A Woman to Be Reckoned With: Fannie French, Madam of Miles City and Billings

[An excerpt from the book Montana Madams (Farcountry Press, 2016) by NANN PARRETT]

When she was just 16 years old, Fannie Hendrix—known today as Fannie French—got a job as an army scrubwoman at Fort Keogh. She was a biracial beauty, with her mother hailing from England and her father from New York. Like many women who washed uniforms for soldiers by day, she worked evenings tending to the desires of those men for a price, and she eventually collected a big enough coffer to quit her job at the compound and purchase a house in Miles City, on the south side of Main between Sixth and Seventh, where she discreetly managed a bordello. Her parlor came to be known as “Fanny French’s Negro House,” catering to darker-skinned clientele, namely soldiers and railroad men.

Fannie was a sharp woman—she could read and write and had strong business acumen. As her enterprise grew, so did her house to accommodate, and by 1882, she opened a new parlor on Bridge street, which boasted a ballroom with a piano, 11 bedrooms, and a “yellow-skinned” woman to work each one. She was even able to purchase her own livery and, as an expert horsewoman, enjoyed riding out on the range in her free time.

In late November of 1885, Fannie was indicted for “lewd and boisterous behavior while running a house of ill fame.” But she didn’t take her $300 fine and three-month jail sentence sitting down. Appealing all the way to the Montana Supreme Court, Fannie contended that a reputation for running a whorehouse is not grounds for conviction: one has to have evidence that a person is running a whorehose. She did not win her case; however, the court removed the jail sentence, and the madam had officially established herself as a force to be reckoned with in Miles City.

About eight years later, Fannie French was to become the first person formally tried for a criminal case in Custer county. In the early morning hours of January 11, 1892, a client by the name of Jeremiah Majors got into an altercation with one of Fannie’s ladies. The young woman was his favorite of the house, but Fannie had already promised her to another client. Majors had a fit and proceeded to grab the woman by the hand, to pull her forcibly upstairs while elbowing Fannie to get by. Quick to react, Fannie grabbed a leather strap that lay on a nearby chair. She whipped Majors to unconsciousness. When in court, she claimed to be defending herself and her property “against the threat of force and mayhem.” Instead of sentencing her for assault, she got off on a misdimeanor. Apparently, she had close ties with several of the jurors. Ater an original vote of ten to acquit and two to convict, after much deliberation, jurors agreed on a compormise. Fannie went home without having to serve time, but was required to pay a $50 fine.

Throughout the years she had given birth to three children—Birdie, Nora, and Charles—but they were not reported to have been hanging around their mother’s place of business. The Yellowstone Journal did report in 1894 that her daughter Birdie Astle was the first resident of the city to be sent to reform school.

Fannie ran her brothel in Miles City for 20 years before moving on to Billings to live out the remainder of her life. According to the 1900 Billings census, she was running a house right in the heart of the red light district. She died of dropsy in June of 1901. Her daughter Nona came to Billings to tend to her mother’s remains.

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