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Madam Mattie Silks
In the late 1800’s Denver boosted “the West’s most wicked thoroughfare,” along Holladay Street, with its “boarding houses for young ladies.” Madam Mattie Silks was royalty in the Red Light District. Legend has it she ran the best little house of ill repute west of the Mississippi.
Mattie Silks made her way through a crowd assembled at the Lucky Chance Saloon and headed towards a wooden staircase which led to a bank of occupied rooms. Every cowhand in Colorado seemed to be drinking and gambling at the popular Denver establishment. A piano player pounded out a standard on an out of tune upright. Several men jumped to their feet, grabbing any public woman within reach and twirling them around. The laughing, drunken dancers paid no attention to Mattie as she pushed past them and she was equally oblivious to them.
The stairs groaned under her heavyset form and she stumbled a bit over her long, billowing skirt before lifting the fabric to her ankles. Her attractive, round face was streaked with tears and her eyes were stern and focused. She fingered the ivory handled pistol in the hidden pocket of her outfit – making sure the weapon was there and ready for quick use.
She paused at the top of the landing, gazing steely-eyed down the long corridor. A cacophony of sounds emanated from behind the closed doors on either side of the hall. She stopped in front of the first door and listened. She did the same at the second door. Standing outside the third door she heard a man’s familiar voice speaking softly to a woman who responded with a playful giggle.
Mattie’s hand reached out for the doorknob and stopped. The urge to burst into the room was overwhelming and for a moment she fought to curb her fury. But the muffled sound of two people kissing persuaded her to throw open the door and remove her gun in the process.
Cortez Thomson, a tall, lean, sandy-haired Texan with a handlebar mustache looked up at the intruder. Lillie Dab, the rumpled, red-headed woman under him did the same. A long, awkward silence passed between the three. What to do next was anyone’s guess. More out nervousness than anything else, Cort began to laugh. Lillie followed suit and soon the pair were in stitches over the scene. Mattie’s blue eyes burned with rage. She aimed her gun at Lillie and squeezed the trigger. Lillie screamed and grabbed her head.
Horrified, Lillie glanced down at the sheet, expecting to see blood; instead she saw two of her long curls lying beside her. The shot had missed her body and clipped off her hair.
Cort jumped up and scrambled for his holster and gun draped across the frame of the bed. Mattie turned her weapon his direction and fired a shot into the floor board next to his feet. Lillie screamed again and Cort quickly decided against going for his gun. Mattie shot at the headboard directly behind the other woman. Lillie rolled out of bed and quickly crawled toward the door. Mattie cocked the gun again and leveled it at the naked woman. Another round went off into the floor, barely missing Lillie. Cort hit Mattie over the head with the butt of the gun he managed to reach for. She fell in a heap beside the scuffed wood now splintered with gunfire.
Mattie Silks, the Queen of Denver’s Red Light district, was involved in more than one violent altercation over her lover Cort Thomson. Her fearless attempts to hold onto her man by any means possible and the numerous guests that frequented her palatial brothel made her one of the most renowned madams in the west.
Born in 1847 on a small farm in Kansas, Mattie was a vivacious child with massive potential. By her mid-teens she was a curvaceous brunette with sultry blue eyes and a head for business. At an early age she displayed an exceptional aptitude for managing prostitutes. By the time she was eighteen years old she had worked as a public woman in Abilene and Dodge City. At nineteen she was managing a profitable parlor house in Springfield, Illinois.
Historians can only speculate how Mattie acquired her handle. Some suggest she took the name Silks from a man she once knew in Kansas. Others claim her love of silk material prompted clients to refer to her as Madam Silks.
After hearing that thousands of men were moving into the boomtowns and cow towns of Colorado, Mattie decided to purchase a parlor house in Georgetown. Georgetown was called the “Silver Queen of the Rockies.” Twenty-three thousand dollars a year in silver was being pulled out of the hills in the area in the early 1870s. Mattie’s brothel collected a large portion of those riches.
The employees at Mattie Silk’s house were considered to be the “fairest frails in town.” She was particular about the women she hired and required them to meet certain standards.
An evening of pleasure with one of her ladies cost anywhere from $10 to $200. Madam Silks claimed forty percent of that income for herself. In exchange she provided her staff with comfortable rooms, meals and laundry service. By 1855, Mattie was one of the wealthiest business women in the trade.
Mattie’s charm and success attracted numerous men, but she shunned many of their advances. It wasn’t until she met Cortez D. Thomson that she decided to share her life with another.
Cort was unlike the other men who had called on her. He was not a miner or a cowboy, but a foot runner. Lithe and agile, he raced challengers for large sums of money. The flamboyant racer wore pink tights and star-spangled trunks when he ran and gamblers and the curious would turn out in droves to watch him compete. Mattie was captivated by Cort’s good looks and confident air. He was drawn to her charm and money. Ignoring the fact that Cort was married and had a child in Texas, Mattie entered into a relationship with him. In 1876, Madam Silks relocated to Denver. The prospect of making even more money enticed her to the growing town. Cort naturally followed.
