Aftermath: Available Now

photo by tim roessler timothy roessler of the parking lot of the King Soopers in Table Mesa

My photobook/zine, Aftermath, is available for ordering.

You can find it here

It’s about the moment after a mass shooting, in this case the slaughter in Boulder, Colorado. It gets around the clichés you’re all used to and tries to tell the truth slant as Emily Dickinson told us to.

I took all the photos within a 100-yard radius. Everything in that circle is within the range of the automatic weapon the shooter used to slaughter 10 people.

My hope is that by taking a sideways but granular view of this atrocity, we can see its dimensions — slant and new and ready to be faced, felt, and considered carefully.

Aftermath/100 Yards

photo by tim roessler of mother and baby

This is an image from my upcoming photobook/zine called Aftermath. It’s about what happens after a mass shooting.

I took the photos all within a 100 yard radius of the entrance to the King Soopers, where a shooter massacred 10 people. One hundred yards is the range of the AR-556 weapon that police say the accused killer used.

We often see mass shootings through a choreographed and fixed narrative. I have been working on telling the story of the March 22 slaughter in a way that’s “slant” — and so, I hope, making it new.

If you would like to order it, please let me know via tim @ tim (put in the spaces) or hit me up in the comments section. It’s in production now and should be out by the end of September.

End of Summer

photo by tim roessler timothy roessler of an empty swimming pool

It feels strange, doesn’t it? The end of summer. The sun sets earlier, and a merciful cool sets in, but it is not the chill of autumn. Children troop by on their way to school bent over with those impossibly overloaded backpacks. Too soon. School should start in September. 

The summer’s almost over. This time has always been liminal. Waiting for the new school year: What will it be like? Will my teachers be nice? Will I meet a beautiful girl? The promises of May and June have either been fulfilled or cancelled or more likely been delivered with a twist of irony. You did have an affair, but she called it off when you didn’t expect it. You took that epic road trip, but the treasure you found wasn’t under the rainbow after all. 

I feel this season, this waiting more keenly now than ever. The vaccine offered the possibility of a return to life as we knew it. I remember the sensation of relief after the second shot: I’m free. The virus can’t get me, no sir. I’ve been double vaxxed.

And especially in June, we bathed in a hectic vitality. Everyone left home. We went out, and each individual seemed marvelous, worth of attention and curiosity. We used our outside voices, like a person going deaf.


Strolling on Pearl Street Mall — the local pedestrian street in the center of town — was like a giant caress. Those new faces! And everyone so happy. They always seemed as interested and charmed by you as you were by them. It was like floating on a sea of dopamine.

That was June. Before the heat. Before the smoke from another summer of wild fires made Denver the most polluted city on the plant.

Before the Delta variant.

I guessed wrong. I thought another summer of love would explode, with a frenzied return to the fabled 1920s fueled by the rush to connect and the proximity to death. “Look, we have come through.”

It didn’t work out that way.

A surprisingly large number of my friends and family think that the vaccine itself is equivalent to the mark of Satan, as described in the Book of Revelation. Or, that wearing a mask indoors is like collaborating with the Sturmabteilung in 1938. How did that happen? I remember back in the day — oh, 2019 or so — when these people seemed practical and a little boring.

One guy told me his friends said the vaccine would turn you into a zombie. I guess he didn’t know that’s what television is for. Or that, actually, zombies are myth.

Another said the vaccine would kill your soul. I might’ve lost my soul in the late 1990s, or perhaps it was finally sucked out of me in a shopping mall when the background music played The Carpenters. I don’t know. But the last time I checked my theology and Plato, the soul is supposed to be a little more durable. If you believe in a soul, that is.

On the other hand, people returned to wearing masks inside of cars and outdoors on trails. So far, not even Dr. Fauci recommends this. Also: care doesn’t confer immortality. Both my parents were conscientious about taking precautions. They died. We all die. Masks aren’t voodoo charms.

