By Leo Banks
On a snowy night in Prescott in January of 1898, a mysterious woman dropped a baby girl onto the bar of a Whiskey Row saloon and disappeared out the bat-wing doors. The commotion that resulted rocked the town, and its echoes are still felt today.
The story of what happened, told by Edmund Wells in his 1927 book, Argonaut Tales, is a rollicking yarn about hardened miners and cowboys falling under the sway of the cooing waif, then taking rolls of the dice at $10 a pop to see who’d keep her.
According to Wells, the action occurred at Cobweb Hall Saloon on Whiskey Row, and the winner was Charles Hall, a Prescott judge. He named his new baby Chance, and she went through life as Chance Cobweb Hall.
That version has been told in books, journals, and by downtown tour guides for decades. But Wells, a well-known pioneer, 81 when his book was published, got key facts wrong.
The bar was not Cobweb Hall; it was the Cabinet, also located on Whiskey Row. And the judge’s name was Charles Hicks, not Charles Hall. These errors sent writers down blind alleys digging for more facts. But, as so often happens, the truth – recently told in the new Arizona Highways book, Rattlesnake Blues – was just as good.
The Cabinet was crowded with revelers that Monday, the perfect cover for a woman carrying what looked like a bundle of blankets. She wore a veil and worked quickly. Bartender Frank Williams saw that the blankets held a baby, but the woman was out the door before he could stop her.
Prescott’s newspapers called the event the sensation of the season. The Miner said the baby arrived amid a high-stakes faro game, while the "sweet singer that holds sway on the stage at the rear of the saloon" was belting out a song. "All other business was brought to a standstill while the crowd gathered around the bar where the little one had been deposited", the paper reported.
Not less than 40 men argued vehemently over who’d take the child home, reported the Evening Courier. "Several babeless married men almost came to blows over the possession of the little one, while Frank Williams, the genial mixologist, rushed out to get two baby bottles and filled them both with milk.
Precisely how Hicks wound up with the baby is uncertain. The Miner reported the judge decided the question by announcing he’d take her himself. But it’s unlikely that Hicks could prevail simply by declaration.
The Courier’s explanation, equally brief – "Hicks finally captured the cherub and sent it home"- didn’t mention gambling, although it implies she was won in some fashion. But the gambling claim was corroborated by an obscure journal, The Irrigation Age, which published a blurb in February 1898. It said the "judge assured the unsuccessful men that he would invest the $300 he won in the game that evening for the child’s benefit".
The sheriff later arrested William Bell, the father, in Crown King. He was fined $25 for abandonment and sentenced to 25 days.
As for baby Bell, whose real first name was Violet – she moved into a home with two servants, the legal daughter of Charles and Laura Hicks, and eventually, with Wells’ book, into Arizona legend.
In 1972, the magazine Frontier Times – using the name C.C. Hall – told of rumors she was still living in Prescott, under an assumed identity in the shadow of Whiskey Row. But that was false, as was Wells’ claim that she went on to attend Oakland’s Mills College, and was prosperous and happily married. The truth couldn’t have been more different or more tragic. After a good childhood in Prescott, during which she rode horses before she could walk, Violet moved to California and married Arthur Binner, an architectural sculptor. The couple settled in Oakland into a marriage that was initially happy, according to Violet’s son, Chester Binner. But Arthur, an abusive alcoholic, abandoned the family about 1930, leaving Violet alone with four children.
"My mom had a really tough life after dad left", says Chester, born in 1925, a retired metal worker in Grass Valley, California. "She was a good mother before that, but afterward she changed. She was unhappy and bitter. She liked to play the horses, and when she won she took us to the circus, and when she lost, the landlord was pounding on the door. I remember coming home and eating an onion for dinner because there was no food in the house."
Chester said that Violet tracked down her mother, Mary Bell, and visited her periodically in Santa Monica, eventually establishing a good relationship. Remarkably, she also found her father, William Bell, in Alaska.
But in a poignant postscript to Arizona’s most famous saloon story, Violet’s dad rejected her. When she traveled to Alaska to meet him, he turned her away, wanting nothing to do with her – the very same reaction he had at her birth.
Violet Binner, Prescott’s famous baby on the bar, died of a heart attack October 12, 1970, in Redwood City, California. She was 72 years old.
(Leo Banks is a published author on many Arizona topics. His new book, Rattlesnake Blues, is available at the Sharlot Hall Museum Store as well as other bookstores or by mail order through Arizona Highways, 1-800-543-5432.)
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number:(st130p). Reuse only by permission.
The Cabinet Saloon on Whiskey Row sat a few doors down from the Palace as shown in this cropped photo taken in the early 1890′s. This drinking establishment is the real scene of one of Prescott’s most famous stories – the card game for baby CHANCE COBWEB HALL’S future.