Rosa Elizabeth White (later known as Rosa May) was born in January 1855. She ran away from her home in Pennsylvania at the age of 16 and, falling in with the wrong people, soon turned to prostitution.
She began her trade in New York City and then drifted through mining camps of Colorado and Idaho. She appeared in Virginia City in 1873 and worked in brothels throughout the Carson City and Reno before ending up in Virginia city where she worked for Madam Cad Thompson. Rosa was a favored employee who was often left in charge of things during Cad's trips to San Francisco.
From 1888 to the early 1890s, she traveled between Virginia City and Bodie, California where her lover, Ernest Marks, owned a saloon. She eventually settled there in 1893 and appears on the 1900 U.S. Census. Land records from 1902 show that Rosa purchased a house in Bodie’s Red Light District for $175. There are no records of Rosa May living in Bodie after the 1910 Census.
Rosa died of pneumonia in November 1912 in Bodie, California. A photo claiming to be her grave site appears in Ella Cain's book The Story of Bodie (1956). It shows a decrepit wooden fence surrounding an otherwise unmarked grave. Since Ella Cain's biographical sketch of Rosa May is mostly fiction, it's likely the photo was chosen for its picturesque qualities. In the 1970s, author George Williams III conducted an exhaustive search for Rosa May's death records and found nothing. In any case, her supposed resting place is a popular tourist destination for those exploring the former Bodie State Park.
Bodie was declining rapidly during the period that Rosa May disappears, and it may be that she left the area in search of greener pastures. In her book, Ella Cain relates the story of the epidemic and Rosa succumbing to the same illness that had stricken the miners for whom she was caring. Other resident’s accounts and external records refute that there was any type of epidemic during the winter of 1911-1912.
Letters, diaries, and handwriting analysis, indicate that she was a charming person and took an interest in others, but was somewhat volatile emotionally. There appears to have been a serious or traumatic event (or events) in her early years but no record exists of what it could have been.
Official documentation about Rosa’s life, (birth and death records, etc.), are either missing or non-existent, but extensive research done by author George Williams provides some basic facts and general information about her. His research is documented in the book Rosa May: The Search for A Mining Camp Legend.
Her story is dramatized in the musical play, Nevada Belle by George Morgan and Duane Ashby.