Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Kitty LeRoy: Beloved Tramp

By Kathleen Rice Adams

courtesy National Archives and Records Administration


Some historical episodes in the Old West read like adventures. Some read like tragedies. Some read like romances.

A few real-life characters — like Kitty LeRoy — managed to combine all three.

“…Kitty LeRoy was what a real man would call a starry beauty,” one of her contemporaries noted in a book with a ridiculously long title*. “Her brow was low and her brown hair thick and curling; she had five husbands, seven revolvers, a dozen bowie-knives and always went armed to the teeth, which latter were like pearls set in coral.”

Though no photos of her are known to exist, from all reports LeRoy was a stunning beauty with a sparkling personality that had men — including both notorious outlaws and iconic lawmen — throwing themselves at her feet. She was proficient in the arts of flirtation and seduction, and she didn’t hesitate to employ her feminine wiles to get what she wanted.

Often, what she wanted was the pot in a game of chance. One of the most accomplished poker players of her time, LeRoy spent much of her short life in gambling establishments. Eventually, she opened her own in one of the most notorious dens of iniquity the West has ever known: Deadwood, South Dakota. With LeRoy and the spectacular diamonds at her ears, neck, wrists, and fingers glittering brightly enough to blind her customers every night, it’s no wonder the Mint Gambling Saloon prospered.

And, with her reputation as an expert markswoman, there was very little trouble … at least at the tables.

LeRoy was born in 1850, although no one is sure where. Some say Texas; others, Michigan. One thing is certain: By the age of ten, she was performing as a dancer on the stage. Working in dancehalls and saloons, she either picked up or augmented an innate ability to manipulate, along with gambling and weaponry skills that would serve her well for most of her life.  At fifteen she married her first husband because, according to legend, he was the only man in Bay City, Michigan, who would let her shoot apples off his head while she galloped past on horseback.

Deadwood, c. 1878-80
A long attention span apparently was not among the skills LeRoy cultivated. Shortly after her marriage, she left her husband and infant son behind and headed for Texas. By the age of twenty, she had reached the pinnacle of popularity at Johnny Thompson’s Variety Theatre in Dallas, only to leave entertaining behind, too.

Instead, she tried her hand as a faro dealer. Ah, now there was a career that suited. Excitement, money, men … and extravagant costumes. Players never knew what character they would face until she appeared. A man? A sophisticate? A gypsy?

Texas soon bored LeRoy, too, but no matter. With a new saloonkeeper husband in tow, she headed for San Francisco — only to discover the streets were not paved with gold, as she had heard. While muddling through that dilemma, she somehow misplaced husband number two, which undoubtedly made it easier for her to engage in the sorts of promiscuous shenanigans for which she rapidly gained a reputation.

Although the reputation didn’t hurt her at the gaming tables, it did create a certain amount of unwanted attention. One too-ardent admirer persisted to such an extent that LeRoy challenged him to a duel. The man demurred, reportedly not wishing to take advantage of a woman. Never one to let a little thing like gender stand in her way, LeRoy changed into men’s clothes, returned, and challenged her suitor again. When he refused to draw a second time, she shot him anyway. Then, reportedly overcome with guilt, she called a minister and married husband number three as he was breathing his last.

Now a widow, LeRoy hopped a wagon train with Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane and headed for the thriving boomtown of Deadwood. They arrived in July 1876, and LeRoy became an instant success by entertaining adoring prospectors nightly at the notorious Gem Theatre. Within a few months, she had earned enough money to open her own establishment: the Mint. There, she met and married husband number four, a German who had struck it rich in Black Hills gold. When the prospector’s fortune ran out, so did LeRoy’s interest. She hit him over the head with a bottle and threw him out.

Meanwhile, thanks to LeRoy’s mystique — and allegedly, to no little fooling around with the customers — the Mint became a thriving operation. LeRoy reportedly “entertained” legendary characters as diverse as Hickock and Sam Bass. But it was 35-year-old card shark Samuel R. Curley who finally claimed her heart. Curley, besotted himself, became husband number five on June 11, 1877.

Shortly thereafter, Curley learned LeRoy hadn’t divorced her first husband. The bigamy realization, combined with rumors about LeRoy’s continued promiscuity, proved too much for the usually peaceful gambler. He stormed out of the Mint and didn’t stop until he reached Denver, Colorado.

