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In 1873, in the high verdant dell of Surprise Canyon near the western summit of the Panamint Mountains, great deposits of silver were discovered. Miners, saloonkeepers, and the gambling gentry made the difficult climb, and the celebrated Madame Mustache left Carson City to join the stampede. High-stake gambling was inevitable and the incomparable madame wanted to be in on the rich pickings while dealing her favorite game of twenty-one.
Old-timers laid themselves out to welcome the woman who revived their memories of every major rush in the last twenty years. The down on her upper lip was more pronounced than ever, her youthful plumpness was now middle-aged stoutness, remindino- them how the years slip away.
Madame Mustache was more than a middle-aged woman and veteran aambler to them; she was the essence of their damned past, already a legend. Perhaps the greatest professional woman gambler, certainly the most colorful, Madame Mustache's beginnings are obscure, but her known story opens in 1854, when a stagecoach pulled into high, wide, and roaring Nevada City, California. The eyes of the idlers came to a sharp halt when they saw a shapely young woman emerge, dressed in the modish style of a San Francisco queen, her raven hair rolling down to her shoulders. With wide-set, sparkling eyes and smooth olive complexion this woman was worth looking at. She could not have been more than twenty-two, and Nevada City was in a frenzy of curiosity about her as she spent the first week in her hotel room or appeared in the large hotel parlor set aside for ladies, decked out in pretty clothes and jewels. Gossip circulated that she spoke five languages and had musical talent. Her name was Eleanore Dumont and she was obviously French, but beyond that she was a mystery.
An invitation to all so disposed to visit Madame Dumont's gambling house on Broad Street revealed the nature of her business. Vingt-et-un was her game and she herself would deal. As a good Frenchwoman she promised free champagne for all.
Miners rushed into Nevada City for the opening, put on good clothes if they had any, and cleaned their boots, dug out stovepipe hats, or brushed their sombreros. Some wore their coonskin hats. Many faces unaccustomed to water were washed, many heads combed.
The establishment opened with a bang as men swarmed in. It was a social triumph for Madame Dumont, and the miners were not disappointed. They found her witty, vivacious, and seductive. "A charmer," said the men. Eleanore Dumont put everybody at ease by rolling her own cigarettes and drinking champagne, moving around cordially talking to them all before she began her games. The bewitching Frenchwoman deftly kept them at arm's length and told them tactfully that she was a lady-such a phenomenon in a mining camp that it reduced the rough men to a state of awe.
In her establishment Madame Dumont asked patrons not to brawl or use bad language. The men removed their hats at the tables and did their best about cussing. And not a fight took place.
Madame Dumont dealt twenty-one like a seasoned sport and sweetly expressed regret as she raked in her winnings or seemed pleased when the men won and assured them it was a trifle as she paid off with a laugh.
Mining camps as far as a hundred miles away chose representatives to gamble against the French cutie. It got so they would rather drop their bundle to her than break the bank in other houses. She won more often than she lost but her game was square and many lucky miners left her gambling tables loaded with more gold dust than they'd brought with them.
In twenty-one the banker can deal against only a handful of players at a time. Madame shrewdly realized that men unable to get to the table and quench their gambling thirst would patronize The Empire, Barker's Exchange, or some other, less crowded house. It was obvious that she needed additional tables and gamblers to run them.
After looking over the field of professionals in Nevada City, Madame Dumont decided to take young, clever David Tobin in on a minor partnership basis. Dave was six feet tall and handsome, with dark wavy hair and a black flowing mustache, in short, a lady-killer. His fine broadcloth clothes and refined conversation gave him what was called class. He impressed Eleanore Dumont, as he impressed all women, and when he dropped in her heart joggled as she dealt the cards. But no man was more important than gold and the game of twenty-one to her.