I wash my hands thoroughly. Again. I leave the house with a mask. Again. In the midst of my own dismay, I remind myself of the 600,000 Americans who’ve died and the nastiness of long Covid, and then feel thankful I haven’t contracted the virus yet.

And I’m stuck Hamletizing. Again. Do I go or not? I miss watching movies and plays, and seeing live performers giving their all under stage lights in a ballet or in a band. I don’t care about shopping so much, and it’s quick: in out, done. But once again, you weigh the risks of being indoors for longer than, say 15 minutes. It’s not the worst burden, but it’s stale.

When I look around, I can tell the pandemic and the lockdowns have warped people. They’re wolfing down conspiracy theories or seething with rage at anti-vaxxers. All of us have grown awkward around each other. Only the Swedes seem to have factored in the social costs of lockdowns, but they didn’t manage the pandemic very well either.  Still, those costs are real and maybe permanent. How much more damage can we sustain?

In the welter of confusion and uncertainty, the season will end. Seasons are bigger than we are and don’t care about our feelings.  I’ll work hard to remain humane and as Stoic as possible in the face of things. No whiners, my dad said.

Perhaps that was toxic masculinity. I’m working on intoxicating masculinity these days, but that wouldn’t include whimpering or wailing. Not a good look.

Instead, I’m looking forward to crisp air, changing leaves, and even the coming winter. The fall sharpened by uncertainty and the undercurrent of dread. I’ll embrace that as best I can.

After all, what else can I do?

Review: Jewish Denver 1859-1940

Golda Meir, standing, when she lived in Denver.

I love albums of family photos. You can spend hours pouring over the images, seeing the changes time makes to the young girl or study the former elegance of men on Sundays.

Jewish Denver 1859-1940, by Jeanne E. Abrams, is a picture book with well researched captions. The Wild West in general and Colorado in particular aren’t really associated with Jews, yet they played a large role in the settling and development of the Rocky Mountains.  The first wave of Jews came mostly from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many scrappy families established businesses in the mining camps of Central City, Leadville, and Cripple Creek, along with Denver. 

They came largely because, however hard life in the mining camps or out the dusty plains was, the West offered promise and greater social mobility than any European country. Not to mention those pogroms back in the old country — nothing like watching a Cossack slice up grandpa to make you want to book a spot on the next boat out of Warsaw.

The range of faces in these antique photos are amazing — toughs, weisenheimers, machers, saints, scholars, mothers, fathers, and children. And it seems that nearly all of them did pretty well and then immediately set up charities as soon as they made an extra dollar.

Many of the businesses the Jewish immigrants started lasted well into my lifetime: Fashion Bar, Neusteters, the Robinson Dairy, and Samsonite luggage were all fixtures at the local shopping malls — all started by Jews in Colorado bootstrapping their way out of poverty.

Ruth Handler, inventor of the Barbie doll, stands center, in a nurse’s costume

Among the faces, two stand out: a darkly and surprisingly pretty Golda Meir as a young woman and Ruth Handler, the inventor of the Barbie Doll.

I’d like to have seen some note of the conflicts the Jewish community faced. Denver had a few pogroms of its own in the 1910s. The rise of the  Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was fueled by anti-Semitism. The Jewish community resisted  these evils bravely and in the end, victoriously.  Nor is there any mention of the role of Jews in the Denver underworld. And I remember well Green Gables Country Club, started when the Denver Country Club refused to allow Jews to become members.

Overall, this is the kind of book you might give to your grandma on her birthday. It’s a triumphalist narrative as it ought to be, sweet tempered and focused on the outsized impact of the Colorado Jews.

Jewish Denver isn’t an especially substantial book, but it’s worth a look if you like Colorado or Denver history. 

Or old family photos.

Aftermath 2: A modest proposal for gun patriots

image of a cross at King Soopers Table Mesa by Timothy Tim Roessler

A lot of arguments for and again gun control hit the media after the shootings in Boulder, Colorado. Advocates on both sides repeat the same set of polemics after every big slaughter. 

