Love and Lust in Wild Places
In the wake of the Civil War, thousands of unfettered men drifted west like tumbleweeds in a prairie wind.
Some butchered bison when the herds were abundant and bounties high. Some followed the canvas tents, shantytowns and construction crews as railroads snaked across the plains of Kansas and Nebraska. Some rode into the distant Rockies for gold and silver and fast times at high altitude. And some trailed longhorn cattle north to the rough and rowdy railheads awash in whiskey and prostitutes.
Most were simply looking for adventure and enough money to keep moving.
And so it was with Cortege D. Thomson, a madman who arrived in Colorado Territory not long after being exiled from California as part of San Francisco’s purge of gamblers and outlaws in the early 1870s. “Cort” told acquaintances that he was born and raised in Texas, which may or may not have been true. He was a difficult man to trust.
He once bragged he had ridden with William Quantrill and his Confederate “bushwhackers” on the border between Kansas and Missouri. If true, such an admission might not have set well with the pro-Union patriots in Colorado Territory. But few would have been willing to buck that tiger in the tough saloons of Denver City. Although diminutive in physical stature, Cort was widely known as a “two-gun man” and a first-class bully.
Charming one minute and an abhorrent thug the next, his moods shifted in direct proportion to his consumption of drugs and alcohol. When gobsmacked inebriated, Cort could turn into a sadistic monster. In the tenderloin district of Denver in the 1880s when low on cash, he would ride his horse into the parlor of his favorite brothel on Holladay Street, drunk and swearing with pistols drawn, and demand money from its famous proprietor who also happened to be his lover.
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But she never turned him down.
His psychopathic behavior continued long after he had relocated to the Eastern Plains of Colorado and western Nebraska. It was said he found great fun when roping unsuspecting passengers off the platform of the Wray Train Depot, dragging them up and down the street while daring anyone to stop the assault. One local resident said: “He walked with a swagger and one side of his mouth was always twisted in a sneer. He was the kind of man who, if he encountered a group of folks on the sidewalk, would not walk around them but would bull his way right through them, elbowing ’em this way and that.”
Cort lands in Georgetown
The first records of Cort Thomson’s arrival in Colorado Territory appear in Georgetown in 1873.
Founded in 1859 in the mountains west of Denver, Georgetown’s roots were tied to gold discoveries in the gravel beds along Clear Creek. But it quickly became the epicenter of Colorado’s silver boom after a series of strikes in the steep canyon that now cradles Interstate 70. More than 2,000 claims were filed in Georgetown in 1861 alone and the place quickly became fertile territory for miners and merchants – and the anticipated throng of grifters, gamblers and prostitutes. By the time Cort Thomson arrived, the population of Georgetown had grown to over 10,000 and the town was being called “The Silver Queen of Colorado.”
For all the glamorized versions of life in mining towns, the myth seldom matched the reality.
Some prospered but the vast majority of all residents failed. Though demanding unto themselves, surface discoveries of gold nuggets and placer mines in the rivers and streams were labor intensive, but when traces of valuable minerals were followed into the granite walls above, mining became extremely dangerous work and was generally without reward.
Miners suffered greatly through bone-chilling winters, price gouging for all goods and services, muddy streets, crooked employers and crooked trails.
To combat the boredom and loneliness, many turned to gambling, drinking and prostitutes, further straining their already meager wages.
Life in the camps also came with another liability – the ever-present threat of fire.
All buildings, sheds and shanties in the early mining camps were built of logs or milled lumber. Their drafty interiors were heated by inefficient wood-burning stoves and fireplaces and illuminated with highly flammable kerosene lanterns. On bitterly cold nights, smoldering embers rose from hot stovepipes and chimneys, drifting on mountain winds and settling onto wood shingles.
In short, every mining town was a tinderbox.
In the spring of 1874, a massive fire swept through the heart of neighboring Central City, burning down almost every structure. Similar infernos broke out in other mining towns like Cripple Creek near the booming Pikes Peak district and St. Elmo in the Sawatch Range. In response, community leaders and mining companies invested in firefighting equipment, recruiting athletic young men to haul the cumbersome contraptions up and down the steep and narrow thoroughfares.
When Cort Thomson arrived in Georgetown, it’s safe to bet to assume he witnessed the local fire brigades in action and saw great potential for fame and notoriety. It wasn’t long before he began bragging about his own athletic prowess, claiming he could outrun anyone in Georgetown or any other mining camp. Matter of fact, he boasted that he was the fastest man west of the Missouri River and he could prove it on the street if anyone was willing to put down some money. And when they did, the fleet-footed Thomson pocketed all wagers.
