Montana Blues

Great-grandmother Marie would not leave this world without her hat

Marie Gonzallis,

ca. 1890
Marie Gonzallis, ca. 1890

Last we heard from great-grandmother Marie, she was running a whorehouse in Billings, Mont. She hanged herself, Daddy said, because she was losing her looks.

Two photographs of Marie survive. In one she's still young, maybe early twenties, a high forehead and full mouth, her hair piled on her head according to the Victorian fashion. The other photo shows her presumably not long before her death at age forty-two. She looks a little puffy.

In both pictures, what's most interesting is not her appearance but her dress. She was a handsome woman certainly, but she wore a high collar like a Sunday school teacher, when she was, in fact, a madam. "In the business," my father told us. Father was also in the business, briefly. Everybody on my father's side of the family was in the same business, and that business was profitable in direct proportion to its illegality. You may wonder what my feelings are about Marie now that we, her descendants, are all contributing members of society, living within the law. It seems to me that her commercial relationships with men were Marie's private affair. Her personal relationships with men were, on the other hand, a matter of public record.

Her last name at death was Gonzallis. That we know of, there wasn't any Spanish in Marie. Apparently she got the name because she married a Mexican fellow after her first husband, my great-grandfather, was killed down near College Station. Great-grandfather died an outlaw, but before he was killed, he made my family's first tentative steps out of slavery into mainstream American business life, in the manner of millions of other newcomers to society – by crime. He and Marie traveled at least part of the way together.

Marie Gonzallis (according to the state of Texas, where she was born and mostly resided) was "colored" in official documents, and a nigger for all other purposes. Didn't hang herself, either. Daddy was all wrong about that. She poisoned herself. Don't times change? Today a woman who's not satisfied with her looks can use cosmetics, injections, facials, even take bee pollen, to solve real or imagined problems. Go to the club, go to the gym, do time at a fat farm, have elective surgery, whatever.

But that winter of 1908, Marie Gonzallis had fewer treatment options. She chose an overdose of morphine.

A Cold Business

The inquest took place in Helena, capital of Montana.

You'll be surprised how thorough family research can be, especially when there's a suicide involved. You always wonder what drives a person to go all the way, and how close you yourself are to being there. Psychiatrists say that most people kill themselves over money problems, which is the same reason a lot of marriages break up, but that wasn't true with Marie. Location plays a big role, it seems to me, as does weather. The middle of winter, when Marie took her life. A lot of black people, it should be noted, aren't at their best in cold weather.

As to Marie's location, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Montana graduated from Indian territory to statehood about twenty years before Marie had her fatal stay in Helena.

Gold played a part in the transformation, but the gold played out – too expensive to dig – and Montana became part of the copper kingdom of the Anaconda Co. That's how another family, the legendary Hearsts, got their money.

Remember the scene in Citizen Kane when the boy is taken from his idyllic, snowbound, impoverished childhood, to collect his millionaire inheritance? In real life that was little Willie Hearst being told he owned Montana. An anaconda is a big snake, a boa constrictor – Britannica also informed me – and so was the company, being to copper what Microsoft is to software, what Airbus is to airplanes, what Colombia and Peru are to coke.

Billings, Mont., where Marie lived the last years of her life, is surrounded by ranchland. Nearby, Col. Custer had his final disagreement with the Sioux. Helena, where Marie actually died, is – also according to the encyclopedia – "near the Missouri River, at the eastern foot of the Continental Divide, in Prickly Pear Valley, a fertile region surrounded by rolling hills and lofty mountains." She was not there for the scenery. The rolling hills and lofty mountains were only a backdrop to the real business at hand: separating the miners from their wages.

A Life and a History

The transcript of the inquest is fairly entertaining. It's like daytime television – except it's true; hopefully, less rehearsed.

At the time of her death, Marie Gonzallis was described as "Creole." Montana wasn't the South, but certain rules still applied. If she wanted a drink, for instance, she had to go to the back door of the saloon, or buy liquor to take home. Marie's color allowed her, however, to fade some marginal heat, because the issues were different in Montana than in Texas. Reading the state's history you get the idea that after Little Big Horn whites were worried less about black people, more about the Sioux.

In Billings, Marie Gonzallis had already cut the Mexican loose – or been cut loose by him. She took up with a white guy, a barber by trade, named Bert Peterson.

They met at a saloon. Marie was a drinker, and he was a part-time barkeep: love at first sight. They lived together for a few days, Bert would testify at the inquest, "as man and wife," a polite way of saying they were shacked up.

