Sunday, July 26, 2009

Rosa May

The headstone Louis Serventi made for Rosa, then installed in the wrong place.

Rosa May
Born: January, 1855 (Pennsylvania)
Died: cir 1911 or 1912 (Bodie, California)
Interred: Bodie's "Boot Hill" (Outside the official cemetery's fenced perimeter)
Occupation: Prostitute

A portrait of Rosa c. 1879, when she was 24 years old.

The Mining Camp Legend

Rosa May was born Rosa Elizabeth White to Irish immigrant parents. Her parents were abusive, prompting Rosa to run away in 1871 at the age of 16 to escape from them. She ended up in New York where she started her career as a prostitute. After only a few months in New York she went to work in the mining camp brothels of Colorado and Idaho. By 1873 she was in Virginia City, Nevada, where she worked in Cad Thompson's (real name: Sarah Hagan) brothel at 18 S. D Street, behind where the Bucket of Blood Saloon stands today. Over the following years she occasionally moved to nearby Carson City to work in Mary Ann Phillips' brothel at No. 1 Ormsby Street, but she always returned to Virginia City before much time had passed. Some evidence exists to show she may have also worked in a Reno brothel occasionally during this period.

Rosa was a kind hearted woman who was also quick to get angered and just as quick to settle back down. While she was in Virginia City, in 1877, she met a man named Ernest Marks. Crippled by rheumatism, the alcoholic Ernie became Rosa's lover. Marks' family had come to the U.S. in 1866 when he was 11 years old, settling in Gold Hill, a couple miles south of Virginia City. Ernie was domineering and ill tempered, qualities Rosa had come to find comforting. In the 1880s Ernie moved to Bodie to take over his brother Morris' saloon and his relationship with Rosa ended for a few years.

The 1880 Bodie census showing Morris Marks' occupation as "Liquor Merchant" (line 47).

By the late 1880s to early 1890s the silver was running out and people were leaving Virginia City for better prospects. As an example of the declining conditions, Cad Thompson sold her Virginia City brothel in 1892 for $20, a building she had bought 21 years earlier for $3,200. On February 2, 1893, Mary Ann Phillips died. With her two sources of employment now gone, Rosa moved to Bodie. Like Virginia City, Bodie's heydays were also over by this time, but a new cyanide process for extracting gold kept enough people employed to keep the town alive for several more years.

In Bodie, Rosa rented a small house in the Chinatown red light district (Lot 42 of Block 26) near the jail, a home she eventually bought in June, 1902 from Hugh McCaghren for $175. The deed, recorded on June 14, 1902, was misfiled under her first name instead of her last, and was essentially lost for a half dozen decades until it was found by author George Williams III as he researched his book Rosa May: The Search For A Mining Camp Legend.

Rosa's house, if it still stood, would probably have been visible behind this sign for the euphemistically nicknamed Virgin Alley.

Ernie moved in with her, and he and Rosa resumed their relationship. The 1900 Bodie Township census, recorded on June 6, 1900 by Cecil Burkham, lists her living there and working as a "Seamstress", a common substitute entered on the forms by census takers to indicate a prostitute.

The 1900 Bodie census showing Rosa's occupation as "Seamstress" (line 97).

Rosa died sometime between November 1911 and November 1912. It is commonly believed that Rosa died while valiantly nursing sick miners during a pneumonia epidemic, a belief most likely stemming from Ella Cain's book The Story Of Bodie. Unfortunately, many of the "facts" in that book are incorrect; merely hearsay and exaggerated stories handed down over the years by word of mouth, instead of relying on documents and letters for the true story. Several of the last surviving residents who lived in Bodie during that period of time could not recall any such epidemic ever happening. The story could have some basis in truth, however. That is the type of thing the caring Rosa was likely to do. It is possible there may have only been a small handful of people with the disease, maybe neighbors of hers in Chinatown, and time and legend have stretched the truth until it became "an epidemic". We will probably never know for sure. A death certificate for Rosa has not yet been discovered.

Custom at the time forbad prostitutes from having a Christian burial, so Rosa was placed outside the cemetery fence, away from "respectable" folks. No stone was installed on the spot, but a small wooden crib was built around her grave. Within a few years the crib was torn down or fell apart and eventually the precise location of her grave was lost to time. In the 1960s, after reading a book about Bodie (most likely Ella Cain's), a man from Bishop, California, named Louis Serventi became fascinated with Rosa's life story. He built a crudely made headstone for her and installed it near the cemetery. Not knowing where she was really buried, he simply guessed. He also guessed incorrectly at the year of Rosa's death, carving "1880" into his marker. A photo of this headstone is at the top of this page.

