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Eleanora Dumont. The Lovely, “Madame Moustache”

Eleanora Dumont. The Lovely, “Madame Moustache”

Madame Moustache

Folklore remembers Bodie less than other contemporary boomtowns largely because no Bodie resident ever earned the notoriety of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Calamity Jane, or Wild Bill Hickok. The eastern California mining camp’s most celebrated personality was Madame Mustache, a highly regarded card dealer who committed suicide there in 1879.

Soiled doves of the Old West frequently wrestled with matters of the heart.  Many longed to meet a man who could help them escape the life they were living. Popular, frontier madam Eleanor Dumont dreamed of such a saviour.  Shortly after she moved to Northern California she met a man she believed could love her and build a life with her away from the saloons and brothels. Tragically, she was wrong.

In the 1850’s a vivacious, petite woman stepped cheerfully off a stagecoach in Nevada City, California, dressed with all the style of Princess Eugenia of Sweden and Norway.  As she strolled into the National Hotel with her dainty steps and her bustle looping back and forth, she made a decision to changer her name from Mlle. Simone Jules, the handle she used when she first arrived in California to Madame Eleanora Dumont.  She wanted a new sobriquet to go with the new gambling hall she had opened in the booming, gold mining town.  At the time it was unheard of for a woman to enter into such a business venture alone, but Madame Dumont was defiant and confident she would be successful. Champagne and food were free at her place and the girls she employed lovelier than any west of the Rockies.

Eleanora’s gambling hall was filled to overflowing every night.  Her specialty was dealing Twenty-One or Blackjack.  In her flinty, sing-song voice, she would invite card players to “have a go” at vingt-et-un, the French translation of the game.  Patrons were so busy talking with the charming Madame Dumont during the round that they scarcely noticed when they’d lost.

She went by many names; Simone Jules, Emiliene Dumont, Eleanore Dumont, Sara Da Valliere, but most commonly, Madame Moustache. She arrived in San Francisco around,1850, her French accent gave credence to her story. She claimed to be the daughter of a French Viscount who’d returned to the South of France after Napoleon’s fall to find his estate and finances in ruins. To restore the family fortune, the Viscount arranged a marriage to an overbearing husband for his only daughter; after an affair with a Lieutenant ended in her virtual imprisonment in a French chateau, she contrived to escape, and after a series of adventures which she never disclosed, found herself in California. Her moustache not as of yet having arrived on the scene, she presented herself as Emiliene Dumont.

In San Francisco she found a job dealing cards at the Bella Union Hotel. She was a petite, dignified and aloof woman, who expertly handled the pressures of the job while dealing with unruly customers. She was good at her job too – maybe too good since she was accused of card sharping and relieved of her duties.

By 1854, she’d raised enough to open her own gambling house in Nevada City, California. Dumont’s gambling parlour was filled with fine furniture, and offered rare and choice wines and liqueurs. Dumont fell in love with E.G. Waite, editor of the Nevada Journal.

Eleanora harboured a deep love for Editor Waite, she adored him and longed for the respectability that he offered. Waite, however, did not return Eleanora’s affections. There were occasional late-night calls to her room, but outside of fulfilling a basic need, Waite had no further use for her.  The ultimate demise of their relationship came after Waite married a “socially acceptable” woman.  Eleanora would never get over the loss. When he refused her affections she turned to alcohol.

The Bella Union Hotel in 1851.

The Bella Union Hotel in 1851.

Broken hearted, Dumont fell prey to an employee, Lucky Dave Tobin. He was no gentleman; he beat her and tried to take over the gambling parlour. She eventually came to her senses, fired him, sold the business, and decamped to Virginia City, Nevada.

While her presence in San Francisco as a stylish woman didn’t attract much attention, her arrival in Nevada City caused quite a stir in that rough and tumble mining camp – she was dressed to the nines as she disembarked from the stage.  She registered at the Fepps Hotel under the name of “Eleanore Dumont” – the name she would then be known by until she picked up an unfortunate nickname later . . .

She must have come into town with a plan because shortly after her arrival she opened a gambling house which she advertised as “the best gambling emporium in northern California.” She called her establishment “Vingt-et-un” (French for “21”) and instead of whiskey, champagne was served.  Gentlemen were to behave as gentlemen and be well-groomed. Cursing was discouraged and women were not allowed.

Eleanore was charming, witty, and outgoing and the spiffed-up miners flocked to Vingt-et-un.

Dumont’s favoured game, vignt-et-un, was a novelty at the time.  It was much like modern blackjack with the following differences in Dumont’s day:

  • Aces were only counted as 11 and didn’t have the option of also being a 1
  • Two aces are also a vignt-et-un (even though they add up to 22)
  • Wagering didn’t take place until after the cards had been dealt
  • The dealer was the only player allowed to double
  • Slightly different payouts for card combinations

One of the different payouts was a 10-to-1 for an ace of spades and either of the black jacks.  This high payout eventually led to the game commonly being called blackjack later even when the payout was removed.

