Friday, September 11, 2020





During her heyday from the early 1850s to the 1870s, Eleanore Dumont was known as the best and most beautiful woman gambler in the West. Upon her arrival in San Francisco around 1849, she worked in the city’s countless gambling establishments, picking up the tricks of the trade by observing the moves of professional gamblers.

Eleanore Dumont wasn’t the first woman gambler in San Francisco, nor was she the only French woman to immigrate there. Shiploads of French women, mostly prostitutes, arrived from various countries, including France, much to the chagrin of the “decent” women who had come with their husbands to begin a new life.

It’s believed that Dumont was in her early 20s when she arrived. The dark-haired, shapely French beauty was something of a sensation in the growing town. Not only did she speak five languages, she was witty, knowledgeable, and an accomplished musician. She was always dressed to the nines, wearing expensive and fashionable clothes and jewels. Besides her attractiveness and charm, the young lady’s manners were impeccable, all of which made her even more appealing to the sex-starved men who had left their families and civilization behind to make their fortunes in the California gold rush. Men far outnumbered women by around ten to one, and even females with below-average looks were a sought-after prize.

            Gambling halls were extremely popular in San Francisco during its boom years of the 1850s. Poker was considered boring and slow-moving. Fast-paced French card games, like vingt-et-un (twenty-one) or lansquenet were preferred, as were craps and faro. Who better to deal a hand of cards than the soft-spoken, alluring Eleanore Dumont?

Opening her own gambling house in Nevada City in 1854, calling herself Madame Dumont, she sat at her gaming table each evening sipping champagne, as a steady flow of eager men waited to lose their hearts and gold to lovely French woman. Her specialty was high-stakes gambling, and bets of $20,000 weren’t uncommon at her table. The classy lady offered her “guests,” (i.e., whiskey drinking miners) free champagne. Before sitting down with the enchanting Madame Dumont, however, they were advised they couldn’t spit tobacco on the floor, cuss, or fight – all standard practices in most gambling saloons at that time. Most amazing was that the scroungy miners actually bathed and wore clean clothes before playing cards with her. They were beguiled by her and were happy to follow her rules. She wasn’t a card-cheat; at least, none of the men who lost bags of gold dust to the genteel French lady accused her of dealing from the bottom of the deck.

            Over the next nine years, Eleanor Dumont’s fame spread through the mining camps. By 1859 when Nevada City’s gold ore had been played out, she had accumulated a large nest egg. Many of her customers moved to Virginia City, Nevada, where a rich deposit of silver ore had been discovered. And the lady followed, making a substantial fortune in winnings.

Tired of the fast and furious life she had led for so many years, she was married in the 1860s to the young, handsome David Tobin. Retiring to a Nevada farm with her new husband, the French woman dropped out of sight. Locals said Tobin was a scoundrel; that he spent all of Eleanore’s money and ran off, leaving the once-famous woman gambler broke and alone.

            Forced to return to her old profession in the mining camps a few years later, her shapely figure had thickened, her face was wrinkled, and a layer of black downy hair had grown across her top lip. The men began to call her “Madame Mustache,” a moniker that dogged poor Eleanore the rest of her life...and well beyond the grave.

Women were no longer a scarcity in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain camps, and the aging French lady had to compete with the young, pretty girls who continued to flow into the mining towns from San Francisco. Likely depressed and struggling to make ends meet, she began to drink heavily.

            Until now, Eleanor hadn’t resorted to prostitution to make a living. Now bitter and hardened, the notorious Madame Mustache added prostitution to her repertoire. She learned to use a horsewhip to defend herself from the drunken miners who wanted a free roll in the hay. On at least one occasion, she killed a man who tried to rob her.

            Moving to the rough and tumble town of Bodie, California, in the 1870s, things continued to spiral downward. Madame Dumont gambled and drank away what little money she made. Unable to cope with what she had become, an aging, overweight alcoholic, she drank her last glass of champagne on September 8, 1879. It was laced with poison.

            The Sacramento Union ran a short blurb, which read, “A woman named Eleanore Dumont was found dead today about a mile out of town, having committed suicide.”

            Madame Moustache was buried in Bodie “outside the fence,” as only “decent, law-abiding folks” were allowed inside the main cemetery.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

