crimps; ornaments, steel and amethysts.
MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE
On July 7, 1882, Billy deeded the Le Van House over to his wife. The transfer included the phrase “in consideration of love and affection.” It sounded romantic, to be sure, but actually it was a common ploy among the era’s businessmen who speculated in risky ventures and needed to shelter their private property from creditors. In this case, though, old creditors from Billy’s bachelor days didn’t back off. He had used the hotel as collateral for a large loan, and when he defaulted on it, he was threatened with foreclosure. There hadn’t been any liens against the hotel before the transfer, and it isn’t known whether Belle knew about her husband’s failed transaction beforehand. One thing was certain, her hotel was in jeopardy, and Belle Le Van had no intention of losing it without a fight.
It was highly unusual in that place and time for any woman to defend herself in court, even more unusual to dominate the proceedings. But Belle Le Van was an unusual woman. She humbled herself before the judge, something Billy had never thought of doing, and asked for permission to renegotiate the loan. Possibly even to their own surprise, the plaintiffs agreed. The creditor was the San Francisco investment company Sroufe & McCrum, which also owned the temporarily vacant Bird Cage Theater. More than likely, Belle realized that the last thing the company needed was another vacant property in Tombstone, and it made good business sense for those men to cooperate with her and put aside their misgivings about doing business with a woman.
Then Belle gave Tombstone something else to think about. She filed a “Declaration of Sole Tradership” with the Cochise County authorities. Their approval reassured her creditors that she was the sole owner of the Le Van House. Her husband just happened to live there, and he was in no way involved in the business. Belle’s request was granted because of the good business reputation she had built up in Tombstone, but it must have raised some eyebrows when it was. A dressmaking business was one thing, but running a hotel put her into a whole new category. She was taking a historic plunge into a man’s world that was considered off limits to women.
The document that made it official was published as a legal notice in the local newspapers around September 1, 1883. It read in part:
Legal—DECLARATION OF MRS. BELLE LE VAN, a married woman, of her rights to carry on and conduct and transact business, under her own name and on her own account. Know all men by these presents that “I, Belle A. Le Van, wife of William A. Le Van, resident of the City of Tombstone, County of Cochise, in the Territory of Arizona, entitled ‘Of the rights of married women,’ do hereby declare that it is my intention to carry on business in my own name and on my own account from this date; that the nature of the business in which I intend to engage, carry on and conduct, in my own name, is the business of keeping a boarding and lodging house and furnished rooms, and buying and selling and dealing in real and personal property in the City of Tombstone and the County of Cochise, Arizona Territory. [Signed] Belle A. Le Van.” [Her sworn statement followed] I, Belle A. Le Van, do solemnly swear that the above and foregoing declarations of my intention to carry on business in my own name and on my own account, and the business I intend to engage in, is made in good faith and for the purpose of enabling me to support myself and minor children dependent on me for their support; that said declaration is not made with a view or intent to hinder, or defraud any creditors of my said husband, William A. Le Van, and that the amount invested in said business is less than five-thousand dollars. [Signed] Belle A. Le Van.
At a time when women were generally regarded as second-class citizens, her bold move must have been an embarrassment for Belle, but with great audacity she made the decision of a self-assured level-headed businessperson.
Her boldness and business sense proved to be quite reliable and saved her hotel. The suit was dismissed and the loan renegotiated. For his part, Billy must have had mixed emotions over the turn of events. It was a good thing that the hotel had been saved, but it showed his failure, in front of the entire town, to provide for his family. He had tried very hard to build a reputation as a reliable businessman in Tombstone, even if he had made some bad decisions along the way. Like his wife, Billy was affable and well liked in the community. He was active in several local organizations and even sometimes elected to official posts in them. The Epitaph showed the community’s regard for the Le Vans in stories such as this one, from January 4, 1884:
Miss Lena Le Van celebrated her ninth birthday by giving a party to her many young friends at the residence of her parents at the Le Van House. A reporter dropped in by accident, and found the little ones having a merry time, as only children can. The Epitaph congratulates the little miss on having reached this milestone in life’s journey, and trusts that each recurring anniversary of her birth may add to her joys as it does her years.
Although the Le Vans lived in the spotlight, some aspects of their lives went unreported. One endearing story comes to us as a personal memory of May Le Van’s in her later years: “Lena and I would go out on the balcony and lay down on our stomachs to try to peer through the doors of the theater across the way [the infamous Bird Cage] at the dancing girls. Mama would catch us out there and we would be severely scolded.” Business at the Le Van House was usually brisk. The terrible fires of 1881 and ’82 wiped out huge sections of the business district, destroying fine hotels and boarding houses. Some were rebuilt, but there was still a shortage of rooms and a great demand for them; the Occidental and Le Van House were nearly always filled to capacity with weary travelers. The elegant furnishings, its gracious proprietor and its restaurant, highly regarded as Tombstone’s best, set the Le Van House far apart from all the others.
It all came to an end in the early morning hours of June 3, 1884, when the Le Vans’ hotel was reduced to ashes by yet another fire. Thanks to the local fire companies, there were no injuries or deaths, but an important part of Tombstone had vanished. The fire occurred during an already turbulent time for the mining town. When the price of silver plummeted, mine owners cut their losses by reducing miners’ wages, and the men responded by staging a strike that shut down every mine in the district. The Hudson & Company Bank failed, and its depositors lost their savings.
Along with the loss of their business, the hard times forced the Le Vans to leave the town they loved. Over the next few years, they relocated several different times, following Billy’s ambition to strike it rich in other mining towns. He never made the hoped-for killing, and while they were in Calico, Calif., in about 1888, they went their separate ways. An attempt at reconciliation a few years later didn’t work out, but they never divorced. Belle became a graduate surgical nurse in the 1890s, working in California and Hawaii. Fifty-year-old Belle died of liver cancer at the Sisters’ Hospital in Los Angeles on December 5, 1900, and Billy attended her funeral. A longtime resident of Coulterville, Calif., Billy spent the last three years of his life in an assisted-living hospital in Merced, dying there on October 20, 1930, less than two months short of his 91st birthday.
Nevada author Robin L. Andrews’ great-great grandparents on her father’s side were Isabella Augusta Herriott Crowley and James Francis Crowley, Belle’s first husband. Robin thanks researchers Troy Kelley, Nancy Sawyer, Karen Cunningham, Pam Potter and Gary McLelland for their assistance. Suggested reading: Taste of Tombstone: A Hearty Helping of History, by Sherry Monahan; and Tombstone (Images of America), by Jane Eppinga.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.