Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Madame Mustache

Eleanore Dumont, better known as Madame Mustache, was one of the first known professional blackjack players in American history and, for over three decades, made her name famous across the mining camps of the American West.

She was thought to have been born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and for whatever reasons, made her way west during the California Gold Rush. Known as Simone Jules, a petite and pretty French woman in her early twenties, she arrived in San Francisco in about 1849, where she soon established herself as a gambler, favoring the game of Vingt-et-un, which means “21,” the precursor of American Blackjack.

Working at the Bella Union, she was known for her elegant dignity, aloof manner, and ability to handle stress on the card table. However, when she was suspected of cardsharping, she was let go, but not before she had obviously earned quite a bit of money.

She next made an appearance in Nevada City, California. Stepping off the stage in 1854, her bejeweled and stylish appearance created quite a stir among the rough residents of the mining camp. Two young miners quickly volunteered to carry her bags into the Fepp’s Hotel, where she registered as Eleanore Dumont.

Citizens all over town soon received invitations to the grand opening of the “Vingt-et-un” on Broad Street to enjoy a game with Madame Dumont as well as free champagne for all. A finely furnished and carpeted gambling den with gas chandeliers, it would only allow the entrance of well-behaved and well-groomed men, and cursing was discouraged in her presence. Her gambling parlor opened with a bang as the men swarmed in. Having cleaned up and put on their best clothes for the occasion, they found Miss Eleanore witty, vivacious and charming as she moved around the room talking to them before beginning her game. Rolling her own cigarettes and drinking champagne, she deftly kept them at arm's length, telling them all tactfully that she was a lady.

Though few at the time knew how to play the game of “21,” as Faro was the favored gambling endeavor, the novelty of having a pretty female dealer quickly attracted a number of players. Dealing like the seasoned pro that she was, the miners more often lost than they won; however, they seldom complained, thinking it a privilege to be in her presence. When she won, she would sweetly express regret and treat the losers to free champagne. When she lost, she seemed pleased for their good fortune.

During this time, Dumont was not known to have any lovers, kept her personal life very private, and women were prohibited from coming into her establishment or loitering outside.

She soon built up enough capital that she wanted to open a larger establishment. She took on a partner named David Tobin, a professional gambler from New York, and the two opened Dumont’s Palace, that also provided games of Faro and Chuck-a-luck. Hiring more dealers and a small band of violinist to entertain the gamblers, the Palace was also successful, keeping a dozen games going day and night.

But, for Nevada City, like so many other mining camps, the gold would finally play out, and Eleanore Dumont then made her way to Columbia, California in 1857, where she set up her table in a hotel.
A couple of years later, she decided to get out of the business and though she knew little of animals, she bought a ranch in Carson City, Nevada.

Lonely and out of her element, that’s when she met Jack McKnight, who swept her off her feet. A handsome, well-dressed man, who was a smooth-talker who claimed to be a cattle buyer, Eleanore was instantly infatuated. However, McKnight was actually a conman who made his living swindling others. Less than a month later, he disappeared with all her money, had sold her ranch, and left her with all the outstanding debts.

Never a timid woman, legend has it that she went after the cad, tracked him down and opened up on him with a double blast from a shotgun. Suspected of the crime, she was never charged and denied responsibility. Years, later; however, she allegedly confessed to killing him.

Alone and destitute, she was forced to return to the mining camps and take up gambling again. In 1861, she went to Pioche, Nevada, where she set up her table. Here, she was said to have used her powers of charm to subdue a noisy, quarreling crowd of miners. As several drunken miners began to flourish pistols, looking for a fight, Madame Dumont quietly approached the noisiest of them, and laughingly reproved from their ungallant conduct, succeeding in quieting the entire crowd.

In the early years, Eleanor brandished her chastity in the womanless gold-rush camps and enticed men by her virtue and manners to come and play with her. However, over the years, as she aged, her body filled out to plumpness and the fine unflattering growth of hair on her upper lip darkened. With the waning of her beauty, she was no longer able to coax the roughness out of the miners. No longer did they refrain from cursing, remove their hats, and tell only clean jokes. Eleanor, too, would eventually take on many of these hardened characteristics. Whereas, she first would drink only wine or champagne in moderation, she turned to whiskey. She too, took on rougher language and easily tolerated ribald talk.

Though she gradually transformed from a polite beauty to a mining camp character, there was still magic in her name, and she continued to draw customers. Through the years, however, her establishments became more second rate and she ceased to be a novelty as more and more as women began to fill the mining camps.

By the time Eleanor joined the miners in the rush to Montana in the early 1860’s, she had expanded beyond simple gambling, and was also was running a brothel. It was here that she earned the moniker of “Madam Mustache,” when a drunk miner impolitely called her the name. Unfortunately, the name stuck, though few were unwise enough to call her that in her presence.

About a year after her arrival in Bodie, California, when her bank was running low one night, she borrowed $300 from a friend to open her table. Unfortunately, luck was not with her and after just a few hours, she had lost the bank. Without mentioning a word to anyone, she then wandered about a mile outside of town, where she drank red wine laced with a lethal dose of morphine. Her body was found on September 8, 1879 along with a letter giving directions for the disposition of her effects, which also stated “she was tired of life.”

Taken from Legends of America by K. Weiser

10 comments:

  1. Paisley, I had never heard of this woman. How sad that she did so well at first and then came to a lonely end. Thanks for sharing this info.

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  2. What a story! How weird, too. She really was pathetic in the end, wasn't she? Thanks for the entertaining read this morning while I finish my last cup of coffee. Celia

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  3. Thanks, Caroline. I thought this woman really shows the diversity of women at that timeperiod. It sure gives historical writers a wide open window for creating their characters.

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  4. Glad you enjoyed it, Celia. It was a bit long, but all of it so interesting. Life in those days was not easy, especially for women.

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  5. Hi Paisley. Thanks for sharing the tale of Madam Mustache, whose beauty and fame faded with the years. I had never heard of her either and wonder how many other women of the time found themselves attracted to what must have seemed an exciting and daring life. So sad, and yet typical of that lifestyle I guess, that she eventually became a victim and sank to a lonely existence and death.

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  6. Paisley, Wow. I also have never heard of this lady. I have to say when I first saw the photo, it scared me. I don't see a middle aged plump woman. The more I read it, and how she kept men at a distance, never let women in her club, and never was romantically involved with anyone, I thought perhaps she really was a man, posing to be a woman. And then I thought, well, she's doing great on her own and making money -- why have a partner? Seems she could have expanded on her own at that point. Did he know something about her that might ruin her business? Hmm. See how my mind works? LOL

    Clearly fascinated, I read on where you said she eventually did have a romantic relationship with a swindler, so she must have been a woman OR that no-good rotten, lying conman pretended he didn't care because his goal was always her money and property, not Dumont. Okay, my writer's imagination is running wild here.

    Very interesting post that has roused my curiosity even more. :)

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  7. Thanks Sandra. Like my hubby says, you cannot make up stories like these. There were quite a few very interesting women in the wild west.

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  8. Thanks Ashley. I am thinking someone like her might be a fun heroine, with a much happier ending of course. I wonder what kind of a hero she would attract?

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  9. What a story! Sorry I'm so late in posting, Paisley. I've been trying to catch up with my editing. I never heard of this poor woman. What a very sad life she had, and a lonely one. But what an interesting person! I enjoyed this very much.
    Cheryl

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