While researching his book (linked to above), George Williams III used a few old pictures of Bodie showing Rosa's small crib by the cemetery fence to determine more precisely where her grave was located, finding it about 150 feet southwest from where Louis Serventi had placed his homemade headstone. George, his wife and a State Park employee rebuilt Rosa's crib on the correct plot. This crib still exists today, though it too has since deteriorated and become dilapidated. There are some people who now believe that the photos George used to determine the correct location were showing someone else's grave, not Rosa's, and that she may not have even been buried in Bodie at all. Without a death certificate we will probably never know for sure.

The real (supposedly) location of Rosa's grave site.

A closer look at the wooden marker Rick O'Brien made for Rosa.

Ernie Marks continued to run his saloon until 1919 when Prohibition forced him to close. He lived in the now closed saloon until his death in 1928. Legend says he was buried next to his lover Rosa, but his death certificate says he was interred in Bodie's Odd Fellows Cemetery, unmarked. I find this curious, since there is no Odd Fellows Cemetery in Bodie -- only Masonic, Miner's Union and Wards.

A few of Rosa's belongings in Bodie's museum, in the old Miner's Union Hall.

Rosa May: The Search For A Mining Camp Legend, by George Williams III (1979)
1880 U.S. census
1900 U.S. census


  1. These stories are pretty cool...makes you wonder what life truly was like. Not "pretty" or simple, for sure! -Diane

  2. Just to clarify...I was intrigued by George Williams book and when I visited Rosa's grave and saw she had no headstone, I decided to make one & put it there myself. If you look at the base of the marker, You'll see MY name...Rick O'Brien,HB. I know that George would not want credit for something he didn't do. He did do a GREAT job on the book and the crib, but the marker was all me.

  3. Thank you very much for the correction, Rick!

  4. I hope Arnold can keep the funding going to keep Bodie going so that "Ill be back!"for another visit.

  5. Bodie would be the LAST park that would be closed. People come from all over the world just to see it. I've been to Bodie at least 20+ times{a couple of times during winter, I was the only person there] and most of the visitors are speaking european... french,german,scandinavian,etc. Some have their touring motorcycles shipped over and spend days exploring the area. If you do this,don't count on Bodie's park rangers for any help. They won't. You have to be totally self reliant. After I crashed my motorcycle & was turned away by the head ranger,I was assisted by a young german couple. They were truly good people. Anyway... Bodie is a magical place that everyone should see once, but when you do, you'll be hooked like me. I'm a lifer.

  6. wonderful book...looking forward to this summer for a visit....enjoy the history of the old west...tough people....who enjoy life despite the hard work and professions some had to indure....but also compassionate people who helped others in times of need....happy to know that they have given us their stories....and take us back in their lives....intense...and vivid.


  7. Rosa E White
    United States Census, 1880
    Name: Rosa E White
    Event Type: Census
    Event Year: 1880
    Event Place: Carson City, Ormsby, Nevada, United States
    Gender: Female
    Age: 27
    Marital Status: Single
    Race: White
    Race (Original): W
    Occupation: Dress Maker
    Relationship to Head of Household: Other
    Relationship to Head of Household (Original): Other
    Birth Year (Estimated): 1853
    Birthplace: Maine, United States
    Father's Birthplace: New Hampshire, United States
    Mother's Birthplace: New Hampshire, United States
    Affiliate Name: The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
    Affiliate Publication Number: T9
    Affiliate Film Number: 0759
    Household Role Gender Age Birthplace
    Jennie Moore Self F 54 Ireland
    Rosa E White Other F 27 Maine, United States
    Pon Gee Other M 30 China
    Lewis Wentworth Other M 65 New Hampshire, United States
    Mary A Phillips Other F 58 Canada
    District: 38 , Sheet Number and Letter: 64D , GS Film Number: 1254759 , Digital Folder Number: 004242042 , Image Number: 00133
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    United States Census, 1880
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    Citing this Record
    "United States Census, 1880," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 14 February 2015), Rosa E White in household of Jennie Moore, Carson City, Ormsby, Nevada, United States; citing enumeration district 38, sheet 64D, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 0759; FHL microfilm 1,254,759.