Michael LaPointe’s new monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time.
“You will play, M’sieur?” was how a woman with a black mustache greeted gamblers at the Wild West Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. The year was 1877; the gold rush was on. Miners flocked to the saloon on the corner of Main and Gold to put the day’s earnings on a game of twenty-one.
The elegant dealer with the musical French accent was one of the most notorious women in the West—Eleanor Dumont, whose life pursued two dangerous prospects: the action on the table and the riches underground.
“No one knows her history,” wrote a local journalist, and that’s remained true to this day. As with so many figures of the Old West, Dumont’s life is shot through with disputed accounts and fictional flourishes. Only two things were for certain, according to the journalist: she was always alone, and always making money.
The chic Eleanor Dumont first materialized one night behind a roulette wheel at the Bella Union in San Francisco, already a virtuoso with cards. She’d come from New Orleans, a city on the cutting edge of gambling at the time. In addition to countless dens, where the rudiments of the art could be learned, New Orleans boasted luxurious gambling palaces that innovated modern casino mainstays, like free buffets.
Dumont brought the glamour of Bourbon Street to San Francisco, which was sorely in need of refinement. In 1850, when she first appeared at the Bella Union, the city had a population of about twenty-five thousand, mostly men under forty. They’d come for the gold recently discovered in the region—and they kept coming. The traffic of people, animals, and wagons was so overwhelming that it turned the streets to mud. At one busy intersection near the Bella Union, someone hung a sign: THIS STREET IS IMPASSABLE; NOT EVEN JACKASSABLE.
Gambling was the city’s favorite pastime, and the Bella Union was one of many halls that thrived in Portsmouth Square. In The Barbary Coast (1933), Herbert Asbury’s history of San Francisco’s underworld, Asbury describes a typical example of these protocasinos:
The walls were covered with costly paintings, extremely lascivious in character, and the furniture and fittings were of rococo elegance … Scattered throughout the room were the gaming tables, on which were huge piles of gold dust, nuggets, and gold and silver coins.
There may have been as many as a thousand such halls in San Francisco, and it’s easy to see why. Money literally flowed from the ground. Even unlucky gamblers felt they could recoup their losses from the gravel tomorrow.
No one knows how Eleanor Dumont got the job, for the dealers in San Francisco were exclusively male. But the stylish Frenchwoman made such a sensational impression that she became the main attraction at the otherwise unremarkable Bella Union. Soon the other gambling halls of Portsmouth Square were rushing to find female dealers of their own.
Women have seldom been welcome in the world of gambling. Those who played games of chance were said to be dissipating their fertility. “It is lamentable to see a lovely woman destroying her health and beauty at six o’clock in the morning at a gaming-table,” sneered George Hanger, a British soldier and companion to the Prince of Wales, in 1801. In America, women were often banned from playing altogether. On the famous Mississippi riverboats, they couldn’t access the upper decks where the gambling took place. And even when they were allowed to play, the amount they could wager was strictly curtailed. The Pawnee of Oklahoma had a saying: “Hungry is the man whose wife gambles.”
It’s possible that Dumont’s European manner functioned as a secret key into the gambling fraternity. At the renowned resorts on the Rhine, women from France, Germany, and Russia gambled alongside men for equally reckless stakes. A woman named Léonie Leblanc was famous in the German town Baden-Baden for betting the house maximum (6,000 francs) on every hand of rouge et noir. And at Bad Homburg, it was said of Countess Sophie Kissileff that she gambled only once a day: from eleven in the morning to eleven at night. Dumont’s French airs gave the gaudy Bella Union an aristocratic atmosphere.
But Dumont wasn’t content with being the star of someone else’s show. “Whatever she did, she had to be the boss,” one of her clients said. As suddenly as she appeared at the Bella Union, she vanished, only to step off a stage coach in Nevada City on a spring day in 1854. Her arrival there has become local legend. The gold-rush town was deprived of young women, and the magnetic Dumont became the center of attention. She checked into Fepp’s Hotel and spent the coming days cultivating her celebrity. Dressed in the latest fashions, she strolled up and down the main street, enigmatically peering into empty storefronts. Everyone wondered what she was devising.
Then one night, Dumont threw open the doors to a new gambling parlor on Broad Street—the Vingt-et-un, named after her preferred game (and Napoleon’s), the precursor to blackjack. As in the gambling palaces of New Orleans, she offered free champagne and had a band serenade the action, the sort of touches that would’ve struck the hard-scrabble miners as the height of sophistication.
Saloons like the Vingt-et-un are integral to the legend of the Old West. They bloomed out of the seam of gold that ran through the earth. Their capricious games were fun-house metaphors for the chancy work of prospecting. In truth, many of the games were fixed, but the Wild West gambling saloon of the American imagination is seen as uniquely honest—or at least direct. Unlike the faceless corporate casinos of today, you knew exactly who was taking your money. If a score had to be settled, there were ways (one saloon hung a sign: Don’t Shoot the Pianist–He’s Doing His Darndest). Dumont carried a gun, and shot so well that someone said “she could plug a hole through a nickel” from twenty yards away.
Over the next century, American gambling would evolve. The casinos of the twentieth century discovered that they could attract middle-income crowds with disposable dollars, as long as the experience was fun. The pianists aren’t getting shot anymore, and the crowd in Las Vegas today is basically the opposite of Dumont’s boom-and-bust clientele.
