The California Gold Rush in 1848 ignited America’s great Westward Movement. Like a yellow magnet, gold drew the risk-takers, dreamers and gamblers to the West. San Francisco was seemingly created overnight to supply and “service” gold hunters. By 1850, the City by the Bay had a population of 25,000 and more than a thousand gambling houses.
Immigrants and settlers followed the gold-hunters, gamblers and gunslingers West. These early citizens were strong, courageous, determined folk. They had to be.
Contrary to popular belief, men did not tame the West alone. Women were there too. Although it was a man’s world, there were a few women whose circumstances and inclination led them to become professional gamblers. One of the most famous lady gamblers was a French woman, Madame Eleanor Dumont.
Beautiful, petite and well-dressed, she arrived in Nevada City NV one morning in 1854. She soon opened a gambling hall in a vacant storefront and began dealing twentyone. She was an instant hit with the miners.
Mme. Dumont had high standards. Her customers were not permitted to chew, smoke, get loud, or cuss. They waited quietly, hats in hand, for the privilege of sitting at her table. It was said that after closing her game, she would serve champagne to the losers.
Madame Dumont frequented the mining camps of northern Nevada, California and the Northwest for many years. She became a legend as a “sporting woman” who made her living as a gambler, but whose favors could never be bought. Eventually, age and luck caught up with her.
Following a very bad run of cards, the graying Mme. Dumont lost her bankroll. A few days later, September 8, 1879, she was found dead after taking poison. The Sacramento Union Newspaper reported her death, adding simply, “she was well known throughout the mining camps.”
When gold was discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory a new rush was on and Deadwood was its center. One of the earliest professional gamblers to arrive in town was a young Texas woman, Kitty LeRoy. She arrived on the same train that brought Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane to Deadwood.
Kitty opened a gambling den called “The Mint” and became one of Deadwood’s most colorful residents. A journalist at the time wrote that she “had five husbands, seven revolvers, a dozen Bowie knives, and always went armed to the teeth.”
It was reported that Kitty once donned a man’s clothes in order to challenge a fellow who refused to fight a woman. After gunning him down, she called for a preacher and married her victim before he died. Her career came to violent end in Deadwood when her fifth husband shot her and himself to death because she told him to get out.
In the Southwest, the most famous woman gambler was Lottie Deno. She was a vivacious 17- year old southern belle when the Civil War broke out in 1861. She lost her parents, her position and all her family’s possessions and wealth. In order to survive, she turned to gambling.
Lottie arrived in Ft. Griffin, Texas a few years after the Civil War ended. A military outpost established to protect westbound settlers from the Plains Indians. Ft. Griffin has been described as “one of the wildest… gambling hellholes ever spawned on the frontier”.
However, Lottie had class and refinement. A life long friend told an interviewer many years later that she “was a fine looker… in manners a typical Southern Lady. She had nothing to do with the common prostitutes… she was not a ‘gold digger’.” Lottie, “stood apart from the rabble”.
She was also an excellent professional gambler. She once played heads-up with Doc Holliday and won his entire bankroll. Lottie eventually married and retired from gambling. After her husband died, she lived alone until passing away in 1934, a few months before her 90th birthday.
Alice Ivers, a young English girl educated in a fashionable female seminary, came West with her parents and married a Colorado mining engineer. When he was killed in an accident, Alice found it necessary to become a professional gambler to survive. As such she became widely known as “Poker Alice”.
Poker Alice, one biographer tells us, “was not a prostitute…. but a professional”. He added, “She met men on an equal basis, asking no quarter and granting none. She took her booze straight, smoked cigars, packed a .38, and could cuss like a mule skinner”.
She fell in love with another dealer, W.G. Tubbs, married him and gave up gambling and settled down near Deadwood.
During the winter of 1910 her husband got sick and died. Alice loaded her husband’s frozen body onto a wagon and drove the team almost 50 miles through blizzard conditions to the nearest town where she pawned her wedding ring for $25 to pay for his burial. Alice returned to gambling for support. During Prohibition she ran a roadhouse popular with soldiers from Ft. Meade. Although in her 70’s, she shot a 4th Cavalry trooper one night. She was found not guilty by reason of self-defense. Alice lived in Sturgis SD until she died in 1930.
The Western Frontier shaped much of our national character. Harsh, wild and often violent, it took a rugged, self-reliant individual to make it. And, among those early survivors were some very special women.