One caught me off guard, though. It goes like this: The deaths are sad, but that’s the price you pay for liberty. Freedom involves risk. Some people will suffer or die, but our right to bear arms under the Second Amendment of the Constitution justifies that possibility. Victims of mass shootings, therefore, died for our freedoms.

Now, the guys making this argument are obviously still alive. Up until now, they can only laud the dead. You can’t really ask them or their loved ones to make the same sacrifice themselves, now, can you? It’s simply not practical to wander around shopping malls or churches or outside of dance clubs with a sign pinned on your back saying “Shoot Me! I support your Right to Bear Arms!! Kill Me Now!!!

But still, what enthusiasm! What commitment!!

Now I’m sure these guys want to do more. And show how much they really, really care. A donation to the National Rifle Association and a vote for gun rights advocates seems too petty for these patriots. It’s too damned easy, and they know it.

So I propose a program, funded out of gun sales, to help them truly show their commitment. And, because they say the Right to Bear Arms is a life or death issue, they should be eager to join. Put it on the line, I say!

Here’s how it’d work: Second Amendment gun patriots sign up for a lottery to enter the Freedom Cleanser and Comforter Squad (FCCS). This qualifies them for a chance at the glorious duty of caring for the dead and the grieving in the wake of a mass slaughter.

After the shooting, the agency holds a drawing. Then our Gun Patriot receives his summons. He arrives on the scene of the carnage— trailer park, grocery store, business office, dance club, church, plaza, wherever.

Once the forensic professionals have finished, he has the duty to clean up the bodies. Lift the blood and feces-stained corpses into the waiting ambulances.  Scrape the bits of bone and brain from the linoleum or concrete. Wipe the blood from the floor. There will be a lot of blood; the average human holds about five liters. 

A little advertised fact of violent death is that the victim’s bowels release. So our sturdy gun patriot will have to wipe up the shit and the piss as well, and ensure that the steps or the pews or the aisles are properly disinfected.

You might think this would be enough for a dedicated Second Amendment advocate, but I know he’ll want to do even more to help defend our freedom.

So he’ll be eager for the next job: comforting the families of the victims. He’ll go with a professional to help break the news to the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, the brothers, and perhaps the grandmothers and grandfathers. He will watch as they receive news that will shatter their lives and scar them with grief for the the rest of their lives.

Because it’s a little too easy just to bat out some platitudes about freedom and sacrifice on a keyboard. And I bet they know it, somewhere inside, and instead of repeating something about death they heard, they can now be in it, in the very heart of darkness and pain and grief.

It seems like the very least those stalwarts could do.

Bloodied Boulder

My neighborhood, Table Mesa, before

A few days before the massacre of 22 March, I walked around my neighborhood, the now infamous Table Mesa. 

I turned a corner and saw a goose was standing with an arrow through its head. It acted perfectly normally, as if the arrow wasn’t through it. 

All around were weeping children and appalled adults. It was a nasty sight, and made even more pathetic because a second goose stood next to the one with the arrow. Its mate, probably.  Animal Control officers were coming up. They’d catch the goose, operate on it, and make sure it went on to fly back to Canada. (I know all this because it was reported later on Nextdoor, a social media platform.)

A goose with an arrow through its head was the worst thing that’s happened around here for a long time. 

It seemed absurd yet touching that a wounded goose would create so much emotional turmoil. And, after all, shooting a goose and then not having the grace or decency to either kill it or take it in for care was cowardly and disgusting.

Back on the scene, before the goose was rushed to a vet, a slim blonde woman in late middle age told me that she’d moved to Boulder to avoid “all that.”

All that. Shorthand for robbery, rapine, random shot gun blasts, and all the scarlet drenched madness and violence of American life. 

Life’s uncertain, but it seemed like a good bet against “all that” to buy a multi-million dollar home in a small university town.

