and longhorns, soldiers and forts, Comanche, the buffalo trade, 18
saloons, and an abundance of "soiled doves" were the sights greeting
beautiful Lottie Deno as she rode into Ft.
Griffin Flat from Jacksboro,
sitting next to the driver atop the stage coach. To the denizens of
Ft. Griffin Flat, known
as "The Toughest Town in Texas," and described as "one of the wildest...
gambling hellholes ever spawned on the frontier," this was shocking
behavior from an apparently well-bred lady of culture and refinement.
The wild and woolly town of Fort
Griffin, also known as "The
Flat," enjoyed a reputation in the 1870s as having "a man for
breakfast every morning." The frontier community sprang up at the
crossroads of two major cattle trails that converged below a bluff,
atop which the U.S. military established a frontier fort in 1867 during
the Indian Wars. Frontier legends Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, John Wesley
Hardin, Billy the Kid, Sheriff Pat Garrett and Bat Masterson once
sauntered down its streets.
Photo courtesy legendsofamerica.com and Kathy Weiser
| Lottie took
up residence in a Clear Fork shanty. An air of mystery developed about
her. She was a vivacious redhead with sparkling brown eyes, who was
seldom seen except when she visited the stores for supplies, or at
night when she played cards at the Bee Hive Saloon or presided over
its gambling room.
was known by many names, including Carlotta J. Thompkins (the name
she was christened with), Laura Denbo, Faro Nell, and Charlotte Thurmond.
She was dubbed Lottie Deno the night she won every hand of poker from
every opponent foolish enough to think he could win. After the very
last hand of the very last game had been played and won by her, a
drunken cowboy yelled out from the saloon's rear corner, "Honey, with
winnings like them, you oughter call yourself "Lotta Dinero."
Seeing the advantages of a nickname to protect her real identity from
family and friends, she thereafter called herself "Lottie Deno." This
new name protected Lottie's pious Episcