The so-called Nude Duel was a legend that sprouted from a drunken brawl involving two well-known madams—Mattie Silks and Kate Fulton—at Denver Gardens in 1877. Although the original accounts of the fight are hardly remarkable, the story took on a life of its own thanks to the diligent exaggerations of Forbes Parkhill and several other authors. The Nude Duel is a textbook example of how myths were formed in nineteenth-century Colorado and the broader American West.
Dueling in Denver
A duel was a prearranged encounter between two people wielding deadly weapons, usually in accordance with a set of rules. Almost exclusively a gentlemen’s game, dueling was conducted in ancient times and was especially common in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France. To a lesser extent, dueling occurred in America throughout the nineteenth century, with at least two duels recorded in the Colorado Territory (1861–76). Sectional politics or matters of love were most often the cause.
Denver in 1877 was a fairly unsophisticated but increasingly prosperous town of nineteen years, with a population of 20,000. Colorado had just become a state, and good times were returning after a grasshopper infestation that decimated the economy. Denver was also hungry for diversion by 1877. Hardy residents had rough edges but longed for the amusement and culture of their old homes back East. In addition, Colorado women had sought equal suffrage that year, but men voted it down; it would not arrive until 1893. In the face of tough economic times and limited personal freedoms, some young women in Denver turned to prostitution in order to make ends meet. Despite a thriving temperance movement, Denver’s saloons, gambling dens, and bordellos were open day and night.
Denver Park, immediately southwest of town, was established in 1872 in an effort to diversify Denver’s leisure-time choices. The park encompassed 46 acres, about half of which were covered by a thick grove of cottonwood, box elder, and evergreen trees. However, it lay beyond the jurisdiction of Denver police and had open bars where beer flowed day and night. Consequently, Denver Park and nearby Olympic Garden attracted an unsavory clientele that park managers seemed powerless to control. The 1876 Fourth of July festivities passed, thankfully, with no unseemly interruptions; but by August 1877, the grove was again a location to be avoided by upstanding citizens.
Few in town might have regarded Mattie Silks and Kate Fulton as upstanding. Silks and her beau, Cort Thomson, had become lovers in Georgetown and had lived in Denver for fewer than six months. Silks quickly developed an unsavory presence in Denver and was fined twelve dollars for drunkenness in March 1876. Silks and Thomson were wed in 1884 and remained married until his death in 1900. During that time, Silks became well known throughout the West as a madam in an indispensable vocation—prostitution. But Thomson drank and gambled away her money, embarrassed her, beat her, and cheated on her. Meanwhile, Kate Fulton, another madam, arrived in Denver a few months before Silks.
Brawl in the Park
There are only two known accounts of the incident at Denver Park on August 24, 1877—one from the Denver Times and another from the Rocky Mountain News. A third document, a court record, emerged in 2006, during a renewed investigation into what would later be known as the Nude Duel. On a Friday night, Silks and Fulton were both drinking at the Denver Park bar. When the pair began arguing loudly, Cort Thomson stepped up, said he would fight Silks’s battles, and punched Fulton in the face. Another man, Sam Thatcher, attempted to restore peace and was also punched in the face by Thomson. A number of Thomson’s friends then descended upon Thatcher, with Fulton placing herself between Thatcher and the attackers. For this she received a kick to the face that shattered her nose. Thomson then drew a gun before being knocked to the ground and disarmed. After the parties separated, Thomson was returning to Denver by wagon when somebody ran up to the carriage and fired a shot that grazed the back of his neck. Fulton would leave on the morning train for Kansas City, unsure of the Denver Police Department’s capability or desire to arrest her. By all contemporary standards, the incident was no duel—it was a drunken brawl.
A Legend is Born
The following morning, Silks and Thomson were back at Silks’s bordello in the 1900 block of present-day Market Street, tending to hangovers and Silks’s bruises, as Thatcher recuperated across the street at Fulton’s brothel. On the Tuesday following the Friday night melee, Silks filed a threats complaint against Fulton with District Attorney D. B. Graham.
Enter the so-called reporter Forbes Parkhill. Born in Denver in 1892, Parkhill developed an early interest in journalism, beginning as a street-corner newsboy, and eventually writing for five Denver papers plus papers in New York City and El Paso, Texas. While writing in El Paso in 1915, Parkhill so embellished a story about Pancho Villa that his editor pronounced it a work of short fiction and suggested that Parkhill conduct his writing activities in that direction. Novellas, pulp westerns, adventure stories, mysteries, and motion picture scripts soon followed. By 1950, Parkhill was preparing a book-length collection of breezy anecdotes from Denver’s past, and he recalled hearing of an 1877 confrontation between two Denver madams. A trip to the library revealed the Denver Times article of August 25, and Parkhill noticed the first sentence of the Rocky Mountain News account, which stated that “Mattie Silks and Kate Fulton were principals, two men, Thatcher and Thompson [sic] were seconds.” Parkhill saw the words principals and seconds, both of which implied a duel. In 1951 Parkhill’s The Wildest of the West contained these surprising declarations:
This is the story of lovely Mattie Silks, the fastest woman in all the West, and her knight in tarnished armor, Coreze D. Thomson, who tried hard to be the fastest man. It begins with an account of the only known formal pistol duel ever fought between women. This duel was on the night of August 25, 1877, in the Olympic Gardens at Denver. The principals were Mattie Silks and Katie Fulton. Feminine marksmanship being what it is, Mattie missed Katie, and Katie missed Mattie, but Cort was shot in the neck.
Parkhill gets almost every particular wrong in this account: the date, the location, the word duel (used twice), the assumption of a duel in which the women shot at each other, and Fulton’s first name (she never went by “Katie”). Further into the chapter, Parkhill speculated that the fight was a consequence of romantic expressions between Fulton and Thomson—but quickly added that no such motive was known to be a fact. The jealousy theory would be repeated as fact by other writers for the next fifty years. Parkhill also wrote that the Denver Park party was a celebration of Silks’s winning $2,000 in an earlier bet and that a doctor treated Thomson’s wound at the scene.
The Duel Goes Nude
According to contemporary newspaper reports, none of the things that Parkhill claimed actually happened. Nevertheless, over the ensuing decades Colorado historians of every stripe published and re-embellished his sordid account of the fight. Somewhere in the piling on of myths, the two madams lost their shirts. The earliest suggestion of a topless scenario is in Robert L. Perkin’s The First Hundred Years, although Perkin’s wording suggests he got the idea from somewhere else. Even relatively well-respected authors such as Caroline Bancroft could not resist adding to the collection of books, stories, movies, and plays written about the incident. As the years went by and access to historical records improved, the original newspaper articles slowly made the rounds of publishers, editors, and western authors, and the truths behind the fight slowly reemerged. But in the meantime, dozens of popular interpretations of the “duel” were widely published and read.
The Silks-Fulton skirmish is among the most inviolable legends in Colorado history. It has long been represented not only as a duel but as the first duel between two women—and later as the first duel between two shirtless women. Of course, the available evidence doesn’t support any of these later versions. Even when interpreted at its highest level of significance, the Denver Park scenario represents little more than the town’s first drive-by shooting. Silks and Fulton were not major players in the histories of Denver or Colorado, but the titillating, self-perpetuating, and reckless sensationalism imposed upon their story is a textbook example of runaway historical revisionism.
Colorado history is rife with similar examples, such as the story of killer rats atop Pikes Peak, or the many myths surrounding the life of Margaret Brown. The reader can ponder innumerable other historical accounts that were tinkered with over the decades, influencing how today’s readers might regard an entire region. People love a good story, which is why Colorado’s topless duel will certainly be around for another century and might be even less recognizable by then compared to today.
Adapted from Clark Secrest, “Escapade beneath the Cottonwoods: Revisiting Colorado’s ‘Nude Duel that Will Not Die,’” Colorado Heritage Magazine 26, no. 3 (2006).