Community leaders quickly recruited Cort for community service on Georgetown’s Fire Brigade No. 2.
In the overall absence of organized sports, competition between neighboring fire brigades became an extremely popular form of entertainment and served as valuable training exercises for the various teams. People lined the streets of Georgetown, Central City, Blackhawk and other mining districts to watch and wager. Included in the events were foot races of various distances.
Once Cort began running in Georgetown, he soon became a “rock star” in the hard-rock mining districts of Colorado.
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His fame spread far and wide and stories about his lucrative match races were published in newspapers even along the Front Range. In one particular match race held in Pueblo, the Rocky Mountain News reported that Cort won the event and took home the $2,000 purse. That would be the equivalent of $43,371 today.
One weekend on the streets of Georgetown in the late 1870s, an attractive, well-dressed young woman named Martha A. Ready was part of the crowd assembled on the boardwalk. She watched the brash young man named Cort prepare for the day’s biggest race, a sprint through the business district. Side bets were called up and down the street. Bedecked in the brigade’s brightly colored uniform, which consisted of a tight muscleman shirt, pink tights and “star-spangled blue running trunks,” Martha liked what she saw and wagered $1,000 in gold on the handsome young fellow in the tight pink tights. And Cort did not disappoint, easily winning the race and the heart of Mattie Silks forever.
And so began one of the strangest love stories in the history of the Rocky Mountain West.
Mattie Goes West
Martha was born April 26, 1845, in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Small in stature with long dark hair and beautiful features, family and friends began calling her “Mattie” at a very young age. In the 1850s her family moved to a small farm in Indiana where Mattie soon learned there were far easier ways to make a living than walking behind a mule and scouring plow. Although details of her early life remain shrouded in mystery, we know she opened her first brothel in Springfield, Illinois, sometime in 1865. And the prostitution business boomed when soldiers returned home from the Civil War, looking for good times and adventure.
“I was never a prostitute,” she told her personal maid, who shared the conversation with Forbes Parkhill for his 1951 book entitled Wildest of the West.
“Except for a brief time when I was in the freighting business, I was a madame from the time I was 19 years old in Springfield. And I never worked for another madame. The girls who work for me are prostitutes, but I am and always have been a madame,” she said.
A madame’s profession came with a higher level of respectability and propriety. In her humble opinion, her reputation far exceeded that of any of the women she employed.
After relocating from Illinois in 1867, she opened her first “parlor” in Olathe, Kansas, just outside of Kansas City. Not long after she followed the path of the Kansas Pacific Railroad west to the boom towns rising up along the railroad grade, setting up shop in places like Abilene, Dodge City and Hays City but never staying long in any one place to call it home. And in those dark dens of debauchery, she likely encountered other western notables like John Wesley Hardin, Phil Coe, Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp.
She once told a Denver reporter that Wild Bill Hickok once gave her shooting lessons.
When the red lights of the Kansas cow towns began to flicker and fade, Mattie moved west again, following the old Smoky Hill Road into Colorado. She arrived in the Centennial State in 1876 after statehood was granted.
Though details are few, she reportedly opened her first bordello near the entrance to Boulder Canyon, running prostitutes out of a temporary canvas tent where miners could purchase food and supplies. But business in the small town was too slow to satisfy her ambitions so she gathered up her soiled doves and together they flew to the mining camps west of Denver, landing in Georgetown where she began mining the miners for their hard-earned silver and gold.
On that fateful day on the streets of Georgetown, the orbits of Mattie and Cort crossed for the first time, marking the beginning of a journey that would take them to the highest of high society, including a lavish trip to England for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, to the lowest of lows and the seediest dumps and dives of Denver.
By the time Mattie arrived in Georgetown, Cort’s reputation was well known across the Mountain West through his many match races that took place along the Front Range from Greeley to Pueblo. Making them notable and newsworthy was the fact that many of the winner-take-all purses were well in excess of $1,000 and the Calcutta bets often dwarfed the purses.
“Cort challenged Tony Garry to a race on July 15, 1876, for $300 and the championship of Clear Creek County,” wrote Parkhill. “By post-time the purse had been upped to $1,000, and $4,000 in additional bets were wagered on the outcome. This time Cort won by 18 inches.”
Chances are good that Mattie Silks was a big better on all of Cort’s races. And for a very brief time in the Colorado High Country, life seemed to be as about good as it gets. Business remained brisk for Mattie and Cort enjoyed celebrity status in the saloons of Georgetown, Central City and Blackhawk. But silver and gold strikes do not last forever – they simply move to new locations. When things began to slow down in Georgetown, Mattie began eyeing the new state capital whose population had surged to 25,000 permanent residents, making it one of the largest cities between San Francisco and St. Louis.