Folks who knew LeRoy said she changed after Curley’s departure. Despite nights during which she raked in as much as $8,000 on a single turn of the cards, she grew cold and suspicious.

Gem Theatre, c. 1878
Her grief seemed to dissipate a bit when an old lover showed up in Deadwood. LeRoy rented rooms above the Lone Star Saloon, and the two moved in together.

By then, Curley was dealing faro in a posh Cheyenne, Wyoming, saloon. Acquaintances called him miserable. When word of LeRoy’s new relationship reached him, he flew into a jealous rage. Determined to confront his wife and her lover, he returned to Deadwood December 6, 1877. When the lover refused to see him, Curley told a Lone Star employee he’d kill them both.

LeRoy, reportedly still pining for her husband despite her new affair, agreed to meet Curley in her rooms at the Lone Star. Not long after she ascended the stairs, patrons below reported hearing a scream and two gunshots.

The following day, the Black Hills Daily Times reported the gruesome scene: LeRoy lay on her back, eyes closed. Except for the bullet hole in her chest, the 27-year-old looked as though she were asleep. Curley lay face down, his skull destroyed by a bullet from the Smith & Wesson still gripped in his right hand.

“Suspended upon the wall, a pretty picture of Kitty, taken when the bloom and vigor of youth gazed down upon the tenements of clay, as if to enable the visitor to contrast a happy past with a most wretched present,” the newspaper report stated. “The pool of blood rested upon the floor; blood stains were upon the door and walls….”

An understated funeral took place in the room where Curley killed his wife and then took his own life. Their caskets were buried in the same grave in the city’s Ingleside Cemetery and later moved to an unmarked plot in the more famous Mount Moriah.

The happiness the couple could not find together in life, apparently they did in death. Within a month of the funeral, Lone Star patrons began to report seeing apparitions “recline in a loving embrace and finally melt away in the shadows of the night.” The sightings became so frequent, the editor of the Black Hills Daily Times investigated the matter himself. His report appeared in the paper February 28, 1878:

…[W]e simply give the following, as it appeared to us, and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions as to the phenomena witnessed by ourselves and many others. It is an oft repeated tale, but one which in this case is lent more than ordinary interest by the tragic events surrounding the actors.

To tell our tale briefly and simply, is to repeat a story old and well known — the reappearance, in spirit form, of departed humanity. In this case it is the shadow of a woman, comely, if not beautiful, and always following her footsteps, the tread and form of the man who was the cause of their double death. In the still watches of the night, the double phantoms are seen to tread the stairs where once they reclined in the flesh and linger o’er places where once they reclined in loving embrace, and finally to melt away in the shadows of the night as peacefully as their bodies’ souls seem to have done when the fatal bullets brought death and the grave to each.

Whatever may have been the vices and virtues of the ill-starred and ill-mated couple, we trust their spirits may find a happier camping ground than the hills and gulches of the Black Hills, and that tho’ infelicity reigned with them here, happiness may blossom in a fairer climate.


Sources:

* Life and Adventures of SAM BASS, the Notorious Union Pacific and Texas
Train Robber, Together with a Graphic Account of His Capture and Death, Sketch of the Members of his Band, with Thrilling Pen Pictures of their Many Bold and Desperate Deeds, and the Capture and Death of Collins, Berry, Barnes, and Arkansas Johnson (W.L. Hall & Company, 1878)

The Lady Was a Gambler: True Stories of Notorious Women of the Old West by Chris Enss (TwoDot, October 2007)

Women of the Western Frontier in Fact, Fiction and Film by Ronald W. Lackmann (McFarland & Company Inc., January 1997)



Wishing for a CowboyKathleen Rice Adams' short story "Peaches" appears in Wishing for a Cowboy: Running a ranch and fending off three meddlesome aunts leaves Whit McCandless no time, and even less patience, for the prickly new schoolmarm’s greenhorn carelessness. The teacher needs educating before somebody gets hurt.

Ruth Avery can manage her children and her school just fine without interference from some philistine of a rancher. If he’d pay more attention to his cattle and less to her affairs, they’d both prosper.

He didn’t expect to need rescuing. She never intended to fall in love.


15 comments:

  1. Another EXCELLENT and enlightening article, Kathleen. :-)

    ~ Cindy

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  2. Thanks, Cindy! Wouldn't Kitty make an excellent WHR heroine (except for the part about her One True Love killing her)? Some enterprising romance author needs to give Kitty and Sam an HEA. ;-)

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  3. Flirtatious, seductive, and one hell of a shot--what more could a man want in a woman.

