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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 19th century American West, most accepted what society offered. Find your man, get married, have children – then engage in a life of washing, cooking and sewing; hard, relentless and invariably thankless.
But a few women were having none of it. 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 choose the game board. Cards were a great leveler of the sexes and three women in particular showed how.
Alice Ivers (1851-1930)
When you marry an American mining engineer, Alice accepted, the mining fields of states like Colorado and Texas become your home. You may be the only woman in a rough and tough male world raised only by drink and games. The girl originally from Devon, England, played the society “game”, up to a point. She sewed and cooked for husband Frank.
But if I can have fun playing, Alice reasoned, why can’t I? So he followed Frank into the gambling room and discovered that she was good at cards – very good. Especially Poker. How well, gambling houses like The Gold Dust in Deadwood, Colorado, quickly found out. Here was a woman, they realized, who was a “natural” poker player. One with a good head for numbers who could quickly weigh the odds. Someone who could keep a straight face, “poker”. She became known as “Poker Alice” for good reason.
Alice was quite capable of making $6000 in one night, and breaking the bank. It’s better, the owners realized, to have this petite beauty, 5’4″, with shiny brown hair working for you as a salesperson. Men were attracted to their table like flies to a cloth of ragna. loved to smoke, many were humiliated by his skill at cards.
“I’d rather play poker,” said Alice once, “with five or six ‘experts,’ than eat.” Out on 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. Everyone knew she had a .38 pistol in the voluminous folds of her fashionable clothes, bought on regular shopping trips to New York. And he 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 woman in the mining fields of the California Gold Rush, everyone knew she kept a Derringer pistol under her skirt. Accusing this lady and asking for her purse, as two gentlemen discovered one evening, was to send an explosion of lead. No one, it is recorded, expected it to reload.
Like Alice, Eleanor was a consummate card player who outwitted men. One of the first professional Blackjack players, his skill as a dealer and card counter was legendary. Few men have it better. Many tried as they met at the tables of the Palace of Dumont, the card place he ran with another professional player, David Tobin.
Everyone knew the rules of entry: dress smartly, behave well and no women allowed. The male clientele was fascinated by its elegant, bejeweled hostess, who calmed them with her quiet dignity and deflected problems with her sharp wit. He soon got used to the lady rolling her cigarettes and drinking champagne.
As time stole his looks, it became harder to charm and disarm; prostitution was added to the career portfolio. The serene and elegant hostess metamorphoses into the character of the saloon, exchanging ribald jokes over a glass of whiskey.
But Eleanor never lost her passion for cards, or her principles. Despite jealous rivals who slandered him as a sharp card, he maintained to the end his reputation as an honest dealer who never paid a debt. When fortune finally failed at the gambling table, and the money lent to her by a friend could not be repaid, Eleanor quietly withdrew from the room and from life, aided by a glass of wine laced with morphine. A note found by his body said only that he was “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 notables on both sides of the law, from Sheriff Pat Garrett to Billy The Kid – a place, so says the people, who “had a man. for breakfast every morning”.
However, this redhead, with a personality that sparkled as much as her brown eyes, has seized on her notoriety and capitalized on her booming economy. This was a city flush with money from high bison prices, and much of it was spent on the Beehive gambling hall. In addition to good looks, Lottie was a gifted card player, who thrived on separating men from their money – including a gunslinger and notorious card player, Doc Holliday, whom Lottie bailed out of a cool $ 3000 an evening.
His close 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. The abbreviation of Dinero, Spanish for money, was earned after beating all comers in a hand of poker. A drunken voice from a far corner of the bar shouted, “Man, with wins like them, you should call it Lotta Dinero.”
His father, a successful racehorse breeder who died fighting for the Confederacy, may have rubbed off on his surroundings. But he would have been quietly pleased. His daughter “wrapped the cartoons” with a skill and passion to match her own. All those hours spent teaching young Lottie about cards, on steamboats and in the finest gambling halls of New Orleans, had paid off.
And she behaved like the Southern Lady she had been raised to be, being classy to the end. A lady with impeccable manners, who expected the same from others – no one ever dared to drink, swear or smoke at her table. A woman of trust, whose word was her bond.
And he was smart. It’s rare for a player’s luck to last forever, but Lottie Deno was that rarity. She bowed out with her earnings intact, and grew old in comfortable retirement, with her 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. It’s not enough to survive in the human world, but all three have turned this skill to their advantage. They proved themselves to be as good as any man through their strength of character, innate intelligence and determination.
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