Privilege is a slippery concept, But the privilege of living here is undeniable. I’m annoyed that my neighborhood is shifting over from a place where well-paid yet crunchy professionals live — doctors, lawyers, scientists, tenured professors — into some weird super-moneyed, semi-urban Aspen. Still, it’s a beautiful setting. People around me, especially since the pandemic, are considerate and kind, if a bit uptight.

But all that drove up in a black Mercedes Benz on a gloomy Monday afternoon anyway.

My King Soopers

I’ve shopped there a thousand times or more. It’s my local place, the supermarket where I buy last minute birthday cards, do my weekly grocery shopping, or pick up my prescriptions. 

Completely ordinary, kind of ramshackle for glossy Boulder. Girl Scouts sell cookies outside the doors, various high school clubs peddle popcorn and whatnot for fundraisers. Compared with the other shiny hipster shops in town, it is refreshingly normal and aggressively un-designed. You shop for your groceries, look for the shortest line, and boom, you’re done. The management updated it recently so now it has polished concrete floors and an exposed ceiling instead of the old acoustic tiling. Soft rock plays over the speakers.

During the day, small bunches of teenagers from the nearby high school bought Doritos or kombucha. Often, one of the seniors from the active living complex across the street would ask you to hand her a box of macaroni on a shelf too high for her to reach.  Later at night, college students will roll in high as kites and pack their carts with ice cream or chips. And, of course, you have the whole neighborhood buying dinner, breakfast, whatever to stock the cupboards.  They sold flowers for potting in the spring, and Christmas wreathes in December.

The Asian pharmacist was incredibly helpful to me once, double checking and tracking down some drugs for an eye infection. François, a burly Frenchman, worked the butcher counter and had a fan club of the local ladies.

One of the regular cashiers wore a pentangle and confessed — or bragged — that he was a white witch. Another clerk is a tiny young woman who’s so short it seems she has to reach up to hit the keys on the cash machine. She has acne, a Russian first name, and blushes when you say hi. Kim, who grew up in Vietnam, has her own fan club; her line is generally filled with middle-aged guys, hoping for a chance to catch the sunlight of her smile.

During the live stream video of the event, I was afraid for every one of them. (And, yes, I knew Teri, who’d worked at King Soopers forever, always cheery, ready to return a greeting, a careful and conscientious bagger. She loved her job, they said in the interviews, and it showed. )

I hope Teri didn’t see it coming.

Death Streaming

“It seemed like all of us had imagined we’d be in a situation like this at some point in our lives,” 57-year-old James Bentz said.

via the Denver Post

By chance, a videographer named Dean Schiller arrived almost immediately after the shooting started at King Soopers. Alerted by a friend, my son called me into his room to watch Schiller’s live stream on YouTube, around 2:40 pm.

The computer monitor showed SWAT teams, armored vehicles, a hook-and-ladder truck, ambulances, and what looked like a hundred police SUVs with their lights flashing. One squad of police in full tactical gear lined up by the east entrance. The front windows of the store had been broken out. 

A helicopter flew above my house. Then, it appeared on the computer screen.

It wasn’t surreal. Surreal is giraffes on fire or Jean Cocteau or melting clocks. 

More like: uncanny.

If you’ve ever driven a car down a one-way street and had a car aim at you, coming from the exact wrong direction, you’ll know what I mean. Wait. What’s that? A car? It doesn’t belong there! Is it there? It is! Then you blast your horn, figure your escape. 

But there’s that lag.

Or, in this case, layer on top of each other two scenes you know well. Your supermarket. And a massive, video-game like police response.

After I did take it all in, I went into overdrive. My son’s here, good, okay. Wife’s out of danger.  My daughter—visiting for the first time in months—is driving around. Goddamngoddamngoddamn. I called. She’s fine. Shocked to hear the news. 

It’s strange to hear these words come out of your mouth: “There’s an active shooter situation at King Soopers.” It’s like borrowing a policeman’s uniform, theatrical and wrong. But, that’s what’s happening. And you want the full weight of it to hit hard so that she’s careful.

