Historical Details

Dell Burke

Courtesy of The Lusk Herald, 10/21/2015

Famous or infamous, Burke was an entrepreneur

Information obtained from the Niobrara County Library archives.

The Wild West is cloaked in Cowboys and Indians, wagon trains and outlaws, gun shoot-outs and saloons. Roustabouts, 'soiled doves', train and stage robbers all for which the long arm of the law dared to intervene. Together, each piece became part of the legend; a fear, if you will, that stopped many a pioneer from venturing too far West.

But where some dared not go, others couldn't get there fast enough. Money was to be made in the West and in Wyoming be it by silver, gold, copper, the oil field, or other excursions. There was enough opportunity to draw out all kinds of people and bring them to the Lusk area, including those who were looked at crooked, though were still respected all the same just for having the gumption to go after what they wanted. Dell Burke was one of these folks - a woman who got and did exactly what she wanted.

Dell Burke was born July 5, 1888 in Sommerset, Ohio as Mary Ada Fisher. Dell Burke wasn't the only name Mary would take throughout her life and in her career.

By the time Mary was seventeen her family, which moved around frequently, was living in North Dakota close to the Canadian border. Here, Mary took up with and married Stephen J. Law with whom she then moved in with. Living with the newlyweds was also Law's sister; where both siblings were Canadian, Law often boasted that Canadian women were far superior to American women, including his wife.

After less than a year Mary had decided that marriage and the domesticated lifestyle was not for her. Packing her bags and leaving behind her husband, house, and family Mary fled to Canada where she took the name Marie and began her career as a 'soiled dove'.

Marie's life took her all around the world. A beautiful young woman, many men tried to show her affections outside of her career however she knew what she wanted and when they became too attached she would up and leave to the next location. Marie went from Canada to Alaska, she spent some time in Montana and other states before following the oil boom and the men, to Wyoming.

It was in Wyoming that Marie took her last known name of Dell Burke. With the oil boom she made home in Casper, Wyoming at the Sandbar District. Around this time prohibition was beginning and Casper officials soon began cracking down on alcohol and prostitution so, again Dell fled this time staying in Wyoming and just moving down the road to the oil boom in Lance Creek, where, at the time, the population had reached 10,000 plus.

Dell set up camp with Bessie Housley, a friend of the same profession she had made along the way. That was in 1919, by 1920 they had purchased the Yellow Hotel which sat across from the train depot (in Lusk). With the population booming and their client list growing, more girls joined them.

Clients of the Yellow Hotel were served the best food, and even in the midst of the prohibition, alcohol with nights ending in a room upstairs. Because of what her business offered and the nature of her profession, Dell was often visited by the law for which these visits stopped after she threatened to shut down the town's electricity. Lusk, having borrowed money from her for a transformer, had yet to pay her back.

Though Dell led a life that most deemed unfit, she held herself to high standards. While she may not have been liked around town she was highly respected; her name appeared at the top of every charity list (she was a major contributor in the monument for Mother Featherlegs), she is credited with sending a number of people to college for higher education, and always she gave money where and when it was needed. She was overly giving to her friends and those that were close to her, spending time in the country, traveling and indulging in the pleasures of life. She was also a true confidant. Due to her profession, she was often a listening ear hearing important tidbits of information from just as important men. Her client list and their secrets though she kept extremely tight lipped about and her girls were told to do the same.

Just as she upheld herself it was in the same manner she upheld her hotel. She and her girls were always clean and classy with an in house doctor always on staff. She advertised in a classy manner, going with norms at the time which were placing billboards on the roadside.

Whenever a new girl joined her hotel she sent her girls to walk her dog through town. Her girls never spoke in public unless spoken to and they were always dressed appropriately for the occasion.

When Sundays came she closed the doors of the Yellow Hotel so that men would be at church rather than at her establishment.

Dell lived a prominent life. A 'soiled dove' yes, she was also an extremely smart entrepreneur who had invested wisely in certain stocks and oil so that when the Great Depression and the stock market crashed she sat just fine atop her hotel. Dell worked hard to earn money and to make her money work for her.

Dell ran the Yellow Hotel for six decades, finally closing the doors in the early 1980's. By the time she herself was in her early 90's she had fallen just outside her hotel and broken a hip. From then until she passed away she lived in the hospital in Lusk. At the time of her passing she was aged 91-93 years old and her estate was worth over (at the time) one million dollars.

Years later her estate and pieces of her life would be auctioned off on the Yellow Hotel porch steps. People came from all over the world, after which the hotel was left in it's dilapidated empty state. In 2012 the building was burnt down due to the structural damage throughout the years.

Pictures courtesy of Loraine Fisher, published in "Frontier Madam" by June Willson Read.

Images & Attachments

Fisher Family in Ohio (circa 1885). From l to r: Mary Ada, Almeda (Mother), John (Father), Herb, Charlie, and Burl.
A young Dell Burke.
Marie and Stephen J. Law, circa 1905.
Dell circa 1920
Dell (circa 1920)
Dell circa 1940

Related/Linked Records

Record Type Name
Obituary Burke, Dell (07/05/1888 - 11/04/1980) View Record
Business Hotels: Yellow Hotel View Record
Historical Quilt Squares - Dell's Yellow Hotel View Record