On April 6, 1917, Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany and its allies, collectively called the “Central Powers.” The president had flipped his anti-war promise on its proverbial head, facing the challenges of preparing the country for war like a bull charging a matador’s cape. Going to war had been a difficult decision, but Wilson was left no choice when Germany had become more aggressive towards the Unites States. Kaiser Wilhelm II had announced that all ships, including American passenger liners, would be sunk on sight. In addition, the British had intercepted a coded telegram sent by Germany’s Foreign Secretary to the German Ambassador in Mexico. The message proposed that Mexican troops invade the United States to start a war to reclaim New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. The Central Powers would supply weapons and money to support Mexican troops. That way, the U.S. military would be too busy fighting against Mexico to send troops overseas to join the Allied forces.
With only 127,151 men serving in the U. S. Army at that time, Wilson would have to implement the draft immediately. Make-shift training camps were set up, and steel mills and factories producing weapons would have to move at lightning speed. To keep up morale, Wilson’s representatives made sure that newspapers were censored so that nothing negative about the war was printed. People who spoke against the war were often brought to trial; some were even imprisoned.
In the military encampments, new recruits were squeezed into barracks and tents, their cots so close together that there was barely room to move between them. At Camp Funston on the massive grounds of Fort Riley, Kansas, an estimated 56,000 young men were being trained. Little did anyone know that a battle almost as terrible as the one they would face in the trenches abroad would soon come to call on the home front.
To this day, scientists battle about where or how the “Great Influenza Pandemic” began. One theory is that the virus had infected pigs on a farm near Camp Funston. It all started, they said, two days after the farmer burned piles of hog manure. The wind carried a storm of smoke laden with the virus into the camp. Men began to sicken by the scores. Within three weeks, 1,100 had died. Other researchers stated that it was impossible for this kind of virus to survive burning, let alone to be infectious after being swept along for miles before finding a human host.
A more popular theory was that the killer influenza had been created by German scientists and brought to America on a submarine. The newspapers picked up on this idea and people believed the story. After all, the Germans had created deadly gases which had killed thousands of soldiers in the trenches.
Yet another hypothesis was that the influenza outbreak during the winter of 1916-17 at a British encampment in France had symptoms eerily similar to the strange new strain of the killer flu. Some researchers believed that because of the weakened condition of the soldiers and the filth in the rat-infested trenches, the germs had mutated into an even stronger strain that was easily transmitted. The killer flu spread from stricken French soldiers in concentric circles to soldiers on both sides and into the cities. It hitched rides on unknowing hosts boarding ships bound for ports all over the world, eventually making its way to America…and possibly to the overcrowded military base in Kansas.
Ironically, the new flu was nicknamed “the Spanish influenza” even though it didn’t begin in Spain. Most likely, it reared its ugly head in France and Britain first and was likely carried to Spain by infected people spending time in Spain’s warm coastal resort towns. Because the war’s propaganda machine in the Allied countries had forbidden their newspapers from printing information about the outbreak of the flu and the toll it was taking on the troops, Spain, a neutral country with newspapers that included stories about the influenza outbreak in its country, was blamed for its beginnings.
The reality is that we may never know the influenza’s origin. The fact is that it moved through military bases in America and overseas like locusts ravaging a wheat field. Soldiers who had been exposed – and even those who were already showing symptoms – were deployed overseas. Shiploads of sick men arrived and spread the disease by the thousands. The strange virus preyed most often on the young and healthy. Symptoms began with headaches, violent coughing, body aches, sore throats and high fevers. Although some recovered, others weren’t so lucky. After a few days, their lips and even their faces turned blue when their lungs became congested with blood and fluids. Scientists worked madly to come up with a cure or, at least an inoculation. But in 1918 their microscopes weren’t advanced enough to view, let alone understand how to destroy, the viruses that were wreaking havoc on the world.
It’s ironic that the pandemic struck during a time when the world was at war. Military ships with soldiers carrying the flu stopped for fuel and supplies in ports all over the world. There are stories about sailors disembarking their ships in a port and infecting entire communities, such as in Western Samoa, where 8,000 people died after a vessel from Auckland docked there for refueling.
Meanwhile in America the flu continued to sweep across the country. People wore flimsy gauze masks hoping to protect themselves from the invisible enemy. Restaurants, churches and theaters closed, and people were advised to avoid crowds and stay home as much as possible. Mingling closely with other people was banned in many areas. For most Americans, however, that wasn’t an option. They had to work. Without them, who would build the much-needed military trucks and guns and cannons to ship to the troops? And of course, they caught and passed on the flu to their fellow workers.
One of the worst massive public exposures to the Spanish influenza occurred in Philadelphia when a Liberty Bond parade wasn’t canceled by the city’s leaders. With the war raging on overseas, money raised through the sale of Liberty Bonds was needed to support American troops. While numerous health officials warned against bringing that many people together during a world pandemic, Philadelphia’s leaders ignored their warnings and moved forward with their plans. The public wasn’t notified of the danger. Sadly, around three-hundred thousand residents lined the parade route. Within three days, an estimated hundred thousand Philadelphians had become infected. Thousands of men, women and children – often entire families – died. And the virus found even more hosts who would continue to infect other unsuspecting friends and family members.
Meanwhile on the battle front, the influenza had sickened and killed thousands of soldiers on both sides. By fall, battle-weary Bulgaria, Austria, Hungry and Turkey had asked the Allies for peace. Germany would soon do the same, signing an armistice on November 11. The war was over, and the flu had more than a little credit for its somewhat quick end.
Although the flu continued its killing spree in second and third waves for months, the epidemic seemed to be over by the early winter of 1919. The public was ecstatic, patronizing their favorite eateries, partying, attending social functions, and shopping. Slowly, things returned to normal.
The total number of people who died from the 1918 influenza is believed to have been more than the those who died in World War 1. Because many of the countries affected by the virus didn’t keep accurate records, the numbers of dead are only estimates and range somewhere between 40 million and 100 million worldwide. Added to the 20-plus million soldiers and civilians who had been killed in World War 1, the loss of life during this time is staggering.
For the scientists who couldn’t find a cure or what had caused this new variety of killer flu, their work continued. No one doubted that the day would come when another mutated disease would disrupt the world. It took over 100 years, but during the current outbreak of COVID 19, lessons learned from the 1918 flu were put into practice. Avoiding crowds, closing businesses, and asking people to stay home, helped then as it has helped now. And the good news is that our ancestors’ lives did, indeed, return to normal. Strangely, the 1918 influenza hasn’t been included in history classes, and few books have been written on the topic. Until the recent pandemic, the “Spanish” flu had been forgotten by most people…with the exception of the generations of scientists who have worked to understand exactly what caused the deadly flu of 1918. Their hope has always been to prevent another similar outbreak.
And the battle to find a vaccine goes on….