Your friends? One lives five doors away from King Soopers. A quick text. A quick response, thank God. You work down a list. 

Then, people text you. 

And you watch the live stream. 

Despite their overwhelming superiority in numbers, equipment, and weapons, the police operation had a tentative feel to it. They’d probe, gingerly. The live stream included the police scanner chatter. It seemed as if one problem was logistics — how to handle all the force that arrived.

As we watched, we wondered: How many shooters? How many dead? Are there bombs, ready to go off? Did the shooter have hostages? Would it be turn out like Dog Day Afternoon?

A cherry picker delivered a team of SWAT officers to the roof of the store. Why the roof?

Schiller, who was still live streaming, kept imploring the police to fly a drone in through the broken windows and survey the interior of the store. It seemed like a good idea. Instead, what looked like a chain saw arrived on top of the roof. 

I’m no expert in managing sieges against active shooters. From what I saw — a know-nothing guy watching the internet — the police seemed slow, musclebound and not well trained. In one way, you can’t blame them. It was a first-time crisis for most of them, probably.

But I would also note that after the shooting started, the shoppers helped each other. One witness said that young people helped old people descend the loading docks. Instead of fleeing, they risked their lives for the sake of a stranger. 

A fast-acting barista, Logan Smith, hid his 69-year-old co-worker, leaving himself exposed.

What’s even more remarkable is that, once out of the killing zone, some of the King Soopers shoppers went back into the store to help more people out. Those shoppers did not have shields, body armor, or tactical weapons.

After what seemed like forever, the police led a man out in black boxer shorts with blood streaming down his leg. Was he a victim? No, he was cuffed. The shooter?

The police leading him out were businesslike and absolutely calm. Solemn as priests performing a ritual. 

The man was in black boxer shorts was docile. Something about him reminded me of steers being led through corrals. He had a long streak of red down his leg, but didn’t seem to be limping or seriously hurt.

His naked torso looked terribly exposed and tender, like skinless, boiled chicken.

At one point we heard the voice on the police scanner say, “Six deceased.”

It was, partly, cinematic — a scene played out very often in fiction and in reality. The weapons, the tension, the sheer spectacle of all that hardware. Except that this massacre wasn’t: it was random. No build up. No motive. No climax — the police simply led the man away. And thus, no meaning. Just a growing sense of horror and grief.

What was inside?

Officers in tactical gear and with automatic weapons escorted groups of people, hands linked behind their heads out of the store. They seem to be holding their breath until they got far enough away. 

I saw “my” Asian pharmacist in one of the first groups. Her jacket was still an immaculate white. What had she seen? What nightmares will she have to endure? Later, reports would show that one of the victims was standing in line to get her prescription. Had the pharmacist seen her blown away by the bullets that travel 2,500 feet per second?

That night

I walked to the store. It takes 10 minutes or so. The police taped off a wide perimeter, and it was impossible to see very much.

In the laundromat behind the police lines, a load of clothes spun in a dryer, seemingly on an endless cycle.

A clanking sound came from inside the store, metal on metal, right out of a David Lynch soundtrack. I realized that the bodies must still be inside in their newly butchered condition.

I was the only one walking around. Silence has different qualities. Sometimes it’s merely quiet, other times it seems pregnant. It seemed full that night.

As I walked home, I triggered one of those motion sensitive lights. It was above a garage and flooded the front yard with a bright glare. I had to laugh. 

There you are, with your burglar alarms, your motion detectors, your insurance, your seat belts, your police departments, your martial arts training, your weapons course and you know what? 

Just go shopping for beef stroganoff on Monday afternoon and see what happens.

The victims

Rikki Olds, 25, on the right. via the Colorado Sun

Tralonna Bartkowiak

Suzanne Fountain

Teri Leiker

Kevin Mahoney

Lynn Murray

Rikki Olds

Neven Stanisic

Denny Stong

Eric Talley

Jody Waters

Teri, as I wrote, I knew from her packing my groceries. Jody ran a store aimed at women; she also sold the first Beanie Babies in town. My wife knew her and said she was vibrant and funny, the sort of a person you’d stop in to say hi too. I saw Rikki a few times, joking around as everyone recalls.

