How to Get on in a Man’s World: 3 Women That Tamed the Old West

How does a woman succeed in a man’s world? In the American West of the Nineteenth Century, most accepted what society offered. Find your man, get married, have babies – then commit to a life of washing, cooking and sewing; hard, unrelenting and invariably thankless.

But a few women were having none of this. Anything a man could do, they argued, so could a woman. And they proved it. A few, notably Annie Oakley, made their point with a gun. Others chose the gaming table. Cards were a great leveller of the sexes and three women in particular showed just how.

Alice Ivers (1851-1930)

When you marry an American mining engineer, Alice accepted, the mining camps of states such as Colorado and Texas become your home. You might be the only woman in a rough, tough male world relieved only by drink and gambling. The girl originally from Devon, in England, played society’s ‘game’, to a point. She sewed and cooked for husband Frank.

But if he can have fun gambling, Alice reasoned, why can’t I? So she followed Frank into the gambling hall and discovered she was good at cards – very good. Particularly Poker. Just how good, gambling houses like The Gold Dust in Deadwood, Colorado, quickly discovered. Here was a woman, they realised, who was a ‘natural’ poker player. One with a good head for numbers that could quickly weigh up the odds. Someone who could keep a straight, ‘poker’ face. She became known as ‘Poker Alice’ with good reason.

Alice was quite capable of earning $6000 in a night, and breaking the bank. Better, the owners realised, to have this petite, 5’4″ beauty with shining brown hair working for you as a dealer. Men were drawn to her table like flies to a spider’s web. Mesmerised by her appearance, distracted by the cigars she loved to smoke, many were humbled by her skill at cards.

“I would rather play poker,” Alice once quipped, “with five or six ‘experts,’ than eat.” Except on a Sunday. A strict, moral upbringing and strong religious convictions guided her to the end – even when in later years she ‘diversified’ into prostitution.

And no one crossed her. All knew she had a.38 pistol in the voluminous folds of her fashionable dresses, bought on regular shopping trips to New York. And she wasn’t afraid to use it.

Eleanor Dumont (1834 – 1879)

Few consciously picked a fight with Eleanor. Certainly not the drunken miner who nicknamed her ‘Madame Moustache’, alluding to the tuft of hair on her upper lip. A rare female in the mining camps of the California Gold Rush, everyone knew she kept a Derringer pistol under her skirts. To accost this lady and demand her purse, as two gentlemen discovered one evening, was to invite a blast of lead. Neither individual, it is recorded, waited for her to reload.

Like Alice, Eleanor was a consummate card player who outplayed the men. One of the first professional Blackjack players, her skill as a dealer and counter of cards was legendary. Few men bettered her. Plenty tried as they flocked to the tables of Dumont’s Palace, the card den she ran with another professional gambler, David Tobin.

Everyone knew the rules of entry: dress smartly, behave properly and no women allowed. The all-male clientele were entranced by their elegant, bejewelled hostess, who calmed them with her quiet dignity and deflected trouble with her sharp wit. Most soon became accustomed to the lady who rolled her own cigarettes and drank champagne.

As time stole her looks, it became harder to charm and disarm; prostitution was added to the career portfolio. The serene, elegant hostess metamorphosed into the saloon character, trading ribald jokes over a glass of whiskey.

But Eleanor never lost her passion for cards, or her principles. Despite jealous rivals defaming her as a card sharp, she maintained to the end her reputation as an honest dealer who never defaulted on a debt. When luck finally ran out at the gaming table, and money loaned to her by a friend could not be repaid, Eleanor quietly exited from the room and from life, aided by a glass of wine laced with morphine. A note found by her body stated simply that she had ”tired of life”.

Lottie Deno (1844-1934)

What was a Southern belle, from a prosperous Kentucky family, doing in Fort Griffin, Texas in the 1870s? This outpost, near the Texas panhandle, was one of the wildest frontier towns of its day – home to notoriety on both sides of the law, from Sheriff Pat Garrett to Billy The Kid – a place, so people said, that “had a man for breakfast every morning”.

Yet this striking redhead, with a personality that sparkled as brightly as her brown eyes, revelled in its notoriety and capitalised on its booming economy. This was a town flush with cash from high bison prices, and much of it was spent at The Beehive gambling saloon. As well as good looks, Lottie was a gifted card player, who thrived on parting men from their money – including gunslinger and noted card player, Doc Holliday, whom Lottie relieved of a cool $3000 one evening.

Her strict Episcopalian family would have been horrified. But the woman born Carlotta J.Thompkins made sure they never found out, hiding behind a series of pseudonyms of which Lottie Deno was the most famous. An abbreviation of Dinero, the Spanish for money, it was earned after she beat all-comers at a hand of poker. A drunken voice from a far corner of the bar cried out, “Honey, with winnings like them, you oughta call yourself Lotta Dinero”.

Her father, a successful racehorse breeder who died fighting for the Confederacy, might have winced at her surroundings. But he would have been quietly pleased. His daughter ‘flipped the pasteboards’ with a skill and passion to match his own. All those hours spent teaching the young Lottie about cards, on the paddle steamers and in the finest gambling rooms of New Orleans, had paid off.

And she conducted herself like the Southern Lady she had been raised, exuding class to the end. A lady with impeccable manners, who expected the same of others – no-one ever dared drink, swear or smoke at her table. A woman to trust, whose word was her bond.

And she was smart. It’s rare for a gambler’s luck to last for ever but Lottie Deno was that rarity. She bowed out with her earnings intact, and grew old in comfortable retirement, with her one and only husband Frank.

As good as any man

Three women, each very different from the others, all with a gift – a natural ability to play cards. Not enough by itself to survive in a man’s world, but all three turned this skill to their advantage. They proved they were as good as any man through strength of character, innate intelligence and sheer determination.