By Michael Wurtz
Mollie Monroe has the unfortunate distinction of being the first woman in the Arizona Territory to be declared insane. Known at various times as Cowboy Mollie, Mary Sawyer, and the Amazon of Arizona, Mollie, born in New Hampshire in 1846, was christened Mary Elizabeth Sanger.
Mollie's family was fairly affluent. This allowed Mollie to obtain a finishing school education and to acquire the skills thought necessary to become the wife of a successful businessman. That life was her parents' wish for her. Unfortunately, her parents' hopes and wishes did not take into consideration that Mollie would, at the age of seventeen, fall in love with a young man deemed totally unacceptable by her parents. To make matters worse, his parents also disapproved of the match.
As was fairly common during this time, the young man became a "Remittance Man", sent west by his family, and paid a monthly or yearly remittance to stay away. Auburn-haired, green-eyed Mollie was a stong-minded young woman, however, and two months later, she secretly left her parents' home late one night. Dressed in men's clothes and going under the name of Sam Brewer, she headed west to find her man. She joined a prospecting party and worked her way to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There she learned that her young man had been killed in a barroom brawl only two weeks earlier.
Swearing revenge, Mollie set out to find those who had killed her lover. She put on her disguise as a man and joined a wagon train heading west. Criss-crossing the west from Montana to Mexico, Mollie looked in vain for the killers.
For several months, Mollie dropped out of sight, but sometime in 1864, at the age of eighteen, Mollie arrived at Ft. Whipple, Arizona Territory, now the wife of a young army captain. She was now every inch the perfect army officer's wife. The Arizona Miner, Prescott's newspaper, reported her as vivacious and charming, liked by everyone. In late 1865, her husband was evidently transferred to another post. Mollie decided to remain in Prescott. The reason is not known. What is known is that soon after, she was again wearing men's clothing. She preferried buckskin shirts, and she took to wearing a gun slung low on her hip. Soon she was the talk of the town, drinking whiskey in the local bars, swearing like a trooper, smoking a pipe and gampling with the best, or worst, of them. She was "one of the boys" and a constant thorn in the side of the respectable women of the town. She made the papers in 1872 when she was seen in a dress! The Arizona Miner stated it was the first time in seven years she was seen in anything other than pants.
Although Mollie was a hard-riding, gun-toting gambler, she was also a soft touch for anyone, man or woman, who was down and out. She spent many a night nursing a sick miner or giving her last dollar to a lady of the evening whose luck was running low. Mollie was the first person called when someone needed help, and she always answered.
Without benefit of clergy, Mollie had several husbands during the late 1860's, most of them miners. Sometime in 1869 or 1870, she met George Monroe, a prospector. She is listed in the 1870 census as Mollie Monroe, occupation cook.
George and Mollie prospected all around the Bradshaw Mountains and in the desert areas south of Prescott. On one of these prospecting trips, they found a warm spring in the desert country near Wickenburg. They called it Monroe Springs. The name was later changed to Castle Hot Springs, and it became a well-known resort and spa.
By the year 1877, in her early thirties, Mollie's behavior became more and more unpredictable. She drank heavily and disappeared for days at a time. In May of that year, Sheriff Bowers of Prescott brought her into town in a disheveled and irrational state. She had been found wandering around Peeples Valley. Yavapai County officials held a sanity hearing and Mollie was declared insane and ordered confined.
At that time, the Arizona Territory did not have a hospital for the mentally ill, and Mollie was transported by wagon to the Stockton, California, Insane Asylum. Within a few months, her behavior became so violent that she was moved to San Quentin Prison where she could be closely watched. By 1878, she had calmed down enough to be brought back to Stockton. There she remained until 1887 when Arizona built the Territorial Asylum in Phoenix and she was transferred. Mollie is recorded as patient number two. She was now forty-one years old. She had been confined to a mental institute since the age of thirty-one.
In 1895, Mollie escaped from the asylum. She roamed the desert around Phoenix for four days before being found by Indians near the Gila River. She was returned to the asylum where she remained, almost forgotten, until her death in 1902 at the age of fifty-six.
Questions about Mollie remain unanswered. Was she really insane? Or was she an alcoholic with delirium tremors? Perhaps she had a disease such as syphilis, which can cause brain damage. In the 1870s and 1880s, insane asylums were truly snake pits. If you were not insane when you went in, you probably would be insane before long. If we had the medical knowledge then that we do now, what would be Mollie's diagnosis? There are no answers to such questions, but it makes history very interesting!
Michael Wurtz is archivist at the Sharlot Hall Museum.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (pb113f5i4)
Reuse only by permission.
Mollie Monroe and her husband, George, discovered Monroe Springs (later to become the famous resort and spa Castle Hot Springs). Mollie had the unfortunate distinction of being the first woman in the Arizona Territory to be declared insane.