- Historic Sites
Mrs. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
Miriam Follin had a penchant for diamonds, the demimonde, and the dramatic. She also possessed the business acumen to become one of America’s leading publishers in the nineteenth century
October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
As they travelled the artists in the retinue made sketches for the readers of the Illustrated Newspaper , sketches that today provide a valuable record of the nineteenth-century West. Mrs. Leslie kept notes on the trip; later she turrted them into a book full of intriguing glimpses of the developing frontier—and her reactions to it. She declared Cheyenne a “fresh and vigorous experience,” with its rough-clad men, its well-stocked jewelry shops, and McDaniels Theatre, a painted, frescoed playhouse where one could drink, gamble, or watch what the proprietor insisted on calling a “great moral show.” The party was impressed with Denver’s roads. Mrs. Leslie declared them as hard and dry as the drives of Central Park. The group was enchanted with Colorado scenery, from the misshapen sandstone towers of the Garden of the Gods to the lofty eminence of Pike’s Peak.
But what most fascinated Mrs. Leslie were the Mormons, and more particularly their polygamy. One of Brigham Young’s multiple wives had recently—and noisily—left his fold, so Mormon marriage habits were in the forefront of many American minds. But Mrs. Leslie was especially interested, perhaps because of her personal history, and she made inquiries about polygamy to practically every person she encountered in Utah. Finally her persistence carried her to Brigham Young himself.
As Mrs. Leslie reported it, Young started out the interview perfunctorily enough with comments on the weather, to which she countered, “Do you suppose, Mr. President, that I came all the way to Salt Lake City to hear it was a fine day?”
“I’m sure you need not, my dear,” Mrs. Leslie reported the seventy-sixyear-old Young’s response, “for it must be fine weather wherever you are.”
Although she herself had shared a home with two men, Mrs. Leslie simply could not understand how women could share a husband. Didn’t they compete with one another? she wanted to know. Didn’t they “use every effort of mind, body, and soul to attract and retain his love, admiration, and attention?”
Polygamy required a certain type of woman, Young replied, according to Mrs. Leslie’s report, a type of woman far different from herself. “Fortunately,” the Lion of the Lord is supposed to have said, “there are not many of [your] mind among us.”
San Francisco appealed to Mrs. Leslie’s love for both the splendid and the bohemian. She and her husband stayed at the Palace Hotel (in a suite lately occupied by Emperor Dom Pedro), and they went through the opium dens of Chinatown. Their California stay included a visit to Senator Sharon’s Belmont estate, dinner at Governor Stanford’s palatial home, and a tour of Yosemite.
After the most elegant of California civilization and the most awesome of its natural wonders, the mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, where the party stopped on the way back, was a great disappointment. It was an arid, dusty place, Mrs. Leslie reported, with forty-nine gambling saloons and one church. “To call a place dreary, desolate, homeless, uncomfortable, and wicked is a good deal,” she wrote, “but to call it God forsaken is a good deal more, and in a tolerably large experience of this world’s wonders, we never found a place better deserving the title than Virginia City.”
But the disappointment of Virginia City was nothing compared to what awaited the Leslies back in New York. Almost as soon as they returned, their publishing empire began collapsing in financial ruin. Their personal extravagance accounted for many of the huge debts, but Leslie was professionally extravagant too. He was given to starting new periodicals at the drop of a hat. Miriam Leslie said she hated for him to come down to breakfast because she never knew when he might announce a new one. He had probably also overinvested in staff and equipment, and an accounting showed him to be more than three hundred thousand dollars in debt. His property was assigned, and Leslie was given three years to satisfy his creditors.
Added to this misfortune was a blow delivered by the citizens of Virginia City, Nevada. Outraged at Mrs. Leslie’s account of their town in the book she wrote about the California trip, they set out to gain revenge by printing the full history of her life. “Our Female Slanderer,” read the headlines in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise , “A Life Drama of Crime and Licentiousness.” So detailed was the account of Mrs. Leslie and the jeweler’s clerk, Lola Montez, and the congressman, so bitter the story of the ménage à trois , that it was clear Squier had penetrated the clouds of his madness long enough to tell a few tales on his ex-wife.