The Pistol-Packing Gold Rush Gambler Who Beat Men at Their Own Game

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s Eleanor Dumont walked home alone one night after a successful evening of gambling, her path was suddenly blocked by two men. Holding her at gunpoint, the pair demanded she hand over her purse or suffer the consequences. Dumont nodded, maintaining the trademark cool that local gold rush miners knew her for, and reached into her skirt. Rather than pulling out her winnings, she instead retrieved her derringer pistol. She quickly shot the man with the gun, while her other assailant fled in fear. Then Dumont continued her journey home, without a hair out of place.

This was life in the Wild West, and Madame Eleanor Dumont had—by then—learned the hard way how to deal with it.

The Frenchwoman—whose real name was Simone Jules—had arrived in San Francisco in 1850, aged 21, and immediately started work as a professional gambler. She was the only woman to deal cards at the Bella Union Hotel (a privilege not afforded to women on the Las Vegas strip until 1971). She was an elegant presence in the Portsmouth Square establishment—always well-dressed and quick to find an easy rapport with the customers. Not only was Dumont enormously skilled with a card deck, she was also an excellent conversationalist. There was never a dull moment at her table.

A row of Gold Rush era store fronts line a street with sparsely populated hills behind.
The Bella Union Hotel, on the north side of Portsmouth Square, as seen in 1855. (Public domain)

Despite her popularity, Dumont lost her job at the hotel after she was accused of hustling players. In all likelihood, this was the result of a disgruntled guest who underestimated Dumont's skill level and resented losing to a woman. Outside of the Bella Union, Dumont had a lifelong reputation for playing a fair game, and handing over winnings graciously when they were due.

Dumont's firing may also have been influenced by the stereotypes about French women that were pervasive in San Francisco at the time. William Perkins, a Canadian miner and merchant who documented his travels across the United States between 1849 and 1852, once wrote: "French women ... are one of the peculiar features of California society. They are to be met with every where, and every where they are the same: money making, unscrupulous, [but] outwardly well-behaved."

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After the Bella Union, Dumont knew instinctively it was time to strike out on her own. So in 1854, she arrived by stagecoach to Nevada City—a booming mining town where gold nuggets were plentiful, and miners were starved of female company. Though the move would go on to be a winning combination for Dumont, locals greeted her incredulously at first. They simply couldn't figure out why a young woman, dressed in finery, would be walking up and down Broad Street on her own for hours on end. She was looking for the perfect storefront to open a casino, but one confused woman reportedly commented: "There's got to be some bad in a girl with all her charms who seems to have nothing to do but strut up and down main street."

Once Dumont had opened what one newspaper ad described as the "best gambling emporium in Northern California," it all made sense. Dumont called her casino Vingt-et-Un (21 in French) after her favorite card game—a precursor to blackjack. And there was nothing like it in Nevada City, or any other mining town for that matter. The grand, 50 ft.–long room was decorated with luxurious carpets, gas-powered chandeliers and plush furnishings. Rare liquors and wines were served while a small orchestra played. Gamblers were offered free champagne upon arrival. Dumont enforced a dress code (jackets, ties and hats) and strictly prohibited swearing, smoking, spitting and fighting. She was bringing class to the rough-and-tumble mining community—and they absolutely loved it. Not least because it offered the opportunity to play against the mysterious Madame Dumont herself.

"She possessed a peculiar power over the roughest of her customers," the Hamilton County Democrat reported in Oct. 1879. "It became a saying of theirs that there was more satisfaction in playing against the Madame's game and losing, than in winning at any other game."

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n the course of running Vingt-et-Un, Dumont met a fellow professional gambler named David Tobin. The two hit it off, became romantically involved, and she soon invited him to co-manage the casino. Partnering with Tobin enabled Dumont to broaden her horizons and open a second venue. Dumont's Place, as it was called, specialized in games not played at Vingt-et-Un, including keno, roulette, poker, chuck-a-luck (a game of chance played with three dice) and the most popular game of the day, faro.

Gold rush gamblers playing a game of Faro in Tombstone, Arizona—where Eleanor Dumont lived, and gambled, for a time. (Public domain)

The couple's success was short-lived. By 1857, as gold lodes dwindled, so did casino customers. Dumont and Tobin cut their losses, sold the businesses and parted ways. Tobin headed to New York where he died a very wealthy man in 1865. Dumont followed the miners to Columbia, California where a new wealth of gold was being uncovered. Dumont set up a gambling table inside a hotel and, as with Nevada City, she made a good living as long as the miners did. Once gold supplies petered out and prospectors began moving on, Dumont faithfully and fearlessly followed. She would go on to travel extensively in pursuit of mining money, spending the 1860s bouncing between Virginia City and Pioche in Nevada, Fort Benton and Bannack in Montana, Helena and Salmon in Idaho, Colorado City in Arizona, and Corinne and Silver City in Utah.

None of this was in Dumont's original life plan.

Dumont had made an attempt to embrace a quieter life at the end of the 1850s. She had saved enough money by that time to buy herself a ranch in Carson City, Nevada—and she was determined to get off the road and make a go of it. It might just have worked out if she hadn't fallen in love with a saloon owner named Jack McKnight. McKnight told Dumont he was a cattleman who could turn the ranch into a successful business. Swept up in what seemed like a happy ending, Dumont married McKnight and signed over the ranch to him so he could manage it for her. Within a month, he had sold the property and skipped town with everything Dumont had worked so hard for. She had no choice but to hit the road once more, and she never again attempted to settle down.

