In 1889, the same year the Moulin Rouge opened on the edge of the red light district of Pigalle in Paris, a red light district out on the frontier of the American West in Denver, Colorado also saw a grand opening. Jennie Rogers was a tall, slender brunette, who had gone through several names and marriages before arriving in Denver wearing her trademark pair of emerald earrings. She had swindled $17,000 from a former lover and with the money, she built and opened at 1942 Market Street what would come to be known as the “House of Mirrors,” perhaps the most opulent and infamous brothel in the Mile High City’s history.
Market Street was already known as the “wickedest street in the West.” A long line of bordellos, 24-hour gambling dens, seedy saloons and dance halls, it had originally been named Holladay Street to honor one of Denver’s founding families, but when the family saw what the street had become, they asked to have the street’s name changed.
But nothing on Market Street was as outrageous as the “House of Mirrors.” Designed by William Quayle, who was also the architect for Trinity Methodist Church, the brothel was filled with polished wood walls and ceilings and carpets from the Orient. Laura Evans, another Denver madam, described the ballroom: “There were mirrors three feet wide that went from the ceiling to the floor…. There were high backed gothic-style chairs around the room. The chairs had big stuffed arms. There were ottomans on each side of the chairs. The girls were permitted to sit only on the ottomans.”
While a five-piece band played in the corner, Jennie would cater to the most wealthy and famous men of Denver with a business that became so successful, she bought and expanded to the building next door. Jennie was just following in the business pattern of her mentor, Mattie Silks, the “Queen of the Red Light District.”
At 19 years old, the short, blue-eyed, blond Mattie was managing a sporting house in Springfield, IL, but she established early on that she was not a prostitute but a business woman. Carrying a pistol in her pocket, she attracted a string of girls who moved in tents from the cowboy towns of Dodge City and Abilene to mining camps, ending up in Georgetown, Colorado, where she fell in love with a handsome ex-fireman sporting a handlebar mustache named Cort Thomson.
The two moved to Denver in 1876 and opened a three-story brick building with 27 rooms and 12 soiled doves on call. These were women who had entered what was called “the Sisterhood.” In the frontier atmosphere of the West, where men greatly outnumbered women, some of these “ladies of the evening” found themselves without marriage, abandoned, widowed, in abusive relationships or even starving. They entered a profession completely devoid of the romance sometimes attached to it – a world where drugs and alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, legal troubles, venereal disease, social ostracization and threats of physical violence were common.
As in any profession, some sporting women like Mattie and Jennie did very well, making money, drinking fine wines, and finding rich husbands. Most had a different life, many of them committing suicide as they grew older and worked their way down the hierarchy from a parlor house like Mattie’s to a common brothel to a low-end brothel and finally the end of the line, a crib house, a literal bed in a shack where these “daughters of joy” would entertain 30 to 40 men a night. Even lower were the streetwalkers, many of them homeless alcoholics, working the alleys for little more than food.
At one point it is estimated 1,000 women were working in prostitution on Denver’s Market Street.
There were also saloon hall girls and dance hall girls, who sometimes crossed the line into prostitution, but for the most part were just entertainers dealing with hundreds of lonely men, who would wait in long lines and pay a quarter for just one dance. Gentleman arriving in Denver by train in 1892 could pick up a copy of The Denver Red Book, A Reliable Directory of the Pleasure Resorts of Denver, which listed all the houses of entertainment with pertinent information.
Mattie Silks? She became a folk legend. When she discovered her lover Cort was seeing another Madam, Kate Fulton, she got into a brawl with her and possibly challenged her to a duel. Here, legend and fact get intertwined. In one version, the two madams stripped to the waist, met on Colfax Avenue, and in a duel, both fired pistols. The only one wounded? Cort, a bystander, got shot in the neck. Maybe. Probably something far less dramatic took place, but the Rocky Mountain News did report that on August 26, 1877, Mattie and Kate Fulton got into “a disgraceful row,” and Cort Thompson received a “not serious pistol wound.”
Jennie Rogers used her money to travel, opened a brothel in Boston on one of her trips and married a wealthy Boston businessman 20 years her junior. He was, it turned out, just another snake who was already married to someone else. Though they fought and separated, Jennie must have still loved him and they continued to visit each other until she died in 1909. At her estate sale in Denver, Mattie Silks bought the “House of Mirrors.”
Meanwhile, Cort and Mattie also had a contentious relationship, often separating, only to get back together on adventures, at one time even opening a bordello in Dawson, Alaska. Cort died in 1900 and Mattie gave him a wonderful funeral, buying the adjoining plot in the cemetery for herself, where she still resides.
Mattie continued to run the House of Mirrors until 1919. But the times were a’changing. In 1900, a reformist group of Denver politicians said that all prostitutes would have to wear an identifying yellow ribbon. The next day, Mattie organized a parade of ladies down 15th Street, every one of them dressed from shoes to bonnets in yellow.
When Mattie finally retired, she married a big fellow named Handsome Jack Ready, who had two gold front teeth with a diamond studded between them. She lived in Denver in peace on Lawrence Street until her death in 1929.
Today, the exterior of the House of Mirrors has been preserved and is the exterior of a massive bar, Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row. And Market Street? Well, the Holladay family may still prefer that it be called “Market Street.” Denver’s prohibition started in 1919 and put a temporary end to activities here, but walk down Market Street today and the old House of Mirrors is within a long pistol shot of at least 20 bars, dispensaries and music halls. Mattie Silks and Jennie Rogers would probably be horrified – that there is so much competition on their block!
Photos by Rich Grant