The sign over Mattie Silk’s famous brothel in Denver read, “Men Taken in and Done For.” Considered a great beauty when she was younger, she ran one of the most expensive parlor houses in the city in the mid-1800’s. Unlike almost all of her contemporaries, though, she was never a prostitute herself, and began her successful sporting house career at nineteen. For more than forty years she operated her own pleasure palaces, boasting that she never took in a girl who wasn’t “experienced,” and kept the secrets of politicians and prominent businessmen.
One of the more colorful tales about this daring woman was that she had argued with another madam, Kate Fulton, over the affections of a man named Cort Thompson. Popular legend says that Kate challenged her to a pistol duel and they faced each other, six-shooters in hand, on Holladay Street, a notorious avenue of vice. Both women discharged their pistols at the same time. When the smoke cleared they had missed killing each other, but one of the bullets hit the object of their affections in the neck. Thompson survived, Kate was jailed and Mattie later married him. She eventually lived to regret being the winner of the duel as Thompson gambled away almost all of her hard-won savings.
She was once quoted as saying, “I went into the sporting life for business reasons and for no other. It was always a way for a woman in those days to make money and I made it. I considered myself then, and do now, a business woman.” The photograph shows her in her later years when she had lost most of her beauty, but she never lost her business sense.
Next week: “Chicago Joe” Hensley, The Irish Madam.
THE OUTCASTS, a novel, in part, about a young prostitute after the Civil War. Published October 1, 2013. (Little Brown Publishers)