Mattie’s fashionable Denver brothel was a three story brick mansion with twenty-seven rooms. It was nicely decorated and well furnished. Clients were greeted by the home’s owner at a magnificent, wooden front door. They were then escorted into the main parlor and serenaded by an orchestra. It was there that they had a chance to get acquainted with the beautiful and elegantly dressed boarders. Mattie kept the names of her regular customers on a list. “I never showed that list to anyone…,” she told a newspaper reporter in 1926. “If a man did not conduct himself as a gentleman, he was not welcome nor ever permitted to come again. And his name was removed from the list,” she concluded.
Madam Silk’s parlor house was one of the most expensive brothels in Denver. Mattie’s weekly income was staggering and Cort quickly grew accustomed to an extravagant lifestyle. He and Mattie enjoyed the finest foods and wines and purchased tailor made clothes from Paris.
Cort spent a great deal of Mattie’s wealth betting on horse races. He generally lost more than he won. On those rare occasions when he did win he made small purchases for Mattie. One such item he purchased for her was a diamond encrusted cross. She wore the cross on a long chain around her neck and it became her trademark.
Historians at the Denver Museum estimate that Cort spent or gambled away more than $75 thousand dollars of Mattie’s money. In addition to squandering her finances, he betrayed her with other women. The most notable was with a rival madam named Kate Fulton.
Cort’s relationship with the lovely and tempestuous Kate had been a simple dalliance to him, but she perceived it as much more. Kate vigorously pursued Cort and desperately tried to get him to leave Mattie. Mattie knew about the affair and for the most part was able to overlook Cort’s indiscretion. On August 24, 1877, however, she was forced to deal with the persistent Madam Fulton once and for all.
Mattie and Cort hosted a grand celebration at the posh Olympic Gardens to announce their engagement. Kate maneuvered her way into the party and accused Mattie of “stealing her man.” The pair’s verbal sparring escalated into a gunfight.
Anxious guests and townspeople lined Denver’s Colfax Avenue to watch the women settle their differences with pistols. Mattie and Kate stood back to back, pistols at the ready. After pacing off a short distance they turned and fired on one another. When the smoke cleared, the only person down was Cort.
Both Mattie and Kate’s bullets had missed their mark, but one of Kate’s rounds had hit Cort in the neck. Mattie hurried to her lover’s side and stemmed the flow of blood from the flesh wound with a lace handkerchief. She then escorted Cort to the hospital. Law enforcement officials took Kate to jail in restraints. Local newspapers referred to the incident as “a disgraceful occurrence of the fast element.”
In a short time Cort was back on his feet. Madam Silks whisked her lover off to Kansas City for a much needed break from the routine. She showered him with gifts and clothing and indulged herself in the finer things as well. The pair spent a great deal of time at the Overland Park racetrack and Mattie became so enamored with the sport she invested in a racing stable. With the exception of a chestnut gelding named Jim Blaine, all of her horses were losers.
In 1884, after a seven year engagement, Mattie and Cort were married. Cort’s first wife had died earlier that year, making him free to make an honest woman of his longtime lover. For a short time, Mattie Silk’s life was good. She purchased three other parlor houses in the Denver area, all of which were extremely successful. Cort’s philandering had slowed down a bit. He had however developed a costly, but manageable gambling habit.
With business going as well as it was and with her marriage as stable as it would ever be, Mattie felt she could now pay more attention to her stable of horses. News that Cort’s daughter had died leaving behind a child of her own, halted any such plans. Cort wanted no part of the orphaned girl and refused to take her in. Mattie did not agree with her husband. She adopted the little girl named Rita, and placed her in a well-respected boarding house. Four years after Mattie assumed responsibility of Rita, Cort passed away. The distraught madam gave her husband a magnificent funeral, spending an untold fortune on the services and his tombstone.
At the age of 77, after more than four decades working in Colorado’s underworld, she remained the leading money maker in the profession.
As her businesses continued to grow so did the need to protect her ladies from overzealous clients who might harm the merchandize. With that in mind she hired “Handsome” Jack Ready. Jack was a big, good looking man who worked not only as Mattie’s bouncer, but her financial advisor. Their relationship quickly graduated from employer-employee to man and wife. The two married in 1923.
Since the turn of the century the modern world had ever so slightly been encroaching on Mattie’s trade. The Old West ideals of prostitution were tolerated less and less and government officials were being pushed to abolish the legalization of parlor houses. Police raids on the brothels frightened off customers and business began to dwindle to nothing. Mattie was forced to shut her doors and sell her homes, including the famed House of Mirrors she had purchased from another well-known madam, Jennie Rogers.
Mattie retired to a quiet home just two blocks from one of the five brothels she had once owned. She enjoyed spending time with Jack, her adopted granddaughter and Rita’s children. When Mattie passed away at the age of 82, she willed her estate to her husband and Rita. Over her forty year career she had made millions, but when she died she only had four thousand in cash, a few pieces of jewelry and some property.
Madam Silks is buried at the Fairmount Cemetery in Denver under a headstone which reads, “Martha A. Ready, January 7, 1929.”
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.