BUTTE, Mont. — Ruby Garrett ran the last brothel standing in this mining town’s once-lively red-light district with a reputation for kindness toward her girls, but the grandmotherly figure was also a husband-shooting, tax-evading madam who once said that prostitution should be considered a commodity.
The first time Garrett went to prison, it was for shooting her husband five times in the middle of a card game in 1959. She killed him, she said, because he had abused her repeatedly.
She went to prison again in 1982 for failing to report her earnings. While she was investigated, the sheriff padlocked the doors of the Dumas Hotel in late 1981, marking the end of the brothel that had catered to the miners in the Montana boomtown since 1890.
Butte’s last madam died Saturday at Crest Nursing Home at the age of 94, the Duggan-Dolan Mortuary confirmed Tuesday. The cause of her death was not immediately known.
Garrett, also known as Lee Arrigoni, told the Montana Standard in 1991 that prostitution should be considered a commodity instead of being morally wrong.
“If you don’t think it’s morally wrong, then it’s kind of fun,” she told the Butte newspaper.
The ex-madam, then in her mid-70s, even had advice for the next generation of women: “These little chippies who will do it for a burger and a beer, I say they might as well sell it.”
People who knew Garrett in her later years remembered a kind person who looked out for the women who worked at the Dumas. Ellen Crain, director of the Butte-Silver Bow Archives, said Garrett was a savvy businesswoman who felt strongly about treating the women well and took pride in keeping the brothel clean and orderly.
“She was truly one of the last living legends in Butte, from the end of Butte’s famed red light district,” said Chris Fisk, a Butte High School history teacher who met Garrett two years ago.
Former Sheriff Bob Butorovich, who shut down the brothel, said prostitution became a fact of life in Butte with so many young, single miners. He said Garrett never held a grudge against him for closing down her establishment.
“She was a wonderful old gal,” he said. “Part of Butte history is gone.”
She lived in the little town of Divide, south of Butte, and her friends and neighbors were protective of her. The day before she began her six-month prison term in 1982, they threw her a party at the Melrose Bar.
Les Baldwin, one of those who turned out to bid her farewell, told an Associated Press reporter at the party: “I think it’s a crime that a fine woman like this is sent to prison. I’ve done more things wrong than this woman.”
Garrett was acquitted of a first-degree murder charge for shooting common-law husband Andy Arrigoni but served nine months for the shooting on a manslaughter conviction. Garrett had said that he beat her, and Crain said she was a domestic-violence victim.
“She was beaten so bad that day that when she walked in that Board of Trade to shoot him, they couldn’t recognize her,” Crain said.
Garrett pleaded guilty in 1982 to failing to failing to pay $51,670 in federal taxes from 1975 to 1978. She received a six-month sentence and was fined $10,000, which she said she paid with a loan from a friend.
Garrett had refused to sell the Dumas unless it could be used as a brothel, news reports said at the time. It’s now a tourist attraction in Uptown Butte.
Garrett made no apologies for what she did, but she told the Montana Standard that she would have made some different decisions if she could do it over again. She was raised a Catholic, sang in the church choir and prayed regularly, she said.
“I don’t think I would have become a nun or a Sister, but I would have done some things different,” Garrett told the newspaper.