Over the next few years, Dumont rarely stayed long in one place, moving from boom town to boom town. One friend described her as “a small woman, one of the kind who would be called little, with a form almost perfect and with a grace of movement rarely equalled. Her complexion was strongly brunette, her hair being jet back, and her eyes, though large, as is common with the women of southern France, were wholly lacking in that dreamy expression associated with the daughters of the south, both on the contrary were sparkling in their jetty blackness.” She was known to buy the men who lost heavily at her table a glass of milk when they’d run out of funds.

Carson City, Nevada, in the 1860s.

Carson City, Nevada, in the 1860s.

Eleanore was charming, witty and outgoing and the spiffed-up miners flocked to Vingt-et-un.  Later she opened up another parlour, Dumont’s Palace, after taking on David Tobin, a professional gambler from New York, as a partner. More dealers were hired, and violinists provided entertainment as games were played day and night.

They also added the much more popular games of Faro and Chuck-a-luck and her second venture became equally successful.

Faro was the most popular game at this time, but required a minimum of two employees to run the game, a dealer and a case keeper (who would count the cards for the players).  Because cheating was so common and the odds were better than most games, a third employee, a “look-out” was often hired to watch the players during the game.  [Faro was notorious for being a dishonest game with cheating dealers, it’s increasingly bad reputation coupled with the relatively good odds for the player at honest tables has resulted in its disappearance since World War II.

Mine production began to decline and in 1857, and Eleanore headed to Columbia, California – this time setting up a table in a hotel. Just two years later she bought a ranch in Carson City, Nevada without knowing anything about the care of animals and running a ranch.  She was, of course, out of her element and in over her head and she probably missed her former lifestyle. When she met Jack McKnight, who called himself a cattle buyer, she fell for the smooth-talking and well-dressed man.

Jack McKnight was, however, a con man and swindling was actually his business.  A short time after sweeping Eleanore off her feet he absconded with her money, sold the ranch and left her holding the bag — of debts.  The story goes that she tracked McKnight down, shot and killed him.  While she was suspected of the crime, there wasn’t enough evidence apparently, maybe because the Sheriff did not look into it very deeply and one source says she admitted to the deed years later.

Now destitute, she returned to the business she knew the best.  The next stop was the gold mining town of Pioche, Nevada where she again set up a table – and when the mines played out there she moved on to the next boom town.  In the early 1860’s she ended up in Bannack, Montana where she not only ran a gambling establishment but a brothel as well.

Bannack is also where she picked up the nickname she would henceforth be known by – Madame Moustache.

In her early adventurous years, Eleanore had behaved as a lady who was known to entice men just by virtue of her manners. As she aged, however, her body “plumped” out a bit and a growth of hair (previously just a fine line) on her upper lip started darkening. After that, her own character is said to have coarsened – whereas she discouraged cursing in the past she now joined in and drank whiskey instead of her usual wine.

At her gambling parlour in Banneck, she earned the sobriquet “Moustache Madame” from a disgruntled, drunk miner who’d lost his temper and a bundle at her table. The moniker stuck.

madame-moustache

In 1867 she had moved on to Fort Benton, Montana where she set up a table in an area of that town known as “the bloodiest block in the West”.  Front Street had more than a dozen saloons, brothels, and dance halls and she set up her table in a gambling house called “The Jungle”. In June of that year while dealing cards at her table she saw the steamboat Walter B. Dance coming up the Missouri River.  She had heard that the boat was carrying smallpox so she jumped up from her table, ran down to the river brandishing two pistols and warned the captain of the boat that he wasn’t welcome there.

She wound up in Deadwood, South Dakota in the 1870s and was said to have been friends with Martha Canary, a.k.a. Calamity Jane. A newsman stationed in Deadwood in 1877 reported:

“A character who attracts the attention of all strangers is ‘Mme. Mustache,’ a plump little French lady, perhaps forty years of age, but splendidly preserved.  She derives her name, which is the only one she is known by, from a dainty strip of black hair upon her upper lip. She deals her own game, and is quite popular with the boys, who treat her with marked respect. She has bright black eyes and a musical voice, and there is something attractive about her as she looks up with a little smile and says, ‘You will play, M’sieur?’”

“No one knows her history,” the journalist mused. “She is said to be very rich.”  The Madame remained aloof within the “sporting fraternity,” as professional gamblers were called in the gold camps.  “Always alone, always the same polite, smiling little woman, always making money.”

(Gold Hill (NV) Daily News – September 1877)

Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876.

Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876.

