The “Face Upon the Barroom Floor” is mentioned quite a few times in American folklore, but we may have the face that started it all! Ours may not be the one that later ended up in popular songs and poems, but the face painted on the floor of the Mark Twain Saloon & Casino might just have the most famous subject: beloved courtesan Julia Bulette. The artist was rumored to be none other than the man that they say eventually took her life — a French drifter named John Millian.
Juliette “Julia” Bulette was one of Virginia City’s more colorful, and beloved, figures. Comstock tradition holds that Bulette was a native of England, but recent historical research has discovered that Bulette was born in Mississippi. She found herself in New Orleans by the late 1830s and eventually made her way to California. In the late-1850s she had arrived in Virginia City, following the Comstock silver strike that turned the area into a boomtown.
Jule, or Julia as she became known, was a favorite “accommodating woman” among the mostly single male populace. Described as a beautiful, tall, and slim brunette with dark eyes, she was said to be refined in manner with a humorous, witty personality. She was a friend to the miners who adored her – one having described her as having “caressed Sun Mountain with a gentle touch of splendor”. In 1861, the firefighters made her an honorary member of Virginia Engine Number 1 and elected her Queen of the Independence Day Parade. Since the firefighters of Company 1 were mostly the elite of Virginia City, in spite of her status as a woman of the town, she had achieved a considerable degree of respectability.
On January 19, 1867, Julia Bulette dressed and went to see a performance at Piper’s Opera House. Despite her popularity, “polite” society still made sure she knew her place. As the story goes, when Ms. Bulette refused to sit in the curtained section reserved for women of the red light district, she was escorted out of the theater. The following morning, a neighbor alerted citizens that she had found Julia cruelly murdered in her home on North D Street. The town was shocked by the violent act, and the citizenry demanded a prompt search for the killer.
Julia Bulette’s funeral was held at No. 1’s Engine House the morning of Jan. 21, 1867 with Pastor William Martin giving her eulogy. Her ornate casket was borne from there to her grave that afternoon – but, again, “polite” society kept her at a distance even in death. Julia was buried in a lonely grave a half-mile east of town at Flowery Hill, just beyond St. Mary’s hospital, where she remains in a location lost to time. A simple wooden board with the name “Julia” was left to mark the final resting place of Virginia City’s “Queen of the Red Lights”. Saloons throughout the city were closed as a sign of respect.
JOHN MILLIAN CHARGED WITH MURDER
For several months, there were no leads in the case. Then one of Julia’s old friends, Martha Camp, was attacked by a man who turned out to be John Millian. Millian was arrested and, after items stolen from Julia were found to be in his possession, was charged with her murder. In July 1867, after a one-day trial, Millian was convicted of murder by a district court jury and sentenced to hang. The Frenchman appealed all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court before he finally went to the gallows on April 23, 1868.
A crowd of some 10,000 people turned out to watch the “stupendous hanging” of Millian – just over a year after Julia’s tragic murder. Among the observers was Mark Twain, who had been a reporter for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise from 1861 to 1864 and was back in town as a lecturer at Piper’s Opera House. Twain related the grisly story of the first public hanging in Nevada in a dispatch to the Chicago paper, the Chicago Republican. The noted humorist’s humor was notably absent in this particular tale.
“For John Melanie was no common murderer — else he would have gone free. He was a heartless assassin. A year ago, he secreted himself under the house of a woman of the town who lived alone, and in the dead watches of the night, he entered her room, knocked her senseless with a billet of wood as she slept, and then strangled her with his fingers. He carried off all her money, her watches, and every article of her wearing apparel, and the next day, with quiet effrontery, put some crepe on his arm and walked in her funeral procession.” — Mark Twain, Chicago Republican, “Letter from Mark Twain”, May 31, 1868
Guilt or Innocence?
There have been questions over whether Millian did the dirty deed, over what may have been his motive, and whether his command of English was such that he even understood the courtroom procedures. He was a veteran of the Crimean War and war can do things to a man. Millian himself maintained his innocence to his dying day, vacillating between admitting to being a lookout and saying he was framed. It is always possible that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and had an unrequited love for the Soiled Dove.
It is not hard to believe that a broken and lovesick man whiled away his evenings painting an image in tribute to his murdered lady-love, never knowing that he would be the one to pay the ultimate price for her demise. Or, just maybe, his passions ran away from him. Perhaps it was lust or greed; but guilt, ultimately, may have driven the Frenchman to immortalize Julia on the saloon floor. Whatever, the case, some time in those early Spring months of 1867, it seems a legend was frozen in time and became the “Face Upon the Barroom Floor”.