Friday, September 11, 2020

 

ELEANORE DUMONT

“MADAME MUSTACHE”

 

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.