The Old West Petticoat Dealer "Madame Mustache"

Eleanore Dumont, known as “Madame Mustache in the frontier gambling saloons, was truly one of the historical phenomenons of that era. As a young petticoat dealer, she became a “super star” dealing twenty-one on the gambler’s gypsy circuit that roamed throughout the West.

There is debate about Dumont’s birthplace; some say that she was a French born immigrant named Simone Jules while others say she was born in New Orleans around 1829. What is known is that a Madame Simone Jules rolled into San Francisco’s Bella Union Saloon and Gambling Hall in the spring of 1850, took over a roulette table, and created a major sensation. Forty-niners, hungry for a mere glimpse of a beautiful woman were staggered by the young Frenchwoman with creamy alabaster skin, shinning black eyes, a flirtatious smile, and long dark tresses that fell to her shoulders. Within a few days men were standing in line to lose their gold dust to the demure mademoiselle that on very close inspection showed a thin line of downy hair on her upper lip.

The Bella union was packed night and day with players eager to see or play against the marvelous Madame Jules. Not to be outdone the other gambling halls quickly imported French women to preside over their roulette wheels. Over the next few years, women croupiers or dealers became the headliners for most of the gambling operations throughout Portsmouth Square. Then as suddenly as she had appeared Madame Jules disappeared from the scene and her name was not mentioned again in any records or newspaper reports.

Several years later in 1854, a stagecoach rolled onto the dusty streets of Nevada City, California, and a well-rounded young woman emerged. Dressed in fine Parisian clothes and expensive jewels, the whole city was set on its ear by the mysterious raven-haired French woman that descended from the coach. She was small and dainty, with doe-like eyes, a mane of curly dark hair, and just a slight hint of diaphanous down on her upper lip. She said her name was Madame Eleanore Dumont and offered nothing about her past – an inscrutable woman of mystery.

Satisfied with her transformation to Madame Dumont the gambling vixen rented a place in the center of town and hung up a sign naming her establishment, the “Vingt-Et-Un” (French for “twenty-one”). Citizens all over town received invitations to visit Broad Street and enjoy a game with Madame Dumont. Though there were over a dozen gambling halls in Nevada City, the Vingt-Et-Un was the undisputed queen of the sporting crowd. Twenty-one was Dumont’s game of choice and she was a master at the game, sweetly expressing regret as she raked in her winnings. When she closed up her table, she would order bottles of champagne to treat the losers, leading most miners to say that they “would rather lose to the Madame than win from somebody else.”

Miners and townsfolk flocked to the establishment, drawn both by the attraction of winning money and the charisma and wit of the French hostess. Decorum was strictly enforced, customers could not engage in brawling or using vulgar language; strangely enough, the rough crowd of miners found it impossible to resist the polite requests of the tantalizing owner. In a very short time, she moved her operation to larger quarters where she added faro, chuck-a-luck, roulette tables, and a staff of dealers. She called her new gambling hall the Dumont Palace and hired a Nevada City gambler named Dave Tobin to be her manager-partner.

Then over the next two years, the money rolled in on a daily basis, so much so that Tobin, who had moved in with Dumont at the National Hotel, wanted to take control of the operation. When he tried to make his move Dumont flew into a rage – just because they shared a bed did not make him the boss of the outfit. She gave him an ultimatum; if he did not like the arrangement then “get the hell out.” He certainly did not like the setup so after a final settlement he slipped out of Nevada City and headed back east.

When the gold in Nevada City eventually ran dry, Eleanore sold her operation and began a tour of the other mining camps of northern California. She opened her game in the Yuba River settlements of Bullard’s Bar, Downieville, and Sierra City; then moved on to mining camps on the Feather River and later the Klamath. In 1857 she dealt twenty-one in George Foster’s City Hotel in Columbia for more than a year before she moved on to Virginia City where she managed a swanky joint that boasted furnishings valued at over $30,000. It was during these series of California mining camps that she added the “extras” to her table operations – a visit to her boudoir requiring a “room charge.”