Tobin put several tinhorns on the pay roll to deal for the house, and faro, poker, keno, chuck-a-luck, and other games were added in the establishment. The Frenchwoman continued dealing twenty-one, and the plungers, after winning at other tables, came over to try their luck in sky-high games with her. The intake of the business increased notably.
The partnership prospered till the sordid shadow of avarice fell across Tobin and he pointed out to Madame that the business had jumped phenomenally since he joined it and he deserved to be cut in for more of the profit.
Eleanore Dumont narrowed her sparkling eyes and, unwomanlike, shrugged her soft, warm shoulders. Since any increase for Tobin meant a decrease for her, she was not in accord, but she gave him her most charming smile. She knew that she was the immense personal attraction the place had for the prospectors and she felt that Tobin was drawing as much as he was worth. There are those who say that Dave Tobin looked Eleanore Dumont straight in the eye and made her another proposition: he would make do with his present remuneration if she would become his mistress.
Who can say whether the head or the heart rules a professional gambling woman? Eleanore did not take offense. Dave was handsome enough to turn any woman's head. But she would surely forfeit the power and privilege she enjoyed among many men if she succumbed to one man's embraces.
So Dave Tobin learned that Eleanore Dumont, headstrong about money, could discipline her heart when it interfered with her purse. When Tobin bowed out with his share of cash, he is said to have established a house in New York and prospered. Madame continued in business and did well till the panners stopped washing out pay dirt in worth-while quantities. Nevada City's fortunes ebbed and Madame Dumont was reduced from gravy to bread and water.
Madame knew that where there was gold men gambled, so she picked up her cards and gambling layouts and trekked, along with a legion of restless prospectors and hardened adventurers, to the newest gold-rush camp. Eleanore Dumont had caught gold fever, which kept her on the move for the next twenty years.
Wherever gold was discovered she turned her hand to separating the prospectors from their dust. She made and lost more than one fortune but she never quit. A rage consumed her. It was her pleasure, her pain, and her lifeblood. And it caused her death.
Always Eleanore Dumont brandished her chastity in the womanless gold-rush camps and enticed men by her virtue to come and play with her. But they were in sharp contrast to the men in Nevada City. Roughs disturbed the peace of her gambling halls and men cursed openly in her presence. They no longer doffed their hats. Rival gamblers resented the overflow crowds and spitefully defamed her character, circulating scurrilous gossip about her past.
Strangely enough this abusive talk reverberated to Madame's profit, attracting more customers to her table. She could no longer use her publicized virginity as bait and found herself the target of more rough advances than she could easily ward off. The Frenchwoman occasionally gave in, when her bank suffered from a bad run at cards. Though she still reigned as a beauty in a sex-starved world, she gradually sank from being a celebrated person to a mining-camp character.
To keep her customers, Madame Dumont adapted to the temper of the mining camps. In Nevada City she had drunk wine, but only in moderation. After years in the camps where the men preferred whisky she went along with her clients. Her Nevada City reputation for badinage and clean jokes she exchanged for ribaldry and raw cracks. Under the circumstances it became more and more difficult to keep the prospectors at arm's length, and finally she found it less trying to oblige than to resist. Twentyone ceased to be the only way Madame was willing to make money.
Gradually she went to seed. Traveling difficult roads in rigorous weather, long night hours, liquor, men, and the passing years took their toll of her figure and complexion. She became a tough, baggy blister with skin like an old leather saddle. Men found her less alluring and, worse yet, an object of ridicule as life in the camps brutalized her. Nicknames came easy in the West and when the down on Madame's upper lip darkened the miners began calling her Madame Mustache. Never to her face, but it is hard to believe that she did not overhear it.
Eleanore Dumont had been a natural when everything was a gamble. Madame Mustache, product of the frontier mining age, measured up to the standards of prospectors and gamblers alike. She ran a square game and gave her customers a chance to win. She never hesitated to call a man's bluff and she won or lost with equanimity. And she moved on at the rumor of any strike, as gold-struck as any old-timer, to Northern California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Arizona. She branched out and dealt twenty-one in the "highball" camps of the Union Pacific when its tracks were spreading like tentacles across the West and a "railroad Bible" was another name for a deck of cards.