And yet, even as Vegas perfected the gambling economy, the association with the Old West lingered. In the thirties and forties, the city often promoted itself as “The Old West in Modern Splendor,” and some of its earliest resorts, like the El Rancho Vegas and the Last Frontier, were designed to replicate the world of Dumont’s day. You were meant to walk through the casino doors and be transported back to the Bella Union or the Vingt-et-un. You might even expect to hear the French accent of Eleanor Dumont, inviting you to play. Although, for a long time, you wouldn’t—Vegas casinos didn’t hire female dealers until 1971.
Dumont never showed interest in advancing the cause of women at large. On the contrary, Vingt-et-un had two rules: no swearing and no women. This chauvinism wasn’t uncommon among major female gamblers. Poker Alice, probably the most esteemed female gambler of the Old West, didn’t attribute the lack of women in gambling to sexism, but to the “usual feminine instinct,” with its “too many nerves, too many temptations,” which made a good poker face impossible. In her Vingt-et-un, Dumont monopolized men’s attention and spun it into gold. By the time the rush in California was waning, around 1857, she’d earned enough to buy a ranch in Carson City, Nevada.
But Dumont wasn’t destined for retirement. Her personal life has always been a matter of wild speculation, but it seems certain that she fell for a man named Jack McKnight. The shrewd calculation she brought to the gaming table failed her in love. McKnight turned out to be a con artist. In short order, he disappeared with her money, having sold her ranch out from under her. Legend says she tracked down McKnight and blew him away with a shotgun—a story more sporting to believe.
Regardless, Dumont had no choice but to pack up her table and hit the road again. She trekked thousands of miles, at one point heading all the way up to British Columbia. The names of the places she worked during this time speak to the volatility of her life: Drytown, Tombstone, Volcano.
In Fort Benton, Montana, she dealt twenty-one at a saloon on Front Street, then known as “the bloodiest block in the West.” Even in these pitiless surroundings, a riverboat captain named Louis Rosche observed a sly sense of humor in Dumont. Whenever she’d totally cleaned out a customer, she gave him a glass of milk. “Nobody ever knew why she did that,” said Rosche, who was himself served a glass after she took his silver coins.
One day in Fort Benton, which is situated on the Missouri River, the steamer Omaha arrived, but strangely, no one disembarked. Word went around that smallpox had broken out on board. At the time, according to Rosche, it was believed that heavy drinkers were susceptible to smallpox, and that included virtually everyone in Fort Benton. Panic spread, and Eleanor Dumont decided to take the law into her own hands. She grabbed her gun and went down to the Omaha. Rosche’s version translates her French-inflected parlance into the gritty American vernacular, but he captures the spirit: “You get the hell out of here with that boat,” she said, “and you do it pronto. I ain’t going to let no smallpox spoil my business.” The steamer obeyed the capitalist-in-arms.
During these nomadic years, when she seemed to alight in every famous town in the Old West, Dumont acquired the nickname “Madame Mustache.” She’d let the hairs above her lip grow into what Poker Alice described as a “coal-black” line, which she wore in bold contrast to her frilly dresses. It has been said that, when she died, Dumont asked for the mustache to be left intact, but it’s also been said that no one dared call her “Madame Mustache” to her face.
When Dumont arrived in Bodie, California in May 1878, a local journalist wrote, “Probably no woman on the Coast is better known.” Bodie was considered the most lawless town in eastern California (“I’m the bad man from Bodie” was a rakish catchphrase for awhile), and it would prove a fateful stop for Dumont.
Famous though she might have been, Dumont was growing weary after so many years on the road. Writers took pleasure in rendering her increasingly haggard appearance, as if avenging some past humiliation at her twenty-one table. Their descriptions revived the old stereotype that gambling spoils femininity: “Endless hours of dealing under smoky kerosene lamps and by the flickering light of candles had dimmed her eyes, and the nimbleness had gone from her fingers.”
One contemporary account claimed she had a “mania for gambling,” a phrase that evokes perhaps the most famous historical image of a female gambler. The Woman with a Gambling Mania (1822) was painted by Théodore Géricault as part of a portrait series of patients in a mental asylum. The nameless elderly gambler’s face is like wax, her dark eyes guttered. The historical record paints the aging Dumont in Géricault’s grim palette. “The Madame was vain,” wrote one historian. “To the last she conducted herself as though the charm and beauty of her Nevada City days were still potent.”
At the Magnolia saloon in Bodie, Dumont’s luck finally ran out. It seems she’d depleted her bankroll. A friend loaned her a final $300 to get her game going again, but she soon lost that, as well. There was one thing that could never be taken from Dumont, however: her dignity in defeat. “She was always agreeable,” reads one account, “accepting her losses with a careless shrug and a smile.”
On September 8, 1879, a shepherd discovered the body of a woman, her head resting on a stone. An empty bottle of morphine lay beside her. Eleanor Dumont had left behind a note that simply said she was “tired of life.” The next day, the Bodie Morning News reported the suicide. They wrote that it was “a repetition of that of many others who have followed the life of a female gambler.” In truth, the lives of most famous Old West gamblers ended prematurely and unnaturally (Poker Alice, who died in retirement at seventy-nine, was a rare exception). Dumont accepted the stakes of the life she’d chosen—disease, murder, suicide. She knew that at the end of the night, there was always a chance you’d be served a glass of milk.
Michael LaPointe is a writer in Toronto.