Daddy told us Marie's lover was German. It turns out Bert was of Swedish stock, from Superior, Wis. The assumption that he had German blood was an understandable error, since the part of Texas my family comes from was Teutonic in many respects. (Until the Civil War, German immigrants in the American South were just about the only white people who didn't want to exploit blacks. The Germans who initially came over in the mid-1800s had refused to be serfs in Europe, and they didn't want to be slaveholders in Texas. After the Civil War, however, their descendants got behind Jim Crow in a big way, especially around Fredericksburg, in Gillespie County – where the word "nigger" can occasionally still be heard in its original meaning. The same was true around Brenham, in Washington County, where my family comes from.)

Swedish or German, apparently this bartender/barber Peterson quickly got enough of Marie. Perhaps she really was "losing her looks," and she felt some kind of desperation that goes along with that. Her looks were her living – there was no Social Security at the time, no safety net other than charity. Bert's testimony was that she got too possessive, and he did what men do when they think a woman is holding on too tight. He ran, to Helena. My great-grandmother followed. Of course she wasn't great-grandmother then. She was just a woman chasing her own heart.

Nothing but the Blues

On Feb. 9, a Saturday, Marie was visiting a friend's house, apparently also a brothel. (In the polite dialect of the time, "a sporting house.") She had just seen Bert for the last time.

Marie tried to take Bert's trunk to the Helena train station, to help him catch the train back to Billings. She just failed to first ask Bert's permission. It seems he had other ideas. He was planning on staying in Helena, and Marie was kept away from the trunk by a pair of his other lady friends. The affair was over. Marie Gonzallis was the only person who didn't know it.

At the inquest the next day, the authorities began by investigating Marie's death as a possible murder, with Bert the prime suspect. Marie's friends were asked if she had ever mentioned any intention to take her own life. The only intention she had voiced up to that point, they responded, was to kill him.

Questioning was by Lewis and Clark County Attorney Heywood (first name unknown). Grammatically, the transcript is rough around the edges, but the meaning is clear enough.

The first witness:

Q. What is your name?

A. Gussie Davis.

Q. Where do you live?

Marie Gonzallis, ca. 1908
Marie Gonzallis, ca. 1908

A. 123 Clore St.

Q. Were you acquainted with the deceased Marie Gonzallis?

A. Yes sir.

Q. How long have you known her?

A. Just a short while about three months.

Q. Did you know her when she came to Helena?

A. Yes sir.

Q. Do you know what day she came to Helena?

A. She came to my house Wednesday morning from Billings and I asked her what she was doing here and she said she came in search of her man.

That was Marie's first mistake. Bert wasn't her man – or if he was, he didn't wanna be anymore. From her early photo, Marie doesn't look to be the type of woman to drag a lover back to bed. Maybe it's the high collar, the schoolteacher look.

Her second mistake was booze, even though liquor had first brought the lovers together.

Her last mistake would be morphine. In fact, testimony would reveal, she had already made that particular error. Earlier in the day she had sent someone to the druggist across the way, where no prescription was needed.

She apparently ordered full-strength Dr. Feelgood. She took just a little too much.

On the evening in question, Marie arrived at Gussie Davis' house at about twenty minutes to six. The train had already left for Billings and Bert wasn't on it. Neither, sadly, was Marie.

Miss Davis continues:

Q. What was her condition at the time with reference to being intoxicated?

A. She came in and said she was drunk, but I did not pay any attention to her and told her to be seated, she went into the dining room and she said I am awful drunk and staggered, and then she started out and I thought she went into the girls house next door, and after a little Chocky the man that works for me was going to get some coal and he went to go through the room and stumbled against her and I turned on the light and she was laying on the floor and he and Miss Bell helped me to pick her up and put her on the bed.

Q. Who is Chocky?

A. An old colored fellow.

Q. Is he present here?

A. I don't think so I haven't seen him. We picked her up and put her on the bed and one of the girls got some water and bathed her face and we used some ammonia and we shook her and asked her what was the matter and she said I did drink too much didn't I and then she told us to take her hat off and I told her she did not have one on.

Q. Did she come in without a hat?

A. No sir she had a hat and it was on the floor and the girls picked it up and took off her diamond ring.

Certainly was considerate of the girls to take off that diamond. Maybe they wanted to get a better look at her fingers, which were turning blue.

A little later, after an ambulance was called, the girls relieved Marie of the weight of twenty dollars, too.

You can be sure, though, being reunited with her hat meant more to Marie than the ring on her finger, or even that hard-earned twenty. My family, you see, has always been very concerned about decorum. end story

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autobiography, Marie Gonzallis, Billings Montana, Bert Peterson, Gussie Davis

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