Three less people to say hi to. Ten gaping holes in the lives of the families and friends of the people who knew them well. 

The memorial

By Tuesday, the authorities fenced off the King Soopers parking lot. People had already begun leaving bouquets and weaving the stems of red roses into the chain links. Prayer candles lined the sidewalk. Messages and poems were also tied to the fence. Snow fell. 

A tall man covered his eyes and wept. A woman lit a sage stick. Groups of young women in twos and threes walked arm in arm, tears streaming down their faces. Mostly couples of all ages would walk to the fence, leave some flowers, step back, and pause. Perhaps they prayed.

photo of king soopers table mesa boulder colorado

Mixed in with the crowd of mourners, photographers festooned with several cameras, many with long telephoto lenses prowled around with hungry eyes. 

On the other side of the fence, a man in a windbreaker with FBI on it was taking measurements with some device on a tripod. Three black, boxy tents about the size of a car marked the spots of three of the murder victims in the parking lot.

Today, the numbers of mourners—of people paying their respects and leaving offerings of flowers and poems—keeps growing. 

What can you say?

I like to think I’m an imaginative person and not without a certain sensibility. Other mass shootings affected me, some more deeply than others. To my shame, I’ve forgotten about several. That in itself carries a weight of horror: so many mass shootings that you can’t keep track of them.

But when the slaughter takes place less than a mile away from your home, in a place you know as well as your kitchen, it marks you.  By now, I’ve learned that I work through grief with nihilism, carbs, and cognac. It’s not a method I’d recommend, but they kind of work. I’ve been sad, enraged, and raw, all my feelings closer to the surface than I’d like. (This is just so you know what it might be like to be around a massacre, but not part of it.)

I don’t know about lessons or insights. Maybe there are none. If you live long enough, people you love die. I’ve been thinking hard the last few weeks about the pandemic, and for the last few days, about this carnage. They’ll be familiar to most people.

We can die at any moment. Or someone we love could die, or endure a crisis that in a moment will forever change.

There’s a quote from Ivan Bunin that I can’t find, so I’ll paraphrase it clumsily. It goes something like this: Each goodbye could be the last. But how can anyone live at that emotional pitch? Wouldn’t it be strange if each time I said goodbye to you it was as if for the last time?

And yet, it’s true. Each goodbye might be the last one. Had my daughter decided to pick up a snack after she left the house at 2:00 pm, she could easily have ended up in a pool of her own blood. I’d visited King Soopers the day before. My son, the day before that.

I often remember the last act of Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. This scene happens in the cemetery and imagines that the souls of the recently dead review and look in on their lives before they move on — kind of a New England bardo.

EMILY: Let’s really look at one another!…It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed… Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?

STAGE MANAGER: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.

I’ll shop at King Sooper’s again, and I hope they put up a decent memorial to the people who were killed there. But it has utterly changed for me. It will be now a place to buy bread and the location of a massacre. The banal and the horrific all under one roof, as it often is in places where humans have lived for any time at all. 

Coming Through Slaughter

image by tim roessler timothy roessler

This is a masterpiece. It’s a story, if you want to reduce it, of a musician who pushed the boundaries of his art into madness

Some novels take you to place where dreams and memories lie, some almost pre-verbal unconscious condition, hypnotic, intimate as the smell of your own breath. This is one.

Michael Ondaatje, with the density and specificity of a poet, tells a version of the life of Buddy Bolden, one of the creators of jazz. Bolden’s a historic and nearly legendary figure who lived and blew his cornet in New Orleans. Ondaatje brings him to life with grace and ferocity.

Along the way, we meet another artist chasing an original vision: E.J Bellocq, the photographer of prostitutes in Storyville. We know Bolden’s women, his friends, his children. And his steadily bending mind.

