“Madame Moustache” Eleanor Dumont (also called Eleonore
Alphonsine Dumant), has carved her path into notoriety and the history books as a famous gambler of the Old West. Madame Moustache is one of the first known professional blackjack players in America, for thirty years this plucky lady blazed her trail throughout the American West.
San Francisco 1849 – The beginnings of the First Lady of Blackjack
Mysterious in her origin, it is rumoured that she came from France because of her accent and others say New Orleans may have been her place of birth. It is estimated that she was born around 1829. Whatever the truth of her beginnings she turned up in San Francisco in 1849.
Here, she was known as Simone Jules, a petite and pretty French woman in her early twenties. It was here that she quickly established herself as a gambler; she worked as a card dealer at a hotel there called “The Bella Union” where she favoured the game of “Vingt-et-Un. (the forerunner to blackjack). She became known for her ability to handle stress at the card tables and her professionalism. When she was suspected of cardsharping, she left town, but not without making a fair amount of money first.
Nevada City, California 1854 – Her own Business
In 1854, elegantly dressed and wearing fine jewellery Eleanor stepped off a stage-coach in Nevada City, California. She booked in and registered at the local Fepps hotel as Eleanor Dumont. To the curiosity of many, she opened up a sophisticated gambling parlour called the “Vingt-et-Un” (French for 21) on Broad Street.
In her parlour she served champagne instead of whisky, permitted only clean and well dressed and well-behaved men into her establishment and forbade swearing in her presence. This Saloon soon became “the” place to be! Eleanor was beautiful, witty and charming as well as appealingly foreign, and most importantly, she dealt the cards like a true professional. No women were allowed in her establishment, other than herself.
Men rushed in from miles around for the privilege of watching a woman dealer in action, which was a real rarity at the time. She kept very much to herself and is not known to have had any relationships during this period in time. She rolled her own cigarettes and drank champagne, she flirted with, yet kept the men that frequented her parlour at a discreet distance, touting herself as a lady.
Dumont’s favoured game, vingt-et-un (French for 21), which was a novelty at the time, and was much like modern blackjack as we know it today with the following differences:
- Aces were only counted as 11 and didn’t have the option of also being a 1
- Two aces were also a vingt-et-un (even though they add up to 22)
- Wagering didn’t take place until after the cards had all been dealt
- The dealer was the only player who was allowed to double
- There were slightly different pay outs for card combinations
- One of the different pay outs was a 10-to-1 for an ace of spades and either of the black jacks. This high pay out eventually led to the game commonly being called blackjack later even after this pay out was removed.
Her place became so popular, that Dumont took on a partner, David Tobin, a professional gambler from New York, and they opened an even larger place called the “Dumont Palace”. They added the much more popular games of Faro and Chuck-a-luck and this, her second venture was as equally successful as the first.
Two years after her arrival in Nevada City, she started to develop a pronounced moustache, later earning her the unfortunate nickname of “Madame Moustache.”
Columbia, California 1857 – Murder
The gold eventually ran out in Nevada, but she followed the new strikes and headed to Columbia, California, and in 1857 she set up a table in a hotel there.
Through her success, Dumont had been able to amass a small fortune and she decided that she wanted to leave her profession.
Although she knew little about animals and ranching, she bought a ranch in Carson City, Nevada. It is here, alone and out of her depth, she soon took a fancy to a handsome cattle man named Jack McKnight in whom she trustingly signed her property over to him for him to manage. Sadly, Jack McKnight was a con man and in less than a month he had disappeared, selling her ranch and leaving her with all the debt.
Dumont tracked him down and killed him with two blasts from a shotgun. Although she would later admit to the crime, at the time of the shooting, there was not enough evidence to charge her with his murder.
Pioche, Nevada, in the 1860s – Gambling and Prostitution
Needing money, she returned to gambling again and in 1861, set up her table in Pioche, Nevada. Unfortunately, her youth had begun to fade and she started to put on some weight, losing her hour-glass figure. In her youth, she used her fine manners and flirtatious chastity to lure men to gamble, but as time wore on, and women in camps became less of a novelty, the coarseness of the lifestyle began to become more evident as she began to openly smoke, drink whisky, and became more tolerant of the crude manners of the miners.
In 1864 Madame Dumont was known to have been in Bannock, where she became friends with the 15 year old Martha Canary “Calamity Jane” and introduced her to the “fine art” of prostitution.
After leaving Bannock, she and her girls apparently spent a hectic summer following after the construction camps of the Union Pacific Railroad, and then turned up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where miners were mining the Black Hills Gold.
Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876 – The Mining Rush Trail
At a certain point, she had added prostitution to her repertoire and then acted as a real “Madame.” At first offering herself, and later hiring girls to work in her houses. As the money and mining dried up she would move on to the next mining town. As she followed the money she drifted through many Montana mining towns like Bannock, 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 1877, a Deadwood reporter said of her: “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?’” He continued by saying, “No one knows her history. She is said to be very rich.”
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 moustached good-natured French lady, fair, strong, and savvy with the cards.
Tales, such as her holding off and getting the better of multiple robbers at once, refusing landing and entry to a steamboat at gunpoint that were reputed to be carrying the dreaded smallpox on board, and her generosity and kindness in offering hospitality to those down on their luck, or her friendship with Calamity Jane, followed her wherever she lived.
After spending some time in Eureka, she finally ended up in Bodie along with the forty surviving miners who had panned for gold at Sutters Mill in California and who all decided to gather in Bodie for a reunion.
Bodie, California, 1878 – The beginning of the end.
Bodie, California,was to be her final and fateful stop in 1878. Her luck
had run out, and about a year and a half after her arrival here, she borrowed $300 from a friend to open a table. Within a few hours, she had lost it all. Without a word, she left the table, walked a mile out of town and committed suicide by drinking a bottle of red wine laced with morphine. Her body was discovered the next day, on September 8, 1879, her head resting on a rock and with a note explaining 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.”
Miners lamented her passing and one such penned the following epitaph:
“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.”
Local residents raised enough money for her funeral, and it is said to be the largest that the town had ever held. Although she is buried in the cemetery in Bodie, California which is now a ghost town, the exact spot of her grave has been lost with time.