The Madame of Bismarck: Little Casino

The Madame of Bismarck: Little Casino

After passing away, Elizabeth McClelland would be buried in an unmarked grave, where she would remain for nearly three quarters of a century, until a group of citizens from Wilton, recognizing Elizabeth as an early pioneer, sought to erect a gravestone for her. (Dustin White photo)

After passing away, Elizabeth McClelland would be buried in an unmarked grave, where she would remain for nearly three quarters of a century, until a group of citizens from Wilton, recognizing Elizabeth as an early pioneer, sought to erect a gravestone for her. (Dustin White photo)

Dustin White

When David and Mary Jenkins boarded a ship in Wales, looking to start a new life in the United States, little did they know the impact their children would have on a small community in what would become North Dakota.

The couple would arrive in New York in the early part of the 1800s. Settling in Oneida County, David would support his growing family as a farmer.

The two would eventually have at least four children; two sons, David and James, as well as two daughters, Elizabeth, and a sister who’s name has been lost, but was possibly Mary. Two of the children, James and Elizabeth, would be born close together, with only about a year separating their births. That closeness would follow them throughout the rest of their lives.

In 1861, the nation would completely change. The South broke from the Union, and over the next four years, three quarters of a million people would perish. For the Jenkins family, their two sons would join the fight.

David would eventually be assigned to the infantry, and sent out west. He would settle in North Dakota, after a short stay at Fort Rice. James would see action closer to home. Enlisting in 1863, James would bounce around a bit, but eventually would land in Company A, of the 16th Regiment, N.Y. Heavy Artillery.

The Way out West
After the war ended, Elizabeth and James would work their way west, and eventually join their brother David in Dakota Territory. Both would take different routes though.

James would initially settle in Kent, Michigan, getting married, and having at least one child, Ira O. Jenkins.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, traveled to Brainerd, Minnesota, where she would begin to establish her career. However, her stay would be short lived. In 1873, the city of Brainerd, in an attempt to rid themselves of their “soiled doves,” enacted an ordinance that would suppress “houses of ill-fame” and punish those who ran such establishments. For Elizabeth, it was a message to leave; she had worn out her welcome.

That same year, as the railroad reached the banks of the Missouri at Bismarck (or what was then known as Edwinton), Elizabeth, and a companion, would arrive in the wickedest city in the west. Stepping off the train, she would begin to make plans for setting up her own shop, a brothel, in the heart of the city.

Little Casino
Arriving in Bismarck, Elizabeth would quickly make a name for herself. While she would receive mail as both Ida Lewis and Elizabeth McClellan (sometimes spelt with a d at the end), she would largely be known as Little Casino. The name became her calling card, with the two of spades, being referred to as the little casino in the game of casino, being her trademark.

Elizabeth would have this sign placed over her house, while she carried the deuce of spades card in her purse, to display when needed, in order to advertise her business. And business was good, with Bismarck being the end of the tracks, a steamboat landing, a jumping off point for the Black Hills, and having the Seventh Cavalry just stationed across the river, it was an ideal place for Elizabeth to open up shop.

The first few years in Bismarck were quiet for Elizabeth. As a true business woman though, she quickly made a few wise investments, by buying up dozens of lots in the city. While a few parcels of her property would be developed on, the most impressive would be the building she built at 701 Front Avenue, where the current Bismarck Tribune building now sits.

Situated just across from the railroad tracks, construction on the building would finish in the fall of 1877. To celebrate its opening, Elizabeth held a ball, that became the talk of the town.

Soon, Elizabeth’s brothel would become the premier emporium of its kind in town. The reputation of her establishment was furthered enhanced by her acquisition of the first piano in the city.

Many who frequented her bordello would take a part of it home with them. Muleskinners and bullwhackers, driving freight in and out of town, prized the tassels from her window curtains, using them as adornments for the lead animals of their pack trains. Elizabeth would end up having to replace her curtains many times.

While the opening of her new establishment on Front Avenue would be a great accomplishment for Elizabeth, it didn’t come without a number of problems.

With the city having passed an ordinance in regards to houses of ill-fame in 1875, a shift began to occur in Bismarck. That ordinance would cause Elizabeth, who was said to run the “the toniest bawdy house” in the city, as well as 10 other persons, to be indicted by the grand jury.

Ten of those indicted would plead not guilty, pay a $300 bond, and had their cases continued. Elizabeth, showing her savvy, plead guilty, paid the $100 fine, accepted the receipt for it, and went back to her home and business.

An Early Pioneer
Through running such a successful establishment, Elizabeth would position herself as a pillar of the community.

In 1879, when the First National Bank was founded, Elizabeth was among the early stockholders, and would remain such for many years. And when leaders of Bismarck came together, working on a bid to make the city the capital of Dakota Territory, she was said to have unofficially given, as her name does not appear on the list of donors, $1,200 to the cause. When asked if that wasn’t a lot of money for her, she simply looked around the room and said that she saw much more from where that came from.

Bismarck became Elizabeth’s home, and it appeared that she truly loved the community. While she would work to help accomplish large goals of the city, she was also interested in helping those who were down on their luck. It would be said that her largest fault appeared to be her generosity. While she would make a lot of money, through helping others, as well as having expensive tastes, she would also spend a lot.

In order to give back to the community wisely, Elizabeth would end up working with Reverend I.O. Sloan, a Presbyterian Minister, giving him money in order that he could use it to help the needy through his church. However, if she knew of a family, or child that was in need, she would do what she could to help their situation.