Afterwards, she moved on to notorious Tombstone, Arizona.  Tombstone was booming and Eleanore was aging but she was still determined to be a successful businesswoman.  She set up a brothel to challenge the most popular brothel in town, Blonde Marie’s, and hired some attractive young ladies to work in her “house”.  The story goes that she would promote her business by dressing her employees in the finest dresses and take them up and down the streets in an expensive carriage – while she herself puffed on a cigar!

In her youth, she would use her fine manners and flirtatious chastity to lure men to gamble with a woman. But as time wore on, women in camps became less of a novelty and the coarseness began to become more a part of her life as she began to openly smoke, take hard drink, and become more tolerant of crude miners.

At a certain point, she eventually added prostitution to her repertoire and acted as a real “Madame.” At first offering herself and later hiring girls to work in her houses. She followed the money and drifted through Montana mining towns like Bannack, Fort Benton, and Helena. She was found in Silver City and Salmon, Idaho, and Corinne, Utah. Silver strikes brought her back to Nevada where she found herself in Virginia City. Eventually, she would be found in Deadwood, South Dakota, and then Tombstone, Arizona.  In Tombstone, she was known to drum up business by dressing her girls in finery and driving a fancy carriage up and down the streets, smoking a cigar, to the cheers of onlookers.

As the same miners worked the same camps she frequented, her reputation began to precede her as an attractive, but aging mustachioed good-natured French lady, fair, strong, and savvy with the cards.  Stories such as her foiling multiple robbers at once, turning back plagued steamboats by gunpoint, offering hospitality to those down on their luck, or her friendship with Calamity Jane as mentor, abounded wherever she lived.

Faro being played much later in 1890s Arizona.

Faro being played much later in 1890s Arizona.

One sorry encounter with Dumont was recorded by steamboat officer Louis Rosche, whose Missouri River sternwheeler docked at a raucous waterfront town, the primary point of demarcation for Montana’s gold fields.  Madame Dumont was approaching middle age in the early 1870s, when the young first-mate stepped ashore to tempt chance in a frontier community teeming with roustabouts, deckhands, and miners.

“I heard Madame Moustache had set up one of her gaming houses at Fort Benton,” recalled Rosche, “and I decided to satisfy my curiosity. . . .  I wasn’t a gambler, because I’d worked too hard for the money I made, but I had saved up a couple of hundred dollars, and I intended to ‘shoot the works’ at Madame Moustache’s.  I’d heard about miners running a stake of a few dollars into a fortune at her tables in one night.  Maybe I would be lucky and make enough to buy an interest in a steamboat.”

“There’s one thing certain,” remarked a friendly woodchopper.  “If you win, the Madame will pay off.  She’s shrewd, but she’s square. . . .  Folks say she’s a Frenchwoman.  The way I’ve heard some tell it, she hailed from New Orleans, and she’s a hundred percent Creole. . . .  They say she didn’t have a moustache then, just a few downy hairs sproutin’ on her upper lip that wasn’t noticeable because her skin was dark anyway.  That was in 1854 when they was scoopin’ gold dust right out of the streets in Nevada City, and I heard that right away there was another gold rush—into Eleanor Dumont’s gamblin’ house.”

Rosche contemplated the woodcutter’s remarks as he walked toward the Madame’s place.  “The click of dice, the rattle of the roulette ball, and the slap of cards greeted my ears,” he wrote.  “With my heart beating fast with excitement, I entered the door of the weather-beaten, two-story frame building and stepped into the gambling hall.”

The boatman scrutinized the place and took a seat in the corner.  “The inside of the gambling house was worse looking even than the outside,” recalled Rosche.  “The bar and gaming tables were housed in one big downstairs room. . . .  The place was foggy with smoke and smelled of sweating, unwashed bodies and cheap whiskey.  The floor was filthy.  The male customers, nearly all of whom were chewing, were remarkably bad marksmen, the spittoons, placed at strategic locations, all going unscathed.  The none-too-clean-looking bar ran along one wall.”

Suddenly the medley of laughter, clinking glasses, men’s and women’s voices, and the sounds of gambling equipment died down as Eleanor Dumont entered the room.  “I glanced quickly towards the door,” said Rosche.  “If I had not seen the unbelievable black brush on the woman’s upper lip, I would not have known that this was the famous Madame Moustache.  She was fat, showing unmistakably the signs of age.  Rouge and powder, apparently applied only halfheartedly, failed to hide the sagging lines of her face, the pouches under her eyes, and general marks of dissipation.  Her one badge of respectability was a black silk dress, worn high around her neck.  I closed my eyes in disgust.  But, after all, I told myself, I hadn’t come here to admire the Madame’s looks, but to try my luck and perhaps make my fortune.”

Mustering his courage, Rosche walked over to a raised table in the room’s center, where the Madame had seated herself and was shuffling cards with “her rings flashing.”  The young boatman stepped onto the platform and emptied his poke on the table.

