By Robin Flinchum of Pretty Pattern Shop
On the morning of May 26, 1867, after Mrs. C. M. Cazentre had cleared away the debris from the breakfast shift at her little restaurant in the mining town of Gold Hill, Nevada, she went to the back room and prepared to do some sewing.
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“None of your business,” he’d said. But then he warmed up and told her, in animated French, the sad story of his friend, who had died in a mining accident leaving his widow penniless with four children to feed. Millain wanted to help the woman, he said, and had offered to try and sell her expensive dress pattern to get money so she could pay her butcher bill.
The asking price was $60. It was worth that, Mrs. Cazentre had thought, eyeing the unusual pale green silk flocked with round velvet flowers, but theirs was not the sort of business that afforded her the luxury of rich silks. So she sent him up the street to an elegant brothel where, she told him, there were women who could afford to help the poor widow. But he returned the next day, not having found any takers.
Now the asking price was $40 and John Cazentre, seeing how his wife longed for the lovely pattern, agreed. She had taken the silk and put it away so she could take her time to think over the cutting and sewing of the precious fabric. Then came that May morning when, just as she had the pattern laid out, scissors in hand, two latecomers arrived at the restaurant for a morning meal.
While she bustled about preparing their order, they fell into conversation about the infamous murder that had been committed the previous January in Virginia City. A woman named Julia Bulette, who worked as an independent prostitute, had been bludgeoned and strangled in her own bed, a crime that shocked even the often rowdy and rough inhabitants of the town.
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The killer had gotten clean away. But there was a Frenchman now in the city jail for another crime, they said, and it was believed around town that he was the murderer. Mrs. Cazentre defended her countryman at first. But they knew him for a thief, the men said. And whoever killed Julia Bulette had robbed her, too, stolen her jewelry and fancy clothes and furs. And even, they said, a couple of expensive dress patterns. Mrs. Cazentre grew silent and argued no further in favor of Millain.
The men finished their breakfast and went on about their way, but the more she thought about the conversation, the more uneasy she became. Finally she folded up the green silk pattern and put it away. Then she made her way to Virginia City and told her story to Judge Jesse Pitzer and the detective who had been investigating the murder case. Although they had John Millain in custody for assault upon another young woman, and they believed him to be connected to Julia Bulette’s murder, they hadn’t a shred of evidence to work with until they followed Mrs. Cazentre back to Gold Hill and took possession of the lovely fabric.
At Rosener and Co., the upscale mercantile where Pitzer believed the pattern had originally been sold, the proprietors both positively identified the unusual silk. There wasn’t another like it in Virginia City, they said. In fact, said Sam Rosener, he had been in San Francisco on a buying trip and purchased the pattern straight off the ship it came in on. It was the only one of its kind, at least in the distinctive pale green color, in the country as far as he knew. And he had sold it to Julia just a few weeks before she died.
From Rosener’s, Judge Pitzer and the detective escorted Mrs. Cazentre to the city jail, where they asked her to take a look at the prisoner. Both Mrs. Cazentre and John Millain recognized each other immediately. He turned pale at the sight of her and she firmly identified him as the man who had sold her the pattern. Her prized green silk was confiscated as evidence and would become the focal point of the subsequent murder trial, handled and carefully examined by a parade of witnesses coming forward to identify it as having belonged to the murdered woman and having been sold by the accused prisoner.
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Other evidence surfaced within a matter of days to connect Millain to the crime, pieces of the dead woman’s jewelry, her furs and dresses all found in a trunk he had stored at a friend’s. But it was the silk, which he had sold and thereby profited from the crime, that elevated the charge to murder in the first degree.
All the evidence presented against John Millain at the trail was circumstantial and consisted only of witnesses (beginning with Mrs. Cazentre) who connected him, over and over again, with items stolen from Bulette’s cottage that night. Millain protested his innocence, saying he had been given the things by some men he knew and had no part in the killing. But it was widely believed that he was the murderer, that he might even have killed before in San Francisco where the similar murders of two women who worked as prostitutes remained unsolved, and certainly that he had intended to kill Martha Camp, whom he had attacked in her cottage late one night, leading to his initial arrest.
Despite his attorney’s plea for clemency, Millain was convicted and sentenced to hang. His appeal was denied and the sentence was carried out, nearly a year to the day after Mrs. Cazentre identified him, in a gruesome public spectacle attended by Mark Twain, who began his writing career as a reporter in Virginia City.
Soon after Millain was officially charged with the murder, the Bulette estate paid out a reward of $200 ‘for the apprehension of’ Julia’s killer. Who, precisely, received the money was not specified in the record. One can only hope that it was Mrs. Cazentre, who was brave enough and honest enough to hand over her beautiful dress pattern and forsake her fashion sense in the name of justice (she was never compensated for the loss).
As for the pattern itself, after it had been examined many times by all concerned, the court appeal denied and the murderer hung, it was returned to Julia Bullette’s estate and sold at auction, where it fetched a price of $44.00 (about $700 in current value). Now a rather uniquely famous piece of dress goods, it was one of the first things to go in the sale.
There is no record of who bought the pattern in the final auction—how they made it up or what it looked like when it was finished, or whether, every time its wearer put it on, she thought about Julia Bulette, who had loved beautiful clothing and spent a good portion of her earnings on dress goods, jewelry and furs.
If Julia had lived just another year, she would have found herself in a world where fashion was much more accessible, and much less expensive than it had ever been before. Ebenezer Butterick’s new tissue paper sewing patterns, graded to fit your personal size and including instructions, had become an instant sensation in 1863. Because they put stylish garments in reach of the everyday seamstress by doing away with cutting to fit and grading one size patterns, and provided a guide for women who lacked the experience to create the latest fashions on their own, Butterick’s patterns ignited a fashion revolution of sorts. The company began with designs for men’s and boy’s garments but it wasn’t until the middle of 1867, some six months after Julia’s death, that it launched a full line of patterns for stylish women’s clothing.
When Julia died in 1867, the term ‘dress pattern’ usually referred to a pre-cut length of fabric especially designed to be made up into a dress. It might have some template printed on the fabric, but might also be a simple, pre-cut length of dress goods. It might have special features for the sleeves or bodice woven into the design, or just be a print or weave especially well suited to the hoop skirt styles of the times, such as large scale silk plaids. Sometimes the patterns were sold with preselected trims and notions.
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But by the time the now famous green silk dress pattern was sold at auction in 1868, Butterick’s patterns were a national sensation, changing forever what home sewers meant when they asked for a ‘dress pattern’. Butterick’s extensive catalog of designs was available by mail order from the company headquarters in New York City, and soon the ‘celebrated patterns’ were available in a shop on Virginia City’s C Street.
“They (the Buttericks) should be ranked with the benefactors of mankind, this firm that has worked out the problem of clothes.” --Home Journal, July, 1871
It’s even possible that when the much traveled piece of silk was made into a dress at last, it might have been done using a newfangled Butterick pattern.
Julia, one hopes, would have been pleased.
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