Boise & Garden City

Boise’s Bucket of Blood Saloon was notorious

Most of Boise’s two dozen saloons, such as this one, were orderly compared to the Bucket of Blood.
Most of Boise’s two dozen saloons, such as this one, were orderly compared to the Bucket of Blood. Provided by Arthur Hart

A popular tourist attraction in Virginia City, Nev., is the Bucket of Blood Saloon. It has little to set it apart from similar saloons in Western towns other than the name, but that name is enough to attract customers looking for what has been dubbed an “Old West experience.”

Boise City had its own notorious Bucket of Blood Saloon in 1892, and the Idaho Statesman reported regularly on the outrageous things that went on there. From the tone of these stories it is clear that the paper’s editor wanted the police to clean up the place or shut it down. On April 5, 1892: “During the past week there has been a number of disturbances in the Main Street saloon known as ‘The Bucket of Blood.’ On Saturday night a number of loggers had a desperate ‘knock-down-and-drag-out battle.’ Yesterday Chief Nicholson visited the place and read the riot act to the proprietors.”

On April 26: “There was a knock-down-and-drag-out at the Bucket of Blood last night. A drunken man became noisy, and some of the attendants felt constrained to knock him down and kick him out into the street. No arrests.”

June 30: “The Bucket of Blood gave a dance last night. From all the dens in town, bleary-eyed females gathered to dance with sodden-faced tinhorns, the revel being participated in by some young men whose fond parents no doubt thought they were tucked away in bed. The curtains of the den were drawn, but from the recesses of the place the screech of the music and the voice of the caller could be heard, while ever and anon a lull would occur, during which the crowd would repair to the bar to pour vile liquor into case-hardened stomachs. It was a ‘hard’ crowd gathered together in a ‘tough’ place for a wild orgy, and all on the main street of the capital of Idaho.”

Purple prose like this sounds more like the sermon of a fire-and-brimstone preacher at a temperance meeting than a news report, but there is little doubt that Boise needed a lot of reform in the way its saloons were allowed to operate, forcing the City Council to spend a lot of time revising the ordinances dealing with the problem. The presence of prostitutes in saloons was of such concern that the city eventually banned all women from places like the Bucket of Blood. When the ordinance was challenged in March 1904, Judge Charles Stewart ruled that it was not in violation of the “personal liberty” clause of the Constitution. In October 1908, the council had a new ordinance drafted that would keep women out of saloons, for any reason and at any time. The Statesman reported, “The ordinance is favored by every member of the City Council, and when passed will do away with a large business which is now and has been for some time carried on in some saloons where women have been permitted to mingle with men and drink liquor.”

That the notorious Bucket of Blood was not the only disorderly saloon in town, then or later, was made clear by an article in the Statesman on May 16, 1903: “The disgusting spectacle of two hoodlums and their female consorts fighting their way out of a barroom door, cursing and mauling each other on the sidewalk while a funeral procession moved by, was witnessed by scores of indignant citizens on Ninth Street yesterday afternoon. Just as the hearse passed in front of the California Wine House, of which O.B. Truesdale and Councilman J.J. Hessing are proprietors, Rose Desmond, a woman of the half-world, and her companion, said to be Guy Hawley, burst through the saloon door, followed by another man and woman, all engaged in a fist fight and cursing like drunken sailors. Rose Desmond was arrested and fined $5. The others were not caught.” We wonder why.

The pressure was mounting for prohibition of the sale or use of all alcoholic beverages in Idaho and the nation, now remembered as the “noble experiment that failed.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email