Louise Bethel Sneed Hill (1862–1955) was a socialite, philanthropist, and creator of Denver’s Sacred Thirty-Six, the first internationally recognized elite society in the city. Hill helped Denver attain international attention as a refined city and desirable destination. Her life reflected the cultural transition in America at the turn of the twentieth century, as Victorian norms gave way to a more modern culture in which women were free to create their own social identities and pursue their own desires.
Louise Bethel Sneed was born July 1862 in Granville County, North Carolina, to William Sneed and Louisa Bethel. Her mother died the week she was born. Her father, like his patriarchal line before him, was a plantation owner. The Sneed family was prominent in the south and strengthened their power through marriages that connected them to former chief justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court, statesmen, investors in the Transylvania Company, the Jefferson Davis family, and other plantation owners. After the Civil War, many people from Louise’s hometown, including three of her siblings, moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Louise moved there in the 1880s to live with them.
In 1893 Louise Sneed traveled to Denver to visit her cousin, Captain William D. Bethel, a prominent Colorado financier. Bethel threw his cousin an elegant ball at his mansion at the corner of Marion Street and Colfax Avenue. At the ball she met the city’s most eligible bachelor, Crawford Hill, eldest child and only son of Nathaniel P. Hill, a wealthy mining entrepreneur and former US senator. Louise and Crawford were married on January 15, 1895, two years after their first meeting, in a lavish ceremony at the Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis. The Hills had two sons, Nathaniel P. Hill IV, born in 1896, and Crawford Hill Jr., born in 1898. They made their first home at 1407 Cleveland Place, the former mansion of cattle baron T.H. Lawrence, before building a French Renaissance mansion at 969 Sherman Street in 1906.
As a modern heiress in a city where the social scene still resembled that of a frontier town, Louise Hill sought to rejuvenate and modernize Denver’s high society. She created the Sacred Thirty-Six, named for the exclusive bridge parties held in her stately home. Consisting of nine tables of four players each, the “36” was a place where women could embrace formerly censured pleasures such as alcohol, games, and sensuality without being deemed “fallen” women.
Hill was forward thinking and responsible for many firsts in Denver society such as breakfast balls, champagne luncheons (which she held even during Prohibition), private banquets where an orchestra played during the meal, and an afternoon dance where guests frolicked to the “turkey trot” and the “worm wiggle.” The turkey trot, a popular dance from 1909, was deemed so controversial and wild that it was banned by the White House. Hill also roller-skated around her ballroom, frequently attended events unchaperoned, and even committed adultery.
In 1908 Hill authored a social register and guide to social etiquette titled Who’s Who in Denver Society. An image of Hill graced the cover, and the book listed many upper-class Denverites.In 1907 Hill cemented her place in history by becoming the first Denverite presented to King Edward VII at the Court of St. James in London.
After her presentation at court, the popularity of the Thirty-Six continued to grow. From that point forward, Hill became acquainted with other European nobles, including Princess and Prince Heinrich XXXIII of Reuss (a former principality in eastern Germany) as well as various lords and ladies who made the trip to Denver to visit her and stayed at her mansion. In 1911 she was the only woman in Denver permitted to entertain President William Howard Taft socially during his trip to the city.
The Hills owned the Denver Republican newspaper, and Louise Hill used that to her advantage. From her wedding day onward, she was constantly in the society pages of Colorado’s various newspapers until her dying day. Although her life was a daily feature in the press, she kept one aspect of it private—her charitable contributions. In a 1913 interview with Rocky Mountain News reporter Alice Rohe, Hill stated that she “would rather give [her] dances to the papers than [her] charities. It is better to advertise your dinners and your luncheons, so-called frivolous things, than to advertise your charities, which touch something sacred— humanity—and which reach into our religion.”
One charitable act Hill could not keep out of the newspapers was her support of American troops during World War I. She frequently donated her time and money to the cause. When the war broke out, she created and served as the director general of the Soldiers’ Family Fund and called for all Coloradans to donate to it.
Challenging Social Norms
Louise Hill did not shy away from challenging her era’s social norms. One prime instance was her affair with Bulkeley Wells, president and general manager of the Smuggler-Union Mining Company in Telluride, which was kept out of the papers but was well known to those in her social circle. Wells was a close friend of both Louise and Crawford Hill. They frequently traveled as a trio, and when the Hills’ sons had trouble in school, Crawford enlisted Wells’s help. After Crawford’s death in 1922, many Denverites anticipated the marriage of Wells and Louise Hill. Instead, Wells met a much younger woman. They eloped and moved to California together. When Hill heard of the union, she severed all ties with her former lover and convinced some of his financial backers—her close friends—to withdraw their support. Socially and financially ruined, Wells developed a gambling addiction and later committed suicide.
Hill’s reign over Denver’s high society and her national and international travel continued through the 1920s and 1930s. She entertained presidents and wealthy and titled society people. Hill never told anyone her age, but newspapers noted that she continued to host parties in her sixties with the same exuberance she had in her thirties. By 1944 Hill had stopped holding parties and social gatherings at her mansion owing to the exigencies of World War II.
In Hill’s last years, the mansion’s upkeep became too much for her, especially after she suffered a stroke around 1947. She and her staff moved into the Skyline Apartments at the Brown Palace, and her sons sold her mansion to the newly established Jewish Town Club. She spent the remaining years of her life in her Brown Palace apartment and died there of pneumonia in 1955, at the age of ninety-two, leaving an estate worth just over 5 million dollars.
After Hill’s death, Denverites wondered who would inherit her position as society leader. But the position she had occupied was disappearing as the era of the local, wealthy socialites gave way to the worship of Hollywood actors and other national celebrities. Yet Hill’s emphasis on amusement and an independent identity for women was indicative of the broader shift away from Victorian cultural norms in the turn-of-the-century United States.