Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Elizabeth Dumont: Lady Gambler

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

Next month I’ll be teaching my class PIONEERING WOMEN OF THE WEST once again on the Hearts Through History RWA chapter’s campus.  I thought I’d give you a taste of what you’ll learn if you take the class with today’s post.  Elizabeth Dumont made and lost a fortune via gambling as well as owning several gambling clubs in the Old West.  Her downfall came not from cards, but from love. 

Born in New Orleans in 1829, Elizabeth travelled to California in the early 1850’s to make her fortune. By 1854 she had her own gambling den in Nevada City, California. It was tastefully decorated and was open twenty-four hours a day.  With Elizabeth herself manning the gambling tables, it soon became a favorite spot for the local miners and travelling gents.

While men seemed in awe of the dealing sensation, women were appalled.  They saw Elizabeth as a threat to not only their marriage but the delicate feminine sensibilities of the time.  She was “bad company that drew their men to drink and gamble.”  The women however were out-numbered by the men, out flocked to watch “the trim beauty with nimble fingers shuffle the deck.” Rival gambling dens found it necessary to hire women dealers just to stay in competition with Elizabeth.

Given her beauty and skills, she was never short of marriage proposals, but she turned them all down. Her heart, it seemed, belong to one man, the editor of the local newspaper, Mr. Wait.  He, however, did not return the affection, feeling as if Elizabeth was not of good social standing to be a wife. His rejection spurred Elizabeth to build a bigger and better gambling house with a partner, David Tobin. Within a few years of arriving in Gold Country, she had amassed a fortune.

By 1856, the gold in the area had run out and business began to dwindle.  David and Elizabeth decided to dissolve their partnership and go their separate ways.  It is probable that Elizabeth decided to move on for more than financial reasons. She’d recently learned that Mr. Wait was engaged to another woman. It’s said she never truly got over the rejection she suffered.

Over the next few years, she would move from town to town, following the gold finds and increasing her own holdings.  She was well-known for her honest and generous ways to the gambling miners, often loaning them money to gamble with.  By the time she was thirty, her looks began to fade and she grew weary of the life she was leading. She decided to pull out of the gambling business and instead purchased a cattle ranch near Carson City, Nevada.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth knew little about ranching. In addition, she was lonely and this combination set up for the worse loss of her life. Jack McKnight showed up at the ranch one day, claiming to be a cattle buyer.  What he really was a scammer, but he was also handsome and he swept Elizabeth off her feet.  They married shortly after meeting.

Less than a month after the wedding, however, Jack was gone. He took with him all her money and sold the ranch right out from under her.  She was not only heart-broken, she was out and out broke.  Given little choice, Elizabeth returned to the mining camps and gambling. By this time she was sporting facial hair under her nose and had become known as Madame Mustache. She was not as nimble at playing cards as she’d once been, but people still came from miles to watch her play and chat with her.

            Her skills as a gambler continued to diminish and eventually, she had to rely on prostitution to earn money for her keep.  During this period of time, she also turned to drinking.  She landed in the town of Bodie, California by the time she was fifty.  She set up a blackjack table in one saloon where she would be challenge by professional gamblers. Not the same player she’d been in her younger days, she was soon penniless. 

One night, after losing yet another hand, Elizabeth excused herself from the table and staggered off down Main Street.  The next morning, her body was found several miles outside of town, a bottle of poison beside her. A coat pocket held a note asking that she be buried in Nevada City, next to her one true love, Mr. Wait.

The locals however, where only able to raise enough money to bury her in the Bodie cemetery, which kept her, at least, from being buried in the pauper’s cemetery.

Elizabeth lived a life of adventure.  When things were good, they were very good, but when they were bad…. Unfortunately, she fell for a low-down dirty scoundrel who took her, literally, for all she had. She was one of the women, however, who left her mark in the Old West.

If you’d like learn more about the women who helped shape the West, please join me September 4-30 for PIONEERING WOMEN OF THE WEST.  Read more about this class and register for it HERE. If you’d like a chance to take the class for FREE, please leave a comment. I’ll draw a name from those who leave a comment here, as well as those who leave a comment on my August 19th blog at Seduced by History for a free registration.

Works Cited: WITH GREAT HOPE: Women of the California Gold Rush by JoAnn Chartier and Chris Enss.
Anna Kathryn Lanier
Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester


  1. Gosh, what a depressing life. I suppose she lived the high life in her younger days, so at least she had that accomplishment. All through her story, I thought she'd probably have gone another route had it not been for Mr. Wait. Very sad, to have wasted a life like that.
    She is a character I've not heard of--and I do love to read about these people. What a story.

  2. Fascinating article, Anna. I'd heard of Madame Mustache, but didn't know that much about her. The history of women during the Old West is something that tends to get swept under the rug for some reason.

  3. Fascinating story, Anna! Elizabeth Dumont sounds like a gutsy woman, doing the best she could to make her way in a man's world. How sad that the men she loved turned out to such skunks!

  4. I've taken you class and highly recommend it not only to writers, but to anyone who enjoys learning about the Old West.

  5. Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by. I agree, Celia. Had she not fallen head over heels for Mr. Wait, she may have lived a more satisfying life. It's too bad that he thought so low of her! She was definitely a gutsy woman.

    Matthew, Chris Enss writes some great books on Women of the West. If you haven't read any of them, look her up. I use her a lot for refrences and actually, I need to give her credit for this info. I forgot to do that when I wrote the article last night.

    Lyn, I agree, Wait sounds like a jerk. And McKnight was just a bastard.

    Hi, Caroline. I'm so glad you enjoyed the class!

  6. I've heard of her before, too. She was one of the colorful women in the West. And, we think we live hard lives at times...

    Very interesting blog.

  7. Hi, Paisley. Thanks for stopping by. I do wish I could have found more information on, though Chris Enss's book had a great deal of information, I couldn't find anything on the internet.

  8. Hi: Another great article. Oh the pain of unrequited love. So sad she ended up penniless and obviously feeling abandoned by the world and the men she loved. Your class will obviously be fascinating as well as educational.

    Gini Rifkin

  9. Did anyone ever go after the rat who took all her money? Such a sad life, but even more so because she gave her heart and it was broken.


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