The Parlor House Madam
Parlor houses were elegant well-furnished places where the most beautiful and desirable women worked. These places appealed to a wealthy clientele. All parlor houses and high-class brothels had servants, fine food, drinks, and entertainment. A piano player called “the professor” provided music. The “girls” were referred to as “boarders.” There were usually around twenty in each house, ranging in age from eighteen to thirty or thirty-five year in age. The girls spent their daytime hours doing needlework, reading and sewing. The brothels worked in the same way, but were not as elegant. Still, they usually had comfortable saloons and offered drinks and conversation.
Every parlor house or brothel was presided over by a madam. The madam was usually an older woman who had “paid her dues” by working as a prostitute herself and had through the years saved up enough money to start her own business. However, there were also several madams who boasted they had never been prostitutes themselves. Others may have been set up in business by a wealthy boyfriend or admirer.
In exchange for her services and protection, the madam kept a certain portion of each girl’s earnings. This usually amounted to about a 50-50 split of money taken in. Arrangements on how the pay was taken varied from house to house and were worked out with the individual madam. In some parlor houses, girls were given free room and board, in others they had to pay rent. Usually, if they had to pay rent, less was taken from their actual earnings. The girls got to keep any tips they were given by their customers. The madam usually got big a cut of the girl’s earnings one way or the other.
In parlor houses as well as brothels, much of the profit came from drinks served. Prices on these drinks were raised considerably. Sometimes the madam kept all the money taken in from alcohol sales, other times she gave the girls a small commission to encourage them to ply the customer with the high-priced drinks.
The working girls had to maintain an expensive wardrobe of dresses, hats, gowns and lingerie, and usually had no credit. The madam often allowed them to charge these items to her account. This kept the girls continually in her debt and in her employ.
The running of a parlor house was an enterprising business. Many of the madams were quite successful businesswomen and amassed sizeable fortunes. Quite a few of them owned property and fine horses. Though the parlor house business was not accepted by society, the madams paid their share of revenue to the community in taxes and in fines to corrupt police officials. They were also expected to contribute to charity.
Some of the madams eventually retired from the business and lived out their lives in quiet contentment. Unfortunately, drug addiction and depression seemed to be hazards of the trade. More than a few of the famous madams ran through the fortunes they had accumulated and died penniless and destitute.
Pistol Packing Madams – Mattie Silks
Mattie Silks became a madam at 19. She boasted that she had never been a prostitute herself. She ran houses of prostitution in Missouri and Kansas before moving to Georgetown, Colorado. There, she set up a small business that would finance her greater business in Denver. For over two decades, she was known as “Queen of the Red Light District.” Blue-eyed, blonde-haired, petite Mattie bore a resemblance to popular singer of the time, Lilly Langtry. She was known to carry gold coins in one pocket of her specially tailored dresses, and a pocket pistol in the other.
Mattie had a fondness for betting and racing. When she was 29, she moved to Denver with a man named Cort, who was a gambler and a foot racer. They lived together, but were unable to marry because Cort could not get a divorce from a previous marriage. Cort evidently had an eye for the ladies. Mattie was involved in a pistol duel with another madam, Katie Fulton over Cort. They exchanged shots. Mattie’s shot went wild, but Katie’s bullet struck poor Cort in the neck. He survived and went back to Mattie. When his wife died, he married her. At the time, he was in debt to Mattie for 50,000 dollars so this probably swayed his decision to tie the knot again.
Mattie was involved in a second incident with another woman, again over Cort. She became jealous and shot off one of her rival’s curls. It was a good thing Mattie was not a very good shot.
Later, Cort died of either ptomaine poisoning or cirrhosis of the liver. Mattie continued her business until 1915, when prostitution was abolished in Denver. She “retired” and tried for a time running a hotel.
At 77 Mattie married once again, and died at age 83. During her lifetime she took in millions, but at her death had only around four thousand dollars.
Mollie Mae was the top madam in Leadville, Colorado in 1879-1887. Millie owned a large parlor house, one of the first in the silver boomtown, which was considered one of the toughest towns in the nation. There were numerous opium dens, and behind the rows of cribs and brothels, so many babies were found dead it was called Still-born Alley. The girls in her house often made paper by ending their lives or attempting to end their lives with poison. At one point Mollie went to court where she accused one of the working girls of stealing a dress. In turn, the girl accused Molly of running a house of ill repute. Charges were dropped when the women realized in order to get a conviction they would have to incriminate each other. Another incident occurred when Mollie got into an argument with another madam by the name of Sallie Purple. The two “ladies” barricaded themselves in the house and exchanged shots. Both of them being bad shots, no one hurt.
Mollie had her good side. She often contributed to charity and comforted ill miners during epidemics. She died during the smallpox epidemic in 1870.
More Famous Madams
Below are the life stories of three madams who ran parlor houses in the Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota area. These women were all cultured, beautiful and successful. Their days were filled with luxury, extravagance and entertainment. But there was a down side to the lives they led. Depression and drug addiction seemed to be almost an occupational hazard. All of these women came to tragic ends, winding up either destitute or suicidal, or both.
Elanore Dumont was born in New Orleans in 1829. From 1854, she made her way across the West, working as both gambler and madam in various places including Wyoming and Deadwood, South Dakota. An attractive woman and expert card dealer, men gladly lost their money to her. Around 1864 she befriended 15-year-old Jane Canary, or “Calamity Jane”, who for a time worked as one of her girls. Eventually, Elanore started to grow a thin line of upper hair on her lip which got her the nickname of “Madam Mustache.” People called her this–but not to her face. Madam Mustache opened her a parlor house in San Francisco between the 1860’s and mid 1870’s. She ended up in Bodie in 1879, where her body was found in a ditch. A bottle of poison was found lying next to her and no suicide note.
Pearl DeVere was a popular figure both in Denver and Cripple Creek, Colorado. She had already become wealthy when she moved from Denver to the little boomtown of Cripple Creek to continue her business. Her first small establishment on Myers street burned down when in 1896 the red light district of Cripple Creek was ravaged by fire. The district was soon rebuilt, and out of the ashes sprang a much more elaborate brick building. The parlor, called the Old Homestead, had all the luxuries the times offered, including electric lights, indoor plumbing, and even a telephone. The Old Homestead with its beautiful women and fine furnishings catered to a rich clientele. Pearl herself spared no expense. In 1897 Pearl threw a lavish party where she wore an extravagant Paris ball gown of shell pink Chiffon with sequins and seed pearls that cost 800 dollars. The day following the party, Pearl was found dead from an overdose of morphine. Her death was believed to be a suicide. A grand funeral ensued, attended by many prominent townspeople.
Madam Vestal – Belle Siddons
Madam Vestal, born Belle Siddons, hailed from Missouri. During the Civil War, this pretty woman attended dances and was caught acting as a spy by passing secrets on to the Confederacy. For this, she was sent to prison. After her release, she married a doctor who died of yellow fever. Forced to support herself, Belle turned to gambling. She ran her own place in Wichita, Kansas, and it was at that time she changed her name to Madam Vestal. From 1875-1876, she worked in a gambling house in Denver, then moved to Deadwood, South Dakota. There, she met stage robber Archie McLaglla. She provided him with information on money and shipments leaving town by stage, much as she had passed notes on to Confederate spies during the war. When captured, Archie and his gang were sent from Cheyenne to Deadwood to stand trial, but they were hanged along the way. Madam Vestal ended life in an opium den in San Francisco.