A wealthy West Coast madam known from San Francisco to Victoria at the turn of the 20th century, Stella Carroll was strong, beautiful and a force to be reckoned with. A successful businesswoman in an era of men, Stella’s finest brothel was Rockwood, a luxurious operation on the outskirts of Victoria. Her life, as described here by Victoria researcher and author Linda J. Eversol, was one of scandal, intrigue and, above all, love.
Stella Carroll carefully sorted through her jewelry, searching for just the right piece to wear. She enjoyed inspecting her impressive and strikingly large diamonds. They glittered and sparkled but they also represented her investments, her security and her achievements.
She loved to adorn herself with them and now decided to fix her favourite, a starburst diamond brooch, in her lustrous auburn hair. Its beauty would be lost against the ivory colour of her dress but would stand out in her elaborate coiffure. As she readied herself for the late-night hours that her business demanded, she took a final glance in the mirror.
This was her finest brothel and her image as madam set the tone. Her dress was handmade lace from Ireland and fit her buxom form beautifully. The undergarments that created her shape were painfully restrictive but helped to keep her posture straight and stately, commanding good behaviour and exuding class. This was no downtown two-dollar house: That was made abundantly clear by the mere fact of her regal presence.
She had spent countless hours redecorating Rockwood. Her fastidious attention to detail had fashioned public rooms, such as her two parlours, that rivalled and indeed surpassed any of the better houses in town. Everything was top quality and spotless.
Oriental rugs graced the floors, topped with soft leather armchairs for the men and low upholstered stools and small chairs for her girls. She had her new cylinder phonograph and the piano for entertainment, and on each polished wood surface there was an arrangement of fresh flowers. The windows were shaded with velvet drapes and inner hangings of lace-trimmed sheers.
The books and statuary she had bought on her trip to Europe were placed strategically around the main parlour. The leather and wood gave a masculine “private club” air to the room, while the flowers and lace spoke to the enticing promise of the females who were the main attraction.
Stella glowed with pride as she wandered into one of the parlours, her five little dogs trotting along behind the train of her dress. It was at times like this that memories of the sod house would arise — the earth that constantly trickled down the walls, the muddy puddles on the floor after a rain, the dark. She shuddered: never again.
Stella Carroll was essentially a businesswoman — shrewd, clear-headed (except when it came to love) and experienced enough to know there would always be tough times for her high-risk trade. Yet it seemed that her recent difficulties were behind her, and she was certain that 1911 could prove to be her best year so far. True, there were many who thought she was finished, particularly since her “accident,” but she would show them all she would not be forced out. She must hold steady to her course and in time everything would settle down.
With Rockwood, on the outskirts of Victoria, she had finally achieved her goal of a luxurious, high-class operation that attracted the elite of the city. She was well on her way to achieving the status held by Tessie Wall and Jessie Hayman in San Francisco. Despite setbacks, not the least of which was having her left leg amputated, she now owned two successful brothels — the other, on Herald Street, was downtown — several pieces of real estate and, of course, her diamonds.
Stella’s business acumen had served her well when she chose this house for her country establishment. As with most real estate, its value was in the location, and for a brothel to appeal to a certain type of clientele it needed attributes other than the obvious ones of beautiful women, good food and liquor. Chief among these was easy and discreet accessibility.
Although Rockwood was away from the centre of the city, it was well sited for a number of reasons, the most important being its proximity to the waterway known as “the Gorge” and the newly developed park that followed its shoreline. There was a decent road for cars and carriages, the park had a tramway system, and canoes could be rented to paddle up the winding channel.
This house was special to her, not only as her upscale brothel — or, as she preferred to think of it, parlour house — but also as her home. It was large and spacious, befitting its original purpose as a family home. Designed by a prominent Victoria architect, John Teague, it was well built and the equal of the other grand houses nearby.
The area, once home to a few small farms, had recently developed as a desirable residential neighbourhood and several of the city’s wealthy citizens were buying up land for their country estates. Rockwood was one of the finest. It sat prominently on a hill and its tower could be seen from the other side of the Gorge. At the back of the house a long walkway of sapling-lined steps, with a railing on either side, descended through the garden to the private dock, providing an inconspicuous entrance for anyone arriving by water.
Stella was naïve, however, to have thought that the neighbours would welcome or even tolerate her, particularly as they included the current premier, Richard McBride. It was not as if they had to watch men going in and out; the house was well away from the road, down a long private drive. People just did not like her there, flaunting her activities on their very doorsteps, despite the fact that some of them were profiting from her presence.
Excerpted from Stella: Unrepentant Madam, TouchWood Editions ©2005 Linda J. Eversole