(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.