“Ma’am,” he uttered, “there’s more than $200 there.  Let’s get going now, and I don’t want to quit until you’ve got all my money or until I’ve got a considerable amount of yours.

For the first time Rosche noticed the Madame’s brown eyes.  He remembered “they, at lease, remained youthful.”

“What shall it be, young man?” asked the lady proprietor as she studied the steamboat officer.  “Name the play.”

Rosche realized he didn’t play any kind of cards well enough to make a choice.

“Very well then,” she replied with a gleam in her eye.  “It shall be vingt-et-un.”

Rosche recalled the sad affair.  “It would be painful to exhume the memories of the hour that followed.  When it was all over and my bills and gold and silver pieces were stacked neatly in front of the Madame, I got up quickly, returned my empty leather purse to my pocket, and started to leave.”

“No, no, no,” protested the hostess, waving her hands excitedly.  “The steamboatman must not go before he has had his drink on the house.”

Just then the barkeeper placed a glass on the table.  “I saw to my astonishment that it was filled with milk.  I later found out that it was her custom after trimming a sucker to set him up with a glass of milk.”

Rosche delayed returning to his boat long enough to watch the Madame fleece the friendly woodchopper and his four drunken companions.  “The inevitable didn’t take long to happen,” remarked Rosche, recalling the woodsmens’ money stacked in front of the Madame.  After each woodcutter received a complimentary glass of milk, the lady offered to cover return passage to their woodyard.

Illustration of Madame Mustache firing on smallpox victims trying to come ashore at Fort Benton, Montana.

Illustration of Madame Mustache firing on smallpox victims trying to come ashore at Fort Benton, Montana.

Eleanore moved on to Bodie, California in 1878, which turned out to be her last stop. A reporter for the Bodie Weekly Standard (May 29, 1878) reported:

Madame Moustache, whose real name is Eleanore Dumont, has settled for the time in Bodie, following her old avocation of dealing twenty-one, faro, etc., as force of circumstances seem to demand. Probably no woman on the Coast is better known. … She appears as young as ever, and those who knew her ever so many years ago would instantly recognize her now.

One night in September 1879 her till was running low and she borrowed $300 from a friend so she could open her table. Unfortunately, that night she perhaps made a miscalculation and ended up losing all the money in her till.  It is said she arose from her table, without uttering a word to anyone, and left to wander about a mile outside of town where she drank a bottle of wine laced with morphine.  On September 8 her body was discovered, her head resting on a rock, and a note nearby stating that she was “tired of life.”

The Bodie Morning News reported her death on September 9:

A Suicide — Yesterday morning a sheep-herder, while in pursuit of his avocation, discovered the dead body of a woman lying about one hundred yards from the Bridgeport road, a mile from town.  Her head rested on a stone, and the appearance of the body indicated that death was the result of natural causes. 

Ex-officio Coroner Justice Peterson was at once notified, and he dispatched a wagon in charge of H.Ward [of the Pioneer Furniture Store] to that place, who brought the body to the undertaking rooms.  Deceased was named Eleanore Dumont, and was recognized as the woman who had been engaged in dealing a twenty-one game in the Magnolia saloon.  Her death evidently occurred from an overdose of morphine, an empty bottle having the peculiar smell of that drug, being found beside the body. . . .  The history connected with the unfortunate suicide is but a repetition of that of many others who have followed the life of a female gambler, with the exception perhaps that the subject of this item bore a character for virtue possessed by few in her line.  To the goodhearted women of the town must we accord praise for their accustomed kindness in doing all in their power to prepare the unfortunate woman’s body for burial.

It was said that Eleanore’s funeral was the largest ever held in Bodie (and there had been many over the years).  One professional gambler who had travelled the West made heartfelt remarks:

Poor Madame Moustache!  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 hundred; she missed the turn, none of the old boys were there to cover the bet for her, and she passed in her checks, game to the last.  Poor Madame Moustache!

Courtesy of Philippe Nieto, photographer extraordinaire, here is a photo of the hearse that carried the good Madame to the Bodie cemetery.

Courtesy of Philippe Nieto, photographer, here is a photo of the hearse that carried the good Madame to the Bodie cemetery.

The residents of Bodie raised money for a proper burial.  George A. Montrose, an attorney and former editor of the Bridgeport Chronicle-Union (another nearby mining town) remembered her this way:  “She had the reputation of being honest in her dealings and always paying her debts.  Upon this she prided herself, and woe unto anyone who claimed she did not play fair.”

Carriages were brought from Carson City, Nevada, some 120 miles away to be used in the funeral cortege.

And so ends the life and times of Eleanor Dumont or “Madame Mustache”.

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  • Andy

    Amazing how some were so rich but still lived in those ‘Deadwood’ towns with mud streets and earth floors.

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