The Bright Lights of Denver
In 1879, the couple arrived in Denver, where Mattie purchased a building for $14,000 on Holladay Street, the booming tenderloin district of the “Mile High City” that was fast becoming the industrial hub of the western U.S.
As the money rolled in, she purchased another property at 2635 Lawrence Street where she made her home. At that time, Lawrence Street was one of Denver’s most respectable neighborhoods and she tried her best to elbow her way in. She also began buying expensive racehorses and running them at Overland Park, the recently opened racetrack on the west side of the South Platte River. The elite nature of thoroughbred racing may have given Mattie the erroneous notion that it would gain her access to the city’s upper-class circles. What she never counted on was the reputation that would forever make her an outsider. No matter what she did in life, she would never be allowed to circulate in Denver’s high society. And it troubled her.
While Mattie’s money continued to pour in by the bushel basket, Cort continued to party like a rock star. For a time he began frequenting Mattie’s competition, which allegedly led to a pistol duel in which Mattie accidentally shot Cort while taking aim at her competition. Once the wound healed, Cort returned to his life of debauchery, squandering money in the gambling dens of Denver and throwing wild parties fueled by drugs and alcohol. And when Cort got inebriated, he got mean.
Parkhill described what typically would happen.
“When short of cash he had a weakness for riding his horse up the steps of Mattie’s [bordello] and through the front door.” With pistols drawn and threating to shoot up the place, Cort would demand cash and Mattie would always relinquish, giving him more money to gamble on the faro tables in his favorite saloon – Murphy’s Exchange on Larimer Street, which was also known as “The Slaughterhouse” for the large number of patrons who were killed inside while drinking and playing cards with people like Cort Thomson.
As his drunken behavior got worse, Mattie decided a change was necessary. Using her growing stable of expensive racehorses as an excuse, she gave her loving man a mission.
“I really need a place to keep my horses. Besides, it would do you good to live on a farm. You’re drinking too much.”
Cort probably saw it as yet another opportunity to exploit Mattie’s money, while having lots of fun and making some money on the side. So sometime in 1887 Cort took up Mattie’s offer, boarding a train to the Eastern Plains and stepping off in the small town of Wray. Naturally, his first order of business was to locate the nearest saloon.
While drinking whiskey that day, he met two buffalo hunters named Kellogg and Cole who had just returned from nearby Haigler, Neb., after selling a wagon load of buffalo meat. Since the bison had been shot out, the scraggy Kellogg and Cole offered to sell Cort their hunting camp. Cheap. Located 15 miles north of Laird in the rolling sandhills along the Nebraska border, the small piece of land included a spring-fed “seep” several acres in size but certainly not enough to sustain many horses and cattle.
Of course, that really didn’t matter much in the waning days of open range. The location and isolation of the ranch suited Cort perfectly. He filed for the deed to the ground, along with several other adjoining pieces and wired a telegraph message to Mattie. They had officially become landowners in Yuma County.
Not long after, Cort began running a hot branding iron on the neighbors’ livestock. And that might explain the reception that uninvited visitors usually received when they accidentally stepped onto Mr. and Mrs. Thomson’s land.
Cort once caught a prominent High Plains rancher named Thomas M. Ashton on his land looking for strays. Ashton was one of the first big cattlemen to settle along the vast Colorado-Nebraska border. Thomson rode up, ordered Ashton off his horse at gunpoint, and told the well-known cattleman to start running for home. Cort trailed close behind. This excerpt from Parkhill’s book told the rest of the tale:
“Hour after hour Cort, on horseback, followed the running man, urging him to greater speed by firing into the ground at his heels. As evening neared the exhausted man halted, panting, ‘I’m plumb tuckered out, Cort. I haven’t had a bite since breakfast, and I can’t move another step without something to eat whereupon Cort ordered him down on all fours and told him to start eating.’
Ashton later confirmed the incident during a poker game with Ernest Fletcher. The well-known cowboy and storyteller said Ashton told him that the prairie grass tasted rather good.
Even local law enforcement officials were not immune. Accused of cattle rustling – imagine that – Cort was arrested at gunpoint inside a saloon in Wray by a deputy sheriff from Yuma. At that time Yuma was still the official county seat. During the 27-mile ride back to the sheriff’s office, Cort lagged behind the law officer. Quick as a rattlesnake, he threw a loop over the deputy sheriff, dallied on the saddle horn, and jerked the stunned deputy sheriff off his horse, leaving the lawman hog-tied on the ground somewhere near Eckley. Cort rode back to Wray to continue drinking. The lawman freed himself and walked back to Yuma. There was never a report filed about a second arrest.