Bolden eventually broke blood vessels in his throat, and shattered his sanity. He ended up in the state asylum, a pace as grim as you’d imagine, by passing through the Louisiana town of Slaughter.

It took me a long time to read. Partly, because the prose is as dense as poetry. Partly, too, because of the sheer intensity. 

Read it, even if you’ll end up scorched and blistered. Because it’s beautiful on every damn page, and beautiful in a way that’ll be new to you and change you.

Tonnerre, France

photo2 2

This is a view of Tonnerre, a small town in Burgundy. You can buy escargots in the local butcher shops. You can also find Marc de Bourgogne at a wine merchant’s shop off the autoroute. It’s a shabby cousin to the very groomed and much more famous town of Chablis a few kilometers away.

Many of the houses are empty. You can peer into them and see old beams, fallen stones and the usual trash that accumulates on empty floors — empty bottles of booze and McDonald’s wrappers even here. Some stray cats, their teeth black, will check you out, looking for a handout.

But the Église St. Pierre broods over the town, the rust-red tiles of the roofs, the canals reflecting the old rose and sand colored stucco of the houses, and the inevitable geraniums in the window give the place a lot of charm. Cracks in the bricks, the skewed lace curtains at the windows. crumbling stones, rusty shutters, the still surface of the canals reflecting tangled branches — you feel age and, yeah, decay in the old town. It wears time on its sleeve. It’s imperfect, used, and worn around the edges.

Although it is beautiful, it is not quaint.

And thank God for that.

Brothels, Bordellos, and Bad Girls

(Madame Mattie Silks, from the Colorado Historical Society)

Prostitutes don’t get much respect. This is especially true in the sex-mad and puritanical United States. That makes nearly any book that tells the story of “sporting ladies” worthwhile in itself. For Brothels, Bordellos and Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860 – 1930, author Jan MacKell put in more than 12 years of research. And it shows in the both the broad scope and in the details she’s discovered. 

As you’d expect, many of the stories are tragic. Girls escaping horrific families only to plunge into disease or drug addiction. Suicides, overdoses, and murders run throughout the pages. If the life didn’t kill you, gonorrhea lurked, ready to take your job and melt your brain. Denver even had its own Jack the Ripper in the 1890s, serially murdering working girls. 

But there’s another side, one that you don’t hear about much. Several resourceful and tough women made the best of their time in the demimonde. Some married well, to newly rich miners and traders. Others made durable fortunes as madams and owners of saloons. 

Not only that, but a few showed that some whores do have a heart of gold. A surprising number donated to charity, helped the poor, fed strays, and sent money back home to poverty-stricken families. Many worked as nurses in the 1918 pandemic, something that seems remarkably brave.

In Trinidad, a group of sex workers got together and created a union of sorts, that looked after each other, set up a mutual aid society and even provided a retirement home.

So it’s a rich story, and more complicated than you’d guess.

Among the many large and colorful characters, the epic madame Mattie Silks stands out. You wish a writer with the combined talents of a Balzac and a Twain would would record her story one day. Out of nowhere, she makes it big as a beautiful madame. The chamber of commerce even hired her to persuade a railroad honcho to build a line into Denver. She pocketed $5,000 for the month or so she spent with the executive. 

Mattie once fought a duel, topless, with another madame over her cheating fancy man. Luckily for both of the ladies, the bullets missed them and, in a stroke of poetic justice, one hit the guilty guy right in the throat. He survived. Mattie took him back. She retired a few decades later at the top of her game.

MacKell focuses largely on the period up to 1912, reasonably enough because that’s when the West was wild. A flaw is that there’s not much broader context for the prostitution. It’s specific and granular, which is good, because you don’t get a lot of ideological slant thrown in. Yet, it’s not so good because you miss the larger societal trends.

You’ll  learn a great deal about these remarkable and often admirable women who changed the West as much as those more respectable whores in politics and business.