Poker Alice Tubbs
One of the most famous poker players in the American West, Alice Ivers (aka Poker Alice Tubbs) migrated from England and made a name for herself in the town of Deadwood as a fearsome card player. Ivers was a boarding school student and refined English lady, but after the death of her husband she found herself in financial ruin. She took up poker to get out of debt (though never on Sundays), treating herself to the best dresses and finer things in life. “Praise the Lord and place your bets. I’ll take your money with no regrets,” was her favorite saying according to some historians. Alice, who was known to be quite the looker in her younger years, always carried a gun and loved a good cigar.
Eleanor Dumont, aka Madame Moustache, made her living at the card tables in Deadwood. She was drawn to the West during the California Gold Rush, like many, and is believed to be from New Orleans or France. She once ran a gambling parlor in Nevada City, California where she was the only woman in a house full of men. Her beauty won her favor with the local gentlemen, but it’s said that as she aged her newly formed mustache made her less desirable. Still, she was respected by all. Also later in life, it’s said she ran a brothel. Her death in 1879 was ruled a suicide. From the Bodie Morning News:
A Suicide — Yesterday morning a sheep-herder, while in pursuit of his avocation, discovered the dead body of a woman lying about one hundred yards from the Bridgeport road, a mile from town. Her head rested on a stone, and the appearance of the body indicated that death was the result of natural causes. Ex-officio Coroner Justice Peterson was at once notified, and he dispatched a wagon in charge of H.Ward [of the Pioneer Furniture Store] to that place, who brought the body to the undertaking rooms. Deceased was named Eleanore Dumont, and was recognized as the woman who had been engaged in dealing a twenty-one game in the Magnolia saloon. Her death evidently occurred from an overdose of morphine, an empty bottle having the peculiar smell of that drug, being found beside the body. . . . The history connected with the unfortunate suicide is but a repetition of that of many others who have followed the life of a female gambler, with the exception perhaps that the subject of this item bore a character for virtue possessed by few in her line. To the goodhearted women of the town must we accord praise for their accustomed kindness in doing all in their power to prepare the unfortunate woman’s body for burial.
Kitty Leroy did it all. She was a child dancer who grew up to attract quite a following at the local clubs. The wild child was a trick shooter, known for blasting the apples of people’s heads. She sometimes dealt cards. Kitty loved to dress as different personalities, it seems — sometimes men’s clothes, or those of a gypsy. By the time she reached Deadwood, she had been married three times. (Kitty drew a gun on husband number three in an argument and shot him. He didn’t die for several days.) She apparently arrived in Deadwood on the same coach as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Once there, she married a fourth time, worked as a prostitute, and eventually opened the Mint Gambling Saloon where she managed her own group of girls. Her fifth husband was her last. Prospector and gambler Samuel R. Curley was a jealous fellow (Kitty had ongoing affairs). He shot her in the Lone Star Saloon and then killed himself.
Mary Hallock Foote
Author and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote used her stories to tell the tales of the mining communities in the American West. Her husband was the mining engineer, Arthur Foote. The New York-born artist was trained at Cooper School of Design in New York City, but found herself traveling the West, eventually heading to Deadwood, after marriage. Her first novel The Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp was published in 1883 — but Mary is known for the memoir A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West (composed of Mary’s letters), published in 1972 by historian Rodman Paul.
A prostitute and dance hall girl since her teens, Dora DuFran became one of Deadwood’s most respected madams. It’s said the English businesswoman coined the term “cathouse.” Her girls were known for having good hygiene. Dora’s most popular brothel wasn’t in Deadwood, though. She opened Diddlin’ Dora’s in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Part-time prostitute Calamity Jane was occasionally employed by Dora, but the two women were also friends. Dora DuFran was buried with her husband and pet parrot Fred at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.
Deadwood, South Dakota
Mollie Johnson was known as “Queen of the Blondes.” The madam ran a successful brothel in Deadwood with three blonde protégés, who also ran their own houses. The press loved to write about Mollie, who drew attention after marrying Lew Spencer, an African-American comedian who performed at the Bella Union Theater. Spencer later wound up in jail after shooting his second wife in Denver. Mollie also took to the streets to flaunt her riches, and her antics were often the top of the news. Oh, and the previously mentioned Dora DuFran was Mollie’s toughest competition. Mollie’s business was rebuilt multiple times due to fires. She was also arrested several times for running a club without a liquor license. The madam eventually hit the road, leaving Deadwood behind forever. Here’s an 1879 article one reporter wrote after encountering Mollie’s brothel on the street:
At the dead of night when all nature is hushed asleep, this reporter is frequently regaled, while on his way home, by the gentle cadence of sweet songs which floats out upon the stillness of the gulch like the silvery horns of Elfland faintly blowing. Vocal music, wherever heard or by whatever produced is entrancing to this sinner. Hence the aforesaid sounds are sure to arrest his step at the corner and compel him to lend his ear to the mellifluent melody which steals out from Molly Johnson’s Harem. But he does not draw any nearer, for he knows that where the sirens dwell you linger in XXXX, that their songs are death, but XXXX destruction please(?); and he travels on, disgusted with himself because his virtuous life possesses such a skeleton of fun, yet wonders that such a voluptuous harmony is tolerated by the divine muse of song to leave such a bad place.
The Gem Theater circa 1878
Deadwood’s brutal pimp and saloon owner Al Swearengen usually recruited women to work for him by convincing them they would become stars of the stage, performing at his Gem Theater. While Swearengen did host comedians and singers at the Gem, the shady entrepreneur was mainly interested in prostituting the women who passed through his doors. He would choose women from afar who couldn’t pay for a ticket to travel. When they arrived, the women quickly realized they were there to entertain the male clientele and were forced to work off their fare. One women, Inez Sexton, was an established singer who found herself in a similar situation with Swearengen. It’s said that she told the pimp “although her voice was for sale, nothing else was.” She was forced to stay in Deadwood for several months, but eventually the local churchwomen raised funds to get her home — although not before she took to the stage at least once, where she sang for audiences.
Abigail Scott Duniway
Abigail Scott Duniway wasn’t known as a Deadwood resident, but she settled several states over in Oregon with her family in 1852. A leading women’s rights advocate, Duniway was inspired by the work of her predecessor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a pioneering American suffragist and abolitionist. Duniway founded Portland’s weekly newspaper, The New Northwest, in 1871, which was devoted to women’s rights. The self-taught editor and writer also opened a boarding school and worked to help women gain property rights. By the time the national Women’s Suffrage Association convened in Washington D.C. in 1886, Duniway was known as a leading advocate for women’s rights in the West. We’d love to see her influence on Deadwood’s female population considering the number of savvy businesswomen that set up shop in the South Dakota town.