By Brad Courtney
Last week’s “Days Past” told the legend of Chance Cobweb Hall, which spoke of a Prescott baby abandoned atop a Whiskey Row saloon counter, then gambled for and won by a local judge named Charles Hall. It’s arguably Arizona’s best and most famous saloon story. However, recent research has uncovered significant differences between that oft told romantic tale (which was based on true events) and what actually happened.
This story should rightly be called the saga of Violet “Baby Bell” Hicks. It was January 17, 1898, and indeed a cold, snowy evening when the baby in question was left, not in Cob Web Hall, but in the Cabinet Saloon. The “Cabinet” had been a center of activity along Whiskey Row for a quarter of a century. Activities were in full swing when a “rather comely young woman” walked through the bat-winged doors holding a swaddled baby. An attached note made it clear that this baby was being abandoned and was now homeless. It also identified the father: William Bell.
Saloon stories are often the result of drunken men pulling pistols and shooting at each other. Not this one. The Courier recounted that “a surging mass of brawny men crowded up to get a sight of the little one. . . .” No less than forty of them were so taken with the infant—and undoubtedly inflicted with a benevolence supercharged by whiskey—they volunteered to give it a home. A few married but childless men were ready to fisticuff for the tiny trophy.
Did someone step in and propose that the right to adopt the abandoned child should be won in a gambling game? Although impossible to prove, the likelihood that a gambling game transpired for the cherub is high. Eventually, Charles Hicks, probate judge of Yavapai County, entered the scene. Hicks was not present when the baby was initially left on the Cabinet’s bar, but rather was “sent for.” Why? During this time in territorial history, probate judges handled all adoptions. Was Hicks called because men in the saloon were gambling for the right to adopt “Baby Bell”?
Prescott newspapers did not mention gambling, but when the story was reported outside of town, it became prominent. Regardless, the judge didn’t win the baby by rolling four sixes in a dice game; the probate judge arrived and simply “decided the question by announcing that he would take it himself.” Yet, these outside reports noted that he left the Cabinet Saloon with $300 “for the child’s benefit,” and took it from “the unsuccessful men.” Chances are that at least 30 men were in the process of gambling for the child when the judge walked in and snatched up the baby, and that an act of charity was perpetrated when these men offered the antes and gave it to Hicks to jumpstart the baby’s care.
Eventually, Hicks’ wife, Allie, petitioned her own husband to adopt Violet Bell. She did so on January 26. The process was thus expedited, and on January 28, Baby Bell became Violet Hicks. Prescottonians were happy with this outcome. The Courier noted, “Thus has the little waif of the Cabinet saloon fallen into a home good enough for any child, one in which she will receive that care, training and education which any parents would be proud to have a child receive.”
The story then disappeared from print until Edmund Wells produced his Chance Cobweb story in 1927 with its fairy tale ending. Although her adult life had some enchanting moments, it proved more tragic than magic. After moving to California, Violet married Arthur Binner and had four children. Arthur, however, became an alcoholic, and divorce followed. Violet became a gambling addict and neglectful of her children. At one point, she trekked all the way to Alaska to find her father only to be told he wanted nothing to do with her.
In 1972, there were rumors that C. C. Hall, under an assumed name, was living near Whiskey Row. Violet Binner, however, aka Chance Cobweb Hall and Prescott’s celebrated baby on a Whiskey Row bar, had already died of a heart attack on October 12, 1970, in Redwood City, California. She was 72 years old.
Brad Courtney is currently researching for and writing a book on the history of Whiskey Row.
Days Past is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners, International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit articles for consideration. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for information.