Dumont left for the gold strikes in Idaho and Montana in the early 1860s and by the end of her tour, she was approaching her thirtieth birthday. The passing years had not been kind to her; the long nights of cards and debauchery began to take its toll, and her once-legendary appearance slowly started to fade. Looking jaded and spent, she lost her hour-glass figure and what was years before only a faint hint of fuzz on her upper lip, had begun to darken – earning her the sobriquet-Madame Mustache.

At Bannack, she teamed up with man by the name of McHarney in a two-story gambling saloon that featured upstairs cribs for quick trysts with the young dancehall girls that worked the saloon below. They had the operation up and going for only a short time before her partner was shot to pieces in a gun battle with another gambler named MacFarlane. What to do? Never missing a beat Dumont had the bloody corpse dragged away, fresh sawdust scattered on the floor, and the saloon swung back into action as if nothing had ever happened. Then she hustled down to the jail to post a one thousand dollar bail for MacFarlane, who in less than an hour after the killing agreed to be her new partner. Yes sir, the Frenchwoman never missed an enterprising opportunity.

Coming out of Bannack, Dumont headed to Fort Benton, a hustling-bustling supply point for the Montana goldfields. Here she duplicated her previous operation that featured booze, beauties, and betting. However, the luster was gone from her earlier emporiums where elegance and decorum was paramount. She was reduced to operating in a low-rent dive. Steamboat captain, Louis Rosche described Dumont’s gambling saloon:

“The inside of the gambling house was worse looking even than the outside. The bar and the gaming rooms were housed in one big downstairs room. A rickety set of stairs led up to a second-floor balcony where I saw doors leading to about a dozen smaller rooms. The place was foggy with smoke and smelled of sweating, unwashed bodies and cheap whiskey. The floor was filthy… Faintly from one of the upstairs rooms I could hear the gibberish of a drunken man and the high, shrill laughter of a woman who was quite sober.”

Dumont bounced from one location to another until she decided it was time to retire from the gambling life so she bought a cattle ranch in California and for a short time tried to make a go of it in honest work. Quickly realizing she had no idea how to run a ranch she hooked up with a smooth-talking man named Jack McKnight who claimed to be a savvy cattle buyer. Handsome and well-dressed, McKnight promised her he could take care of everything and they tied the knot. With the ink barely dry on their marriage certificate McKnight did just that – he took everything she had and absconded.

Forced to return to the only thing she knew how to do Dumont hit the mining camps and eventually landed in Deadwood in the fall of 1876. She dealt twenty-one in various saloons and was observed by John F. Finerty, a journalist for the Chicago Times. In an article, he wrote: “She had a once-handsome face, which crime had hardened into an expression of cruelty. Her eyes glittered like that of a rattlesnake and she raked in the gold dust or chips with hands whose long white fingers, sharp at the ends, reminded me of a harp’s talons.”

Reduced to barely eking by as a dealer in low-class gambling dens, Dumont finally drifted into Bodie, California, in 1879. By this point, she was usually drinking heavily and finding it much harder to compete against professional sharps that sat at her twenty-one table. On the night of September 7, at the Magnolia saloon, she borrowed $300 to bank her table against two blacklegs. Try as she might she just did not have it in her; she was 49, penniless, befuddled by a whiskey soaked brain, and finally as she turned the last card she was completely out of luck. Gathering all the dignity she could muster she pushed her chair away from the table and stood up, “Gentlemen, the game is yours.”

The next morning they found her dead lying beside an empty bottle of morphine. Among the personal items found on her body was a letter that she had written. Along with directions for the disposition of her effects, the letter stated, “she was tired of life.” The Sacramento Union summed up her entire life with these few lines: “Bodie: September 8. A woman named Eleanore Dumont was found dead today about one mile out of town, having committed suicide. She was well-known throughout the mining camps.”

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.