After a while Madame Mustache added other lures to her mansions of chance by opening up two-story combination gambling saloons and parlor houses with ladies of joy installed upstairs.
Madame herself became cynical and hard-boiled and found pleasure with one man as well as the next. In 1866, according to Duncan Aikman, one McHarney, an Irish adventurer, was manager of her establishment in Bannack and her paramour as well. This heavy-set man had a beard that reeked of whisky when he slobbered over himself and that was very often. A Scottish scamp, by name MacFarlane, coveted McHarney's position, and one night when the murmur of men had risen to a boisterous roar of laughter MacFarlane eliminated McHarney with a well-aimed bullet.
Madame looked MacFarlane up and down and decided that he would be an acceptable successor to McHarney.
Some say that she earned a moderate fortune in the late '60s, then yielding to a crazy impulse,brought a farm in eastern Nevada, and married a man to whom she turned over the farm and all her money. The Frenchwoman looked forward to quiet years, but her husband turned out to be a polecat, ran through her money, and in no time deserted her. Madame felt no regret for him, but the days on the farm were lonely and dull and confirmed her suspicion that she had been a wild bird too long to take to a nest.
Some deny the whole interval and claim that she was actually queening it up in San Francisco as proprietress of an establishment that employed Frenchwomen only and where gambling was not one of the amusements. If so it was not a great success, for Madame resumed dealing twenty-one in the boom towns and camps.
There was still magic in her name. She continued to help turn many a mushrooming town into a helldorado. And she regained some of her old poise in the dual role of bordello madame and gambler. She now had a number of hand-picked, well-groomed, girls, endowed with charm. With then. she rode in open carriages along the main streets, the girls in fine clothes, Madame puffing a long, expensive cigar. Raising her black eyes, smiling and nodding, Madame acknowledged the waves and halloos of prospectors, the courtly bows of the gambling gentry.
In time, however, Madame's establishments became second rate, though her name still attracted the boys to her tables. In Old Man River, Captain Louis Rosche, a pioneer steamboat man on the Missouri, gives a firsthand description of her two-story frame establishment in Fort Benton, Montana: "The inside of the gambling house was worse looking even than the outside. The bar and the gaming tables were housed in one big downstairs room. A rickety set of stairs led up to a second-floor balcony where I saw doors leading to about a dozen smaller rooms. The place was foggy with smoke and smelled of sweating, unwashed bodies and cheap whisky. The floor was filthy. The male customers, nearly all of whom chewed, were remarkably bad marksmen. The spittoons, placed at strategic locations, all went unscathed.
"Faintly from one of the upstairs rooms I could hear the gibberish of a drunken man and the high, shrill laughter of a woman who was not quite sober....
"I would not have known that this was the famous Madame Mustache. She was fat, showing unmistakably the signs of age. Rouge and powder, apparently applied only half-heartedly, failed to hide the sagging lines of her face, the pouches under her eyes, the general marks of dissipation. Her one badge of respectability was a black silk dress, worn high around the neck."
Madame Mustache knew when she was on the skids. Her conversation was racier than ever and she was bellying up to the bar more frequently, dulling her otherwise-keen card play. Her easygoing world was playing its last cards, the camps and boom towns were less frenzied, the men, except for the old-timers, showed her little friendliness now that women were no novelty in the West.
She was last heard of in the boom mining camp of Bodie in Northern California. It was here, undoubtedly, that she overheard her crushing nickname and suddenly wearied of being an object of amused contempt. On September 8, 1879, her body was discovered near Bodie. She had taken poison.
A notice in the Sacramento Union the next day simply said:
A woman named Eleanore Dumont was found dead today about one mile out of town [Bodie], having committed suicide. She was well known throughout the mining camps.