Saturday, March 16, 2013

Lottie Deno – The Lady Was a Gambler

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

First, I want to thank Tanya Hanson for switching days with me.  My usual monthly post date, the 14th, snuck up on me this month and I was not prepared. I do appreciate your kindness!

Now, to talk about one of the more fascinating women in gambling history....

Carlotta “Lottie” Thompkins was born in Warsaw, Kentucky on April 21, 1844 into a substantially wealthy tobacco family.   Lottie and her younger sister were blessed with every advantage possible.  During her education at an Episcopal convent, Lottie would also accompany her father on business trips to Detroit, New Orleans and Europe. An avid gambler, her father took Lottie with him to horse races and gambling dens.  He also taught her everything he knew about cards. By the time she was sixteen, Lottie was an expert card player in her own right.

Lottie’s life, like that of most of America, changed drastically with the outbreak of the Civil War.  Her father, a Southerner at heart, joined the Confederate army and was killed in his very first battle.  The news devastated her mother, whose health began to fail.  Lottie took over the role as head of household and ran the farm. However, distant family members felt it inappropriate for a woman to run a business and they persuaded her mother to send Lottie to Detroit to live with family friends.  Her mother sent her, also, in the hopes of finding a suitable husband, but Lottie’s meager funds did not last long during the height of the social season.  Lottie’s mother and sister were struggling financially as well since the war was taking its toll on the farm. A lack of workers prevented crops from being planted and harvested. Lottie decided to get a job.



Jeopardizing her social standing, she took up gambling.  Her talent for winning, however, earned her enough money to not only send home for her sister and mother’s care, but for her own support in style.  At this time, she also met Johnny Golden, a gambler and Jew. Her mother disapproved of him immensely for both reasons.

The couple gambled up and down the Mississippi, but Johnny was not as lucky at cards as Lottie and the couple finally went their separate ways.  Lottie had just settled into a New Orleans hotel, when she learned of her mother’s death.  The care and education of her younger sister became her prime concern.  Lottie took up riverboat gambling and earned enough money to send her sister to private school.  After graduation, Lottie and her sister moved to San Antonio. (I’ve not be able to discover what happened to Lottie’s sister after this move).

San Antonio was the perfect city for a gambler.  The establishments were open twenty-four hours a day and Lottie played poker at the Cosmopolitan Club.  After seeing her play, the owner of the University Club offered Lottie a job as a house gambler, someone who would use saloon-provided money to gamble with. The professional card player would receive a percentage of the winners.

The novelty of not just a woman, but a beautiful, dignified woman dealing cards drew droves of men to the club who challenged Lottie to five-card  draw and her favorite game, faro. 

The owner, Frank Thurmond, had another reason for asking Lottie to join his club. He was smitten with her.  Lottie soon fell in love with Frank, too.  Johnny showed up in San Antonio and stated that Lottie was his wife, a claim she denied. Frank, meanwhile, was in an argument with a fellow gambler and a fight ensued.  Frank drew his bowie knife and stabbed the man. The dead man’s family put a bounty on Frank, forcing him to leave San Antonio.



Lottie also left, bouncing around the west Texas towns of Fort Concho, Jacksonboro, San Angelo, Dennison and Fort Worth. She was so good at winning many accused her of cheating.  One saloon-keeper told a newspaper reporter, “The likelihood of a woman being able to win enough pots to make a living playing cards is far fetched. That could only happen if she were crooked.” If Lottie cheated however, she was never caught.

It was a winning hand that earned her a new name. A drunken cowboy yelled out to her “Honey, with winnings like that, you ought to call yourself Lotta Denero.” She didn’t take his full advice, but she did change her name to Lottie Deno.

Finally, Lottie ended up in Fort Griffith, a rowdy town full mostly of rough cowboys and soiled doves. But Lottie thrived and had great success as a gambler there.  She set up a regular game at the Bee Hive Saloon and was treated as royalty by the men who frequented the bar.  Mike Fogarty, the bar tender, treated her especially well.  Mike, was in fact, Frank Thurmond.  Afraid that someone would make a connection between Mike and the man Lottie used to be romantically involved with, the pair would sneak away to a nearby town for romance.

Johnny followed Lottie to Fort Griffith, but he was killed just days after finding her.  Lottie paid for his funeral and coffin, but she did not attend his funeral. Instead, she stayed inside her home with the curtains drawn.

