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Mildred Cusey — madam entrepreneur

By C. A. Gustafson

Last updated on Saturday, January 11, 2003

Young Millie (left) as a Harvey Girl in Deming
Photo courtesy Peggy Wright
Young Millie (left)
 
"All the faults of humanity are more pardonable than the means to conceal them."  — Rochefoucauld, French philanthropist (1747 - 1827)
 
 
The history of humanity is a long and complex one. When stripped of all the manifold facts and figures, it really comes down to two key fundamentals: food and sex. Food sustains the living, while sex insures the continuity of that living.

Mildred Cusey spent most of her life engaged in the professional aspects of both basics. She was early caterer for the former and later entrepreneur of the latter.

Mildred was born February 28, 1906, in Kentucky. She was orphaned at age twelve, her parents reportedly victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.

When her older sister (by four years) contracted tuberculosis, the girls headed west to Deming, New Mexico. There the sister was admitted to the Holy Cross Sanatorium, located on the western edge or the Camp Cody site. Millie, although underage, was hired as a Harvey Girl, allegedly by a woman who attended the same Catholic Church. When the Harvey House transferred her to Needles, the hot climate prompted her to quit.

In Silver City, Mildred was working in a brothel when the town marshall ordered her from the house because she was underage. Millie later said, "I told him I would come back, buy the whole block and run it to suit myself." And she did just that!

Early work as a waitress led to the more lucrative profession as a "lady of the night." Mildred was not destined nor desirous to remain one of the girls; her aspirations were to have her own house and be its madam.

In the early 1930s, Millie made good the prophecy she pronounced to the Marshall. She purchased three houses in the 500 block of Hudson Street in Silver City: 500, 506 and 514. The most famous was the McComas home at 514. In 1883, Judge McComas, with his wife and young son (age six), were traveling to the Lordsburg area from Silver City when they were attacked by a band of Apaches. Both parents were brutally murdered and the boy was taken captive. It was a much-publicized tragedy at the time.

Mildred returned to Deming in the late 1930s to purchase the bordello on the north side of town. It was located in the 500 block of San Carlos. Thelma Austin, the former owner, stayed on to run the house. As Millie was wont to do, she would purchase a going business, leave someone in charge, then venture forth to seek another opportunity.

The Deming house was reportedly haunted. The new owner decided to spend some time there to appraise the situation. She concluded the nearby trains were causing the house to vibrate, thus causing small items to fall.

Bathing Beauty Photo courtesy Peggy Wright
Bathing Beauty
The brothel was referred to, among other things, as the "pest house." This label appears to have been attached some years before when Deming underwent a smallpox epidemic. The infectious disease first appeared in December 1916. Dr. P. M. Steed began a program of free vaccination, voluntary to most but forcefully to the reticent. With the hospital full, Steed and the law evicted the madam and her girls from the bawdy house. The building was fumigated and set up as a temporary hospital. About 250 people contracted smallpox and 50 died. When the epidemic was over, the house was returned to the madam and she was compensated for its use.

In an interview, with the late Dr. George O'Sullivan in 1990, the conversation drifted back to his early days of practice in Deming. He was familiar with the "pest house," as he referred to it. The doctor was the house physician from 1939 to 1941. His duties were to examine the girls every ten days per state law. He remarked, "That was an education."

O'Sullivan continued, "Someone should write a book about those (houses), because they were very important in the social and political life of the territory and the state."

Asked if his being house physician was a political appointment, Dr. O'Sullivan laughed and replied, "Oh no. It was very informal. The girls had something to do with it. They voted or something.

"The woman who owned it was Mrs. Cusey from Silver City. No one here knew much about her. Most everyone thought Thelma Austin owned the house. Mrs. Cusey told me she owned it and Thelma was her housekeeper, not in the sense that she went around with a broom keeping house. She ran the house."

Regarding Mildred, the doctor continued, "She came down to Deming every night and checked the receipts. She was very active in business, in charities, and put lots of kids through college. She was a remarkable woman."

