I don’t know about you, but when summer rolls around, I find myself wanting to settle down with a fun read. For nine months out of the year, I have a desire to read superb literature. You can quiz me on the great authors. Really, I’m no slouch. But, there’s something about summer that makes me want to toss Tolstoy aside, grab a trashy novel and lose myself in pages that are more likely to speak of heaving bosoms than war and peace. Summer is a time for guilty pleasures. That’s what has inspired this edition of the Campfire Chronicle. Today, we’re going to talk about Mattie Silks.
Mattie Silks was a gal who made a name for herself. Now, I didn’t say she made a good name for herself! She was what you might call an entrepreneur. She was also what you might call a madame. In fact, Mattie Silks was one of the more notable madames of the 19th century. (For the purposes of this post, I will use the spelling “madame” versus “madam,” because that is the spelling Mattie preferred. She said it was “tonier!”)
It is believed that Mattie Silks was born in the Midwest, in 1846. We don’t know her birth name, and really, it doesn’t matter. As I’ve already said, she made a name for herself!
She was not a youth who floundered around trying to find herself. She required no career counseling. When she was eighteen or nineteen-years-old she was already running a brothel in Springfield, Illinois. She heeded the call to “Go West, young madame!” and took her show on the road!
With a tent and several beautiful girls, she made her way through Missouri and Kansas. She operated a brothel in Dodge City, Kansas before ultimately settling in Colorado, but not before trudging as far north as The Yukon. When opportunity knocked, Mattie Silks pitched her tent and was open for business, and opportunity did a quite lot of knocking!
Mattie Silks House of Mirrors
Mattie Silks was a visionary. She could see that Denver was a boomtown and made the most of it by moving her business out of a tent and into a parlor house. She opened her first house on what is now known as Market Street (formerly, Holladay Street,) and her timing couldn’t have been better.
By 1879, Denver had a population of almost 36,000. It was filled with saloons, gambling establishments and brothels. It was also filled with miners who had money in their pockets. By 1887, Denver’s population had skyrocketed to 96,000. The trains were running. Land values soared. It was a profitable time and a great place to be a madame!
She owned several parlor houses in town, but in 1911, Mattie bought the most la-di-da parlor house in the whole ding-dang town! She bought the “House of Mirrors,” which had been built by Jennie Rogers, another well-known madame. The House of Mirrors was about as different from a tent as you could get. It was a lavish space filled with carvings, fine furnishings and a parlor with mirror-covered walls. She purchased the house for $14,000.
Unlike most madames of the day, Mattie Silks started off in a managerial position. She did not get her start in the brothel equivalent of the mailroom. She said it was because no man could afford her. She prided herself on running high quality establishments in a very businesslike way. Patrons entered her establishment, purchased a token and surrendered it to the lady of choice. It was accounting, Wild West style!
Her girls were said to be the most beautiful and the best dressed. The girls were allowed to “keep” half their pay, but they were required to pay for room and board. Board included two big meals a day. They were also expected to purchase their fancy wardrobes. Overall, though, they were much better off than most prostitutes.
How to Succeed in Business
When a newspaper heard that Mattie Silks might not be long to this world, they hit her up for an interview. She lived for several more years, but that interview gave a lot of insight into Mattie’s career path.
“I went into the sporting life for business reasons and for no other. It was a way for a woman in those days to make money, and I made it. I considered myself then, and I do now, as a businesswoman. I operated the best houses in town and I had as my clients the most important men in the West. I kept the names of my regular customers on a list. I never showed that list to anyone—nor will I tell you the names now. If a man did not conduct himself as a gentleman, he was not welcome nor ever permitted to come again. My customers knew I would not talk about them and they respected me for this. My houses were well kept and well furnished. They had better furnishing than any of my competitors.”
In defense of her chosen profession, she added:
“I never took a girl into my house who had not previous experience of life and men. That was a rule of mine. Most of the girls had been married and had left their husbands—or else they had become involved with a man. No innocent young girl was ever hired by me. And they came to me for the same reasons that I hired them. Because there was money in it for all of us.”
Mattie also pointed out that some of her “girls” married customers. She seemed quite proud of the fact that they were good wives.
Go Big or Go Home
Mattie’s personal life was filled with ups and downs. Mattie fell for Cortez D. Thompson, a scoundrel of a gambler, in 1877. There was a love triangle (or a love square if you count Thompson’s wife!) involving Mattie, Katie Fulton, who was another prominent madame, and Thompson. Mattie and Katie were involved in the only known pistol duel between women. Mattie fired a shot, but missed her target and the bullet ended up grazing Cortez Thompson’s neck! He married Mattie anyway—three days after the death of his wife. Thompson died in 1900 and Mattie threw her full focus on her businesses.
In 1915, the federal government closed Mattie Silks’ House of Mirrors. Mattie was in her late 60s at the time. Mattie claimed that she made over $2,000,000 in her lifetime. Besides her brothels, she was also a real estate investor. She enjoyed traveling and lived life on a grand scale. What was the good of having money if she wasn’t going to spend it? Mattie did spend it. She spent a LOT of it! At her time of death, her estate was said to have consisted of $6,500 in cash, $4,000 in property and $2,500 in jewelry.
Mattie married her accountant, Jack Ready, in 1923. They were married for 6 years before Mattie died following a fall. She was 83-years-old. Mattie is buried next to her first husband, Cortez Thompson. Her tombstone reads, “Martha A. Ready.”
If you’re ever in Denver, you might want to drop into Mattie’s House of Mirrors. It is now a restaurant and banquet hall. The facility’s Red Light Lounge is open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights. It is said that the ghosts of Mattie’s girls still reside in the House of Mirrors. As for Mattie, she has not been spotted. But that name that she made for herself as Mattie Silks, the queen of guilty pleasures, lives on.