Johnny’s death was not the only violence Lottie witnessed during her gambling career.  Fights broke out constantly. In one instant, two cowboys accused each other of cheating and fists started to fly.  The sheriff rushed in to calm things, but both men drew on him and Sheriff Cruger ended up killing them both.  Everyone in the saloon had scattered. Everyone that is except Lottie. She sat calmly at her table stacking her chips.  The sheriff commented that he couldn’t believe Lottie had stayed at the grisly scene.  “You’ve never been a desperate woman, Sheriff,” she replied.  She may not have feared for her life, but she did fear being poor.

Lottie soon became a legend of the West.  Artists painted pictures of the lady gambler.  Authors and songwriters wrote about her.  One such author was Dan Quin, cowhand turned writer.  He wrote a series of Old West adventures, including one with a female gambler fitting Lottie’s descriptions and named Faro Nell.  Lottie, however was not happy with the book, published in 1913.  She said it was an “unfair representation” of her, portraying her as an “unsophisticated lady without proper breeding.”

It was at the Bee Hive that Lottie often played cards with Doc Holliday, of the OK Corral fame.  It’s also alleged that she got into an argument with Holliday’s girlfriend, Big Nose Kate, because Kate thought Holliday was cheating on her with Lottie.  “Why you low down slinkin’ slut!” Lottie shouted. “If I should step in soft cow manure, I would not even clean my boot on that bastard!  I’ll show you a thing or two.”  Lottie is alleged to have pulled a gun then, and Kate drew a weapon as well.  Doc Holliday placed himself between the women and stopped a shoot out then and there. Knowing of Lottie’s reputation for being an elegant lady, it’s questionable if the conversation went as now retold, since things tend to be embellished as they are repeated over time. 

After five years in Fort Griffith, Lottie moved to Kingston, New Mexico, where she met up with Frank Thurmond again.  The two went into business together in 1878, opening a small gambling room in the Victorio Hotel and a saloon in nearby Silver City.  The couple also acquired several silver mines.  They were soon very wealthy and loaned out money to mining operations in exchange for a stake of the claims.

It was there that Frank and Lottie finally married on December 2, 1880. Lottie continued to deal cards and Frank managed the saloons, restaurant and hotel they owned.  The couple also purchased a liquor distribution business in Deming, New Mexico, property in the heart of town and a ranch at the foothills of the mountains.

If not for the brutal murder of Dan Baxter, Lottie may have stayed in the gambling business for a while longer. Baxter and Frank got into a fight and Baxter threw a billiard ball at Frank, who pulled out his bowie knife and stabbed Baxter in the abdomen.  Baxter died and the authorities called the death self-defense. But it was enough violence for Lottie and she decided to retire.

Frank and Lottie settled in Deming to live quiet, orderly lives. He concentrated on the mines, cattle ranching and land. Lottie became involved in civic organizations and helped build St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. It’s said that the $40,000 for the original structure of the church was financed with winnings in a poker game with Doc Holliday.  Lottie made the altar cloths used by St. Luke’s.  Lottie was a respected community leader, forming a social club Golden Gossip Club. The women gathered to swap recipes, play cards and sew quilts.

After 40 years together, Frank died in 1908 of cancer. Lottie lived another twenty-nine years, dying at the age of eighty-nine on February 9, 1934.  However, Lottie has lived long past her death.  The character of Laura Denbo in the movie Gunfight at the OK Corral and that of Miss Kitty in the television show Gunsmoke are based on Lottie Deno.

Works cited and for more reading:
THE LADY WAS A GAMBLER by Chris Enss; ISBN 978-0-7627-4371-1


Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 

5 comments:

  1. Anna Kathryn, I loved this post, and the fact that she married and lived happily after her life of gambling. What a great story. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Loved this post. How interesting Miss Kitty was based on this woman. She certainly had a full life.

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  3. Anna, you are so welcome! I was actually prepared early for my post, so it was easy to publish it a couple days early.

    This is wonderful info. I had no idea a woman could be be a successful gambler, and on a riverboat yet. I wonder if she did ever cheat.

    I always liked Miss Kitty, but whenever she seemed so generous helping out some lost, homeless young woman...in reality she was hiring them to the bordello, no?

    Excellent post, loved it.

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  4. Hi, Caroline and Paisley. I'm glad she had a happily ever after, too. She certainly had an exciting and at times, I'm sure, desperate life. It's nice that she was able to live the life her mother would have wanted for her! I do wish I could find out information on her sister...it would be nice to know what happened to her.

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  5. Yeah, Tanya, I think along with the saloon, Miss Kitty had a bordello, but I don't recall if all the women went there. In my research, I don't believe Lottie and Frank ever ran a bordello.

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