When he wasn’t profiting off the local beef market, Cort would hold wild parties at the Thomson ranch, hosting prostitutes who traveled by train to the Eastern Plains. The parties were well stocked with drugs and alcohol, according to those who knew about such things but were wise enough not to say anything. Cort’s new rural lifestyle was financed entirely by Mattie’s business enterprises in Denver and one must wonder if she grew tired of it.
When not partying at the ranch or culling cattle in neighboring Nebraska across state lines, Cort would often go “binge drinking” in the saloons of Wray and Haigler, picking fights and generally becoming a menace to the local population. Although most of his neighbors knew what was happening on the ranch north of Laird, the local grapevine wisely kept quiet. And if they didn’t, they were quickly reminded of the consequences.
When the editor of the Wray Rattler printed an innocent news item about Cort and Mattie, Cort flew into a drunken rage. Looking for revenge, he unsuccessfully attempted to throw a loop over the terrified journalist and drag him through the streets like an unsuspecting railroad passenger. When he missed, he yelled at the fleeing journalist loud enough for everyone to hear: “If you ever print my name in your dirty little sheet again, I’ll rope-drag you from hell to breakfast!”
Thereafter, newspapers in Wray and Yuma simply referred to them as Mr. and Mrs. C.D. Thomson.
To celebrate his 53rd birthday in April of 1900, Cort went on a full-blown bender with several close drinking buddies, identified only as Peg Leg and Dirty Face. The two-day binge was reportedly fueled by cocaine and opium, brought down from Denver by several prostitutes. When Cort began to run low on cash when they ran out of whiskey, he telegraphed Mattie and threatened to sell her prized thoroughbred, Jim Blaine. Alarmed at the prospect of losing one of her best racehorses, Mattie bought a ticket on the next eastbound train. She arrived at the Commercial Hotel in Wray where she found Cort holed up in an upstairs room, writhing and complaining of extreme abdominal pain.
The End of the Line
Several versions of what happened inside the Commercial Hotel have circulated on the High Plains for more than a century.
One story says that Cort died of acute ptomaine poisoning after eating a batch of bad oysters, which arrived on ice from Denver with several whores. Another version says that all those years of non-stop alcohol consumption had finally taken its toll and his liver was giving out.
Still another version says that Mattie fed him enough laudanum and whiskey to finally put Cort Thomson out of his misery.
When Mr. and Mrs. C.M. Thomson’s hired hand arrived in Wray later that same day, leading Jim Blaine with a halter rope, Cort was already dead.
“Cort Thomson died at sunup, sitting bolt upright in a chair. Five minutes after he was dead his face was the color of a storm cloud over the plains; blue-black,” said Will Toner, the hired hand and witness.
Cort’s well-preserved and partially pickled body was returned to Denver the next day on a westbound train before a coroner’s inquest could occur. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Fairmount Cemetery a few miles north of Cherry Creek near Lowry Field.
Jim Blaine was hauled back to Denver in a livestock train car along with Cort. Once back at Overland Park, the racehorse continued to run the oval and win races.
One might surmise that this famous thoroughbred would always remind Mattie of the sagebrush country far out on those Colorado plains, remind her of a past that she herself could never outrun.
Mattie later married a man named “Handsome Jack” Ready and for more than a decade she continued to operate the famous “House of Mirrors” on Holladay Street in Denver. When prostitution was finally outlawed in 1915, Mattie retired and moved into her quaint little cottage home on Lawrence Street. Not long after, Holladay Street was renamed “Market Street” in an attempt by Denver’s high society to bury its notorious past.
As the years passed Mattie gained weight and lost her youthful beauty. Gone, too, was her official title as the Queen of Denver’s Red-Light District. She died at the age of 83 on Jan. 7, 1929, and was buried in the Fairmount Cemetery next to Cort’s unmarked grave. Above her final resting place looms a grey, faded tombstone bearing her “respectable” name, Martha A. Ready.
Ironically, she is now surrounded by former governors, philanthropists and others who refused to accept a famous purveyor of prostitutes into their social circle. Like it not, they now rest together for eternity.
Matt Vincent, a fifth-generation native of the Colorado plains, graduated from Yuma High School in 1975 and from the University of Colorado School of Journalism in 1980. After more than 30 years in the newspaper and magazine business, he retired in 2009 to pursue other interests in the publishing world. Today, he and his wife, Robin, reside on a small family farm in northeastern Colorado.