Something about the experience with McKnight hardened Dumont. She became a heavy drinker, took less care with her appearance and was outwardly more cynical. She started carrying a gun wherever she went, and when fate crossed her path with McKnight's once more, she wasted no time in shooting him dead. Dumont was never charged with any crime, however. Some said there simply wasn't enough evidence to charge her; others claimed the sheriff knew what McKnight had done to Dumont and thought he had it coming. Only many years after the crime did Dumont admit to the murder.

Dumont's newfound toughness found its way into her card games. She is said to have horsewhipped one cheating gambler during a game in Colorado City. Rumors were rife that after one of her customers angrily accused her of not really being French, she had him thrown through a door. In Fort Benton, Dumont's gambling house, the Cosmopolitan, stood right in the middle of what was commonly referred to at the time as "the bloodiest block in the West"—a lawless cluster of bars, brothels and casinos.

One night on that chaotic street, word began to spread that trouble was on the horizon—a steamboat said to be carrying many passengers with smallpox was about to dock, bringing the feared disease to Fort Benton. Dumont sprang into action, and raced down to the docks with a pistol in each hand. When the boat arrived, she threatened to shoot the captain if he attempted to dock. Needless to say, he abandoned the plan and turned around. Dumont made her way back to the Cosmopolitan, told her customers the danger had passed and bought everyone drinks on the house.

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espite Dumont's necessary assimilation into the harshest of environments, she never did lose her charm. Throughout her life, she retained a knack for defusing dangerous situations using only her grace and wit. On one occasion, she is said to have single-handedly prevented a riot that was brewing amongst an angry mob of unemployed miners and Mexican laborers.

On another, the Hamilton County Democrat reported:

In Pioche, the room in which she was dealing her game became filled with a noisy, quarreling crowd of miners, maddened with drink and flourishing pistols ... The bar keepers and faro dealers were fruitlessly trying to quiet the crowd, when Madame Dumont ... quietly approached the noisies and laughingly removing them for ungallant conduct, succeeded in clearing the room and avoiding a bloody row.

By 1864, while residing in Bannack, Dumont decided to open a brothel to supplement her gambling earnings. It was a far cry from Vingt-et-Un, where women had been banned, lest prostution lure her customers away from the card table. In Bannack, Dumont drummed up brothel business by driving her girls around town in carriages, never missing the construction camps along the route of the Union Pacific Railroad.

Four years later, she took a chance on the Kootenai Mines in British Columbia. But as soon as she arrived and started building a new casino, the miners and prospectors found a more promising lode down the line and moved on. Dumont quickly ran out of cash and skipped town by mule train, without telling the contractors who'd been building her new venue. Dumont made her way to central Montana, where she made herself a fast fortune at the mining camps. One year later, she tracked down her old contractors in Reynolds City and paid them back in full, in what The Butte Miner newspaper later referred to as "bankable gold dust."

It was in middle age that Dumont acquired the cruel nickname that never left her: Madame Mustache. As she aged, the hair on Dumont's upper lip had darkened and, after an angry customer threw the insult at her one day, the sobriquet stuck and followed her around the country wherever she traveled.

It's almost impossible to map Dumont's exact movements during the 1870s—except to say that she showed up at card tables across the west. Boise City, Oklahoma. Cheyenne, Wyoming. Blackfoot City, Idaho. Eureka, Nevada. Tombstone, Arizona. Deadwood, South Dakota—where Dumont, incidentally, befriended Calamity Jane and taught her how to gamble. No wonder the Bodie Standard reported in 1878 that, "Probably no woman on the Pacific Coast is better known." And they were right. In July of that same year, a single week-long visit to Modesto earned Dumont two separate articles in the Modesto Herald newspaper. She was merely passing through on her way to Bodie—the only town she never left.

After arriving in Bodie, Dumont began dealing 21 at the Magnolia saloon on Main Street. She was welcomed warmly. "She appears young as ever and those who knew her ever so many years ago would instantly recognize her now," the Bodie Standard cheerfully reported.

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n the morning of Sept. 8, 1879, a sheep herder discovered Eleanor Dumont's lifeless body, head resting on a stone, a mile outside of Bodie. She had killed herself by drinking a combination of morphine and red wine, and left a note addressed to the public administrator. In it, she gave instructions about what to do with her worldly possessions and stated simply that she was "tired of life." Friends reported that she had borrowed $300 to gamble with the night before (over $8,000 in today's money), and was bereft after losing it all within a few short hours.

The outpouring prompted by the death of Dumont was immense. Local women lovingly prepared her body for burial, while miners raised money to give her an appropriate sendoff. The Bridgeport Chronicle Union wrote: "It is said that of the hundreds of funerals held in the mining sample, that of Madame Mustache was the largest. The gamblers of the place buried her with all honors and carriages were brought in from Carson City, NV, a distance of 120 miles."

Dumont was buried in the section of Bodie's cemetery reserved for outcasts and sinners. Still, newspapers across the country reported Dumont's death with reverence and respect. The Bodie Morning News reported that she "bore a character of virtue possessed by few in her line." The Hamilton County Democrat wrote: "Despite her strange surrounding and unusual mode of living, [Dumont] possessed the respect, as well as the admiration of her rough companions for years." Montana's Butte Miner noted: "Truthful and honest, whatever other faults she might have had, always smiling, never forgetting the politeness of her native France, and her purse ever open at the appeal of sickness or suffering, Madame Mustache leaves friends in almost every class of Western society."

Shortly after her death, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted a miner who had known and loved Dumont. He perhaps summed up her life best.

Her life was as square a game as was ever dealt. The world played against her with all sorts of combinations but she generally beat it. The turn was called on her at last for a few paltry hundreds ... and she passed in her checks, game to the last.

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