Far-Out Friday: “Madame Moustache”

madame_moustache2She was born as Simone Jules, perhaps in New Orleans to Creole parents in approximately 1829.  Nothing is really known about her early life, but she arrived in San Francisco and found a job dealing cards at the Bella Union Hotel – most sources say it was around 1849 or maybe as late as 1854.  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 cardsharping and relieved of her duties.

She had made a considerable amount of money and her next stop was Nevada City, California.  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 . . . . read on).

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.  Later she opened up another parlor, Dumont’s Palace, after taking on David Tobin, a professional gambler from New York, as a partner.  Faro and Chuck-a-luck were added, more dealers hired, and violinists provided entertainment as games were played day and night.

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, 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.  When a drunk miner uttered the words “Madame Moustache” the moniker stuck.

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)

CalamityJaneAfterwards, 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!

Eleanore moved on to Bodie, California (see Wednesday’s Ghost Town article) 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.

BodieCemeteryIt 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 traveled 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!

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.  Unfortunately, however, the location of her grave in the Bodie Cemetery is unknown.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


1 Comment

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