The stories in this book are about thirteen women gamblers who lived by their wits. Some were the product of hard times; others chose their profession simply because they liked adventure. The book is fun to read, the chapters are short with stories told right to the point. A bibliography appears at the back of the book offering information about each lady if the reader is inclined to do additional research. Unfortunately the bibliography regarding Calamity Jane omits the best biography written about her to date titled Calamity Jane, by James D. McLaird, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, 2005, and was reviewed in this column a while back.
In any case, this book, written for light entertainment, does a good job in picking out a variety of interesting women, albeit some better known than others.
Kitty LeRoy was a bigamist, cardsharp, and knife-wielding saloonkeeper who dressed like a gypsy. She hailed from Dallas, Texas eventually making her way north to Deadwood Gulch, South Dakota where she ran a saloon, cheated at cards, and married multiple times without bothering with divorces. Her last jealous husband shot her to death at the Lone Star Saloon before taking his own life.
Belle Ryan Cora was one of the most glamorous women gamblers, whose father was also a minister. Abandoned by her first husband, the distraught Belle fled to New Orleans. Here she worked as a prostitute, and met a handsome gambler. The pair moved on to the California goldfields, settling in San Francisco where they ran a profitable brothel and gambling den. When her lover was hanged by vigilantes, Belle died of a broken heart after giving most of her money to local charities.
Alice Ivers was known as Poker Alice, and worked the saloons in Deadwood, South Dakota. An attractive blonde, she was an expert at five-card draw, faro, and blackjack. After her husband was killed in a mine accident, she began earning her living exclusively at the gambling tables. Alice traveled throughout many western states, where she gambled, drank whiskey, smoked cigars and swore mightily whenever she lost a hand. A friend of Wild Bill Hickok, she was nearby the night he was killed. In her old age, she dressed like a man and sold bootleg whiskey. Alice was reported to be worth millions in her youth, but died a pauper in 1930 after a short illness.
Gertrudis Maria Barcelo was a sultry vamp living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Born in Sonora, Mexico in 1800, her wealthy parents lavished their beautiful daughter with every gift including a good education. To the dismay of her parents, Gertrudis married a gambler, and the pair headed north to Santa Fe where she spent her dowry on an elaborate gambling house and bordello known as The Palace. Meanwhile, “Madam Barcelo” invested her money in mines, hotels and freight lines. She worked as an American spy, supporting the U.S. in its interest to remain separate from Mexico. Her affair with the governor of New Mexico led to the breakup of her marriage, but she remained a gambler to the end, becoming the richest woman in Santa Fe. When she died in 1852, her elaborate funeral was complete with music, cowboys, horses, speeches by church and city officials, barbecues, and merrymaking that was long remembered.
Women gamblers Belle Siddons, Lottie Deno, Belle Starr, Eleanora Dumont, Jenny Rowe, Minnie Smith and others are found in this entertaining book. These true stories remind us that women were rough, tough and headstrong in the Old Days, and would have laughed at at political labels such as “Women’s Lib” because even in the 1800s, nothing could stop a woman who really wanted to blaze her own trail.
Editor’s Note: The Reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of many published books, including Silk and Sagebrush: Women of the Old West, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988 (845-726-3434) www.silklabelbooks.com . To grab a copy of this fascinating book click HERE.