In regard to the regular examinations he gave the girls, O'Sullivan said, "There was very little disease. In fact, I never saw a case."

He described the "pest house" as a big old square building. Millie sold the house to some African-Americans in the late 1940s. They staffed the establishment with African-American girls and did very well for awhile, but eventually they ran out of girls.

Millie at age 81, <BR>in 1987 <BR>Photo courtesy <BR>Peggy Wright
Millie at age 81, in 1987
Mildred's early love life is rather obscure. She is said to have been courted by a sheriff of Lincoln County. His name was Brady and he was a descendant of the sheriff that Billy the Kid was charged with killing in 1878. It was serious enough that Brady presented Millie with a new Buick. In later life, she favored Chryslers and owned a number of them. Early on, she was briefly married to a Bernay and a Clark.

Her most lasting marital commitment was to Wendel Cusey, a rancher and contractor. They tied the knot about 1950 and remained husband and wife until Wendel died in 1991. Mildred said, "I never lied to him about what I did and I guess that is how come we got along so good."

Millie was protective of the girls who worked for her. She would not tolerate drugs or drinking. Her little cats, as she called them, were required to take regular examinations as a precaution against venereal disease. The girls never handled the money, a measure to prevent them from being beaten and robbed. Mildred collected board and a percentage of the earnings from the girls.

One new girl, named Birdie, came to work in new high heel shoes. Newcomers were usually assigned the most distant rooms from the reception area. That night Birdie made house history by turning 91 tricks.

The following morning Millie asked her, "Aren't you tired?"

"No," replied Birdie, "But my feet hurt!"

Mildred was an entrepreneur by nature. When still in her late twenties, she was running six houses: three in Silver City, one in Deming, one in Lordsburg, one in Laramie, Wyoming. At various times, her holdings included: a ranch, parking lot, taxi stand, bars, restaurants and various minor houses. The core of her domain, however, remained in the 500 block of Silver's Hudson Street.

It was her usual practice to lease her houses or employ a landlady. An incident in 1951 prompted authorities to insist that Millie personally manage her houses or be closed down. After a business deal went sour, a man named Bowker went gunning for Mildred. Failing to find her at 514 Hudson, he ended up wounding a house client with his Smith and Wesson and taking one of the girls as hostage in his car. Unfortunately for Marie, she was abducted in her working attire: au naturel - and this was January.

Bowker was quickly captured and the girl returned to the warmth of indoors. In March, he pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to three years. The kidnapping charge was dropped.

In 1968, Police Chief Tommy Ryan closed down Millie's houses in Silver City. The city council held an open hearing. Charges and countercharges were exchanged. Cusey claimed that Ryan had been paid $4,000 cash and granted in-house privileges over the years.

One attorney described Mildred's house as "Silver City's most famous and most cherished institution."

The hearing proved inconclusive, but Mildred Cusey was indicted by the grand jury. She took the case to the state supreme court, where she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a fine. Millie's houses were torn down and replaced by the new post office.

Mildred held a tag sale in August 1978. Thousands of items from her famous bordellos had been stored in a Bayard warehouse. There were probably more visitors there to see the famed madam as there were buyers of memorabilia. Millie opened one old dresser drawer and discovered a set of false teeth, upper plate. She said, "Some man left in a hurry, wouldn't you say?"

Mildred was a charitable woman. Former Silver City Mayor Ernie Brown said, "Mildred was always giving to the needy. She was the most sincere and giving person I ever met."

The legendary madam lived life in the fast lane, and expressed no regrets about anything she did. She said, "You either do things for love or money. I sure didn't do what I did for love." In regard to prostitution, Millie was in favor of its being legalized and thought this move was inevitable. "It is an honest life, without hypocrisy or pretense."

Mildred Cusey left this earthly existence on November 8, 1993, a legendary figure with a legion of friends. A fitting epitaph might be words of her own choosing, "I've had a ball."

Appreciation is erpressed to Susan Berry of the Silver City Museum for material furnished, and to Peggy Wright of Pinos Altos for pictures and material pertinent to the Deming operation.

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