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  4. Kathleen, I love this. I had never heard of Kitty--and how odd that there are no pictures of her! What a life she led--never a dull moment, for sure. She crammed a lot of living into 27 years, didn't she? Thanks so much for a well-researched, well-written post about someone that now I have a burning curiosity about! It's too bad she didn't have an HEA of some kind. It sounds like she was very wild but very troubled, too--searching for happiness.
    Cheryl

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  5. Fascinating post, Kathleen! I'd never heard of Kitty before. Thanks for sharing her wild, tragic story with us.

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  6. LOL, Tom! Evidently, lots of men felt that way about Kitty. :-D

    Cheryl, I stumbled across Kitty while I was researching Sam Bass, of all things. I had to know more about her. She was one daring individual. From what I read, she was adored by men and hated by women, including the soiled doves with whom she rubbed elbows. Madame Mustache, a notorious female gambler, and Kitty carried on a feud for years, based on Kitty's alleged habit of embellishing her past. As if her history needed embellishing!

    Lyn, nice to see you! I hadn't heard of Kitty prior to researching this post, either. I can't imagine why she isn't better known, except perhaps because her life was so short. Still, with all the living she crammed into a few short years, one would think she'd come up in the historical record more often than she does.

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  7. Wow, very interesting post, Tex. Although the skeptic in me doesn't quite believe the two are frolicking happily across the Black Hills. :)

    --Kirsten

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  8. Kathleen--I wonder what happened to Kitty's infant son. How sad that she ran off and left him behind. That would make a good story, too, the son grown up, knowing about his mother and her way of life, and trying to make a normal life for himself.
    Well, you have opened up a lot of possible stories here.
    (I named my newest heroine in West Texas Brides Kathleen. I hope you don't mind. The name has such class, and it popped in my head. Later, I thought...oh, I know a Kathleen.)
    Excellent post.

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  9. Kirsten, my skeptic is frolicking with yours, I do believe, since I'm not quite sure about that, either. I'd like to think it's true, but.... :-)

    Celia, I love how your mind works! The idea about a story for the son is excellent. I also wonder what happened to that child. I couldn't find any later references to him OR the first husband, although I did manage to locate the first husband's name (Capt. E.H. Lewis).

    Kitty also may have had a daughter, though I'm not really clear about that. A report in the Black Hills Daily Times on January 7, 1878, stated, "The estate of Kitty Curley, upon appraisement, amounted to $650, more than one-half of which is claimed by and allowed to Kitty Donally, and the expenses have doubtless consumed the balance. P.H. Earley has been appointed trustee or guardian for the child." That's the only mention I found of "Kitty Donally" -- no age, no relationship, but an implication she may have been Kitty's daughter (or maybe ward/adopted daughter?).

    As for naming your latest heroine Kathleen: I've always been a mite partial to that name myself. ;-)

    HUGS!!!!

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  10. Stories of women in the West always interest me, primarily because our current concept throws all 19th Century women in the same Victorian bucket. Whether farm wives or horse traders (Kitty Wilkins), Western women had to be as tough and entrepreneurial as the men. Maybe more so.

    This story is fascinating, especially from the business angle. Obviously, opportunity and flirtation were synonymous in her mind.

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  11. Great post, Kathleen. She sounds like some woman. A shame she couldn't have taken a better path in life, but it sounds like she was never given a chance.

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  12. Jacquie, I agree with you. Although they may have had less legal standing in some arenas during Victorian times, women probably were as diverse in interests, abilities, and behavior as they are now. Flirtation evidently worked for her.

    Linda, it's sad to imagine what Kitty might have achieved had she had opportunities.

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  13. I loved this post. It is amazing what went on during this time in history. I run across these amazing women who had no qualms to live these kinds of tales.

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  14. Great post, Kathleen. I'm adding your name to the top of your post. Apparently we forgot to tell you to do that. We can only think of one thing at a time. LOL Love all your posts.

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  15. Paisley, some of our foremothers led extraordinary lives -- although I'm sure, to them, those lives seemed anything but. History is full of remarkable women. :-)

    Caroline, I'll try to remember to put my name at the top of future posts. I so enjoy contributing to Sweethearts. These posts give me something to do with all those rabbit trails I get sucked into. :-D

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