She lay in a private ward of Good Samaritan Hospital, attended by one of the city’s leading surgeons, her life ebbing as the result of a self-inflicted gunshot. Cincinnati knew her as Vio Sayers, a prostitute at Belle Johnson’s brothel on Smith Street, but there was so much more to her story, all of it shrouded in mystery.
The name she used in Cincinnati, Vio Sayers, was a pseudonym. Her real name was Ida LaMountain, and she was the only daughter of a famous balloonist, or aeronaut, as they were then known.
Her father, John LaMountain attempted a couple of times, both unsuccessful, to cross the Atlantic by balloon and had a brief association with the Union army during the Civil War. As an aeronaut assigned to Major General Benjamin Butler, LaMountain is credited with launching his balloon from the deck of a steam tug and for providing some of the earliest reconnaissance reports from an aerial platform. He was, unfortunately, a haughty and belligerent man, prone to exaggerating his own accomplishments, and he was dismissed from military service and died in obscurity.
LaMountain’s wife having predeceased him, his daughter was raised on a farm outside South Bend, Indiana by her grandparents. Ida inherited some of her father’s cantankerous nature, and ran away when she reached the age of 18, supposedly launching a theatrical career in Chicago.
Although her name appears among a troupe of performers at a Chicago dime museum, it is likely that Ida’s thespian dreams were dashed early on. She maintained the fiction of a stage career in her letters home even after she ended up in Frank Wright’s brothel on Broadway. Frank (nickname for Francine) was among the leading madams of Cincinnati’s demi-monde.
As she lay, apparently dying, the Cincinnati Enquirer contacted a correspondent in South Bend, who reported that Ida had a sterling reputation:
Up to the time of her leaving here she was considered a respectable as well as quite a handsome girl, and when here only a few weeks ago no one knew anything against her good name.
Soon after arriving in the Queen City, Ida caused a sensation by pulling a gun on a traveling salesman at the Atlantic Garden concert hall. The newspapers agreed she had a temper. Here is the Enquirer [July 3, 1878]:
She is not angelic in disposition, and only last Sunday night she drew a pistol (probably the same Smith & Wesson) at Wright’s on a prominent citizen, with whom she had a dispute about money.
Like many prostitutes, Ida/Vio cultivated favorites among her customers, from whom she could earn special favors. A Cincinnati businessman named “Jim,” for example, paid her bills from a local doctor—until he learned that Ida had cultivated another special friendship with a clerk at the Burnet House. When “Jim” told Ida he would no longer pay her doctor bills, Ida pulled the trigger.
Ida had written home to her grandparents, asking for money because she was ill – the disease unspecified—but had heard nothing. The South Bend correspondent told the Enquirer that Ida’s grandmother was in the act of responding to that request when word arrived about her attempted suicide.
As the scandal unfolded “Jim” confessed that he had a liaison with the fair Ida and the Burnet House fired its philandering clerk. The Enquirer [July, 4 1878] observed:
He is not the first, nor the second clerk of the house, it is said, who wrecked fair prospects in life by over-indulgence in the delights of the Wright palace of illicit pleasure.
There are a number of mysteries surrounding the Enquirer’s reporting, among them: What was a volatile woman like Ida doing with a seven-shot .32 caliber pistol? Did “Jim” really give it to her? Who is the otherwise unidentified man keeping vigil at Ida’s bedside and running errands on her behalf? Why did Ida, one of the stars of Frank Wright’s bordello, suddenly move into Belle Johnson’s house of ill repute?
Alas, answers to such questions are lost in the mists of antiquity. We might also wonder why the Enquirer devoted three days of coverage to an admitted suicide? Is it possible that the reporter had a special interest in Ida?
The Enquirer stopped covering Ida’s recuperation when it appeared that she might survive, but the Cincinnati Star printed a couple of squibs noting that Ida had completely recovered and was on her way home to Indiana.
And then what? The South Bend, Indiana, Tribune of July 7, 1881—almost exactly three years after Ida shot herself—printed this tiny notice:
Mrs. Dr. Dosman, of St. Louis, Mo., nee Ida LaMountain, of this city, is here visiting her relatives, preparatory to going to Idaho where she and her husband will reside permanently.
So, Ida married a doctor, presumably in St. Louis, and moved with him to Idaho. The only problem is, there doesn’t appear to be any doctor named Dosman in either Missouri or Idaho, and no Ida Dosman anywhere. What became of her?
One wonders . . .