Jerome sits quietly on the steep slope of Cleopatra Hill, a quaint little tourist town with a population holding at around 500 souls. Highway 89A snakes its way down the hill in a series of switch backs, the streets lined with galleries and gift shops, charming cafes and restaurants, B & B’s in the restored homes of miners and merchants. Most days in Jerome, the views across to red rock country are long and breathtaking. The enchanting vistas make it all the more difficult to imagine the valley shrouded in haze, the hill denuded of any greenery by the smelter smoke, and buildings, one stacked upon another, covering the Hill from Deception Gulch across to Daisy Town. Fifteen thousand people called Jerome home in its heyday, with beds rented by the shift, and many a miner’s life a rotation from the tunnels and open pit to the saloons and bawdyhouses.
There were, of course, many decent folk living here, but women pursuing the world’s oldest profession have been a part of Jerome’s history from its earliest days as a copper camp. The cribs and brothels, just a stone’s throw from Main Street or a brief stroll through “Husband’s Alley,” Jerome’s notorious red-light district openly operated until the early 1940s.
One of Jerome’s famous “ladies of the night,” Sammie Dean was a stunningly beautiful woman with the classic good looks of a Greta Garbo or Carol Lombard. One glance at her photograph and it’s no mystery why men were so easily enamored with her, or that those men included the sons of top officials in Jerome. Just who strangled this beautiful soiled dove and why, remains a mystery to this day.
Seventy-five years after Sammie Dean’s lifeless body was discovered in one of Jerome’s upscale bordellos, a jury will finally hear the facts of the case and determine the guilty party. That is, a mock jury comprised of participants in Jerome’s annual Ghost Walk sponsored by the Jerome Historical Society. Combining performance art and audience participation, a cast of local players has teamed up with writer/director Jody Drake and performers from the Blue Rose Theater in Prescott, for a night of “reality history.” The last days of Sammie Dean’s life will be played out in skits on the streets of Jerome’s historic red-light district, ending with a performance that takes the audience to the night she died, including a re-enactment of the murder. Borrowing the New York Sun’s declaration, “Jerome, the Wickedest City In America,” as a theme for the event, the tour includes Husband’s Alley, accessing the Cribs, and the Back Cat and Cuban Queen brothels, both in close proximity to Sammie Dean’s home.
Passing from place to place, ghost walk participants will hear the clues gleamed from the inquest conducted in 1931. Why did one of the men involved with Dean abruptly leave town the day after her murder? Why did a witness from a neighboring brothel report she saw a man walking into Dean’s home only change her story later, claiming she was unable to identify him? What were the mayor’s son, as well as the son of the local sheriff – both having a relationship with Dean prior to her death – questioned about? And why was the inquest brought to a close without anyone being charged?
“Organizing the ghost walk is the best part of my job,” claims Rochelle Garcia, office manager for the Historical Society. An unfortunate flood at Spook Hall led to a fortuitous discovery. Many of the Society’s archives were stored at the Hall and attempts to salvage the old records required a close look at all the archived material. The long forgotten folder about Sammie Dean, including a copy of the inquest into her brutal slaying, was newly discovered.
“Her murder was never solved,“ Garcia explains, “but there were people who probably knew exactly what happened.” She is mischievously closed mouthed about the exact location of Dean’s home, something of a mystery since the “big slide” when much of the red-light district slid down the hill. Nor is Garcia forthcoming about who is included on the Society’s list of prime suspects.
However, everybody on the ghost walk gets to weigh in on this who-done-it by jury ballot at the conclusion of the tour. The final vote will be reported in the next issue of the Jerome Historical Society’s “Chronicle.”
The 2006 Ghost Walk will be held on Saturday, October 7th with three walks scheduled. Entertainment will be provided by Ken and Lynn Mikell in the shell of the Bartlett Hotel, giving ghost walk participants the extra bonus of an inside view of this historic ruin on Jerome’s Main Street. Due to the mature content of this event, the Ghost Walk is not recommended for youth under the age of 16 years.
The Jerome Historical Society has been preserving the community’s rich, and sometimes raw, history since the mines closed in 1953. Watching as Phelps Dodge began to dismantle buildings across town, a group of concerned citizens, in what was then a dwindling population, formed the Society and began purchasing structures for as little as pennies on the dollar. Hopeful to create a tourist destination, the Society owned much of Jerome at that time. Once known as the biggest ghost town in Arizona, Jerome survived desperate times to emerge as the tourist destination envisioned by those founding members of the Historical Society.
For more information on the 2006 Annual Guided Ghost Tour, visit the Gateway Events Calendar. And watch for Part 2: The Sammie Dean Murder Mystery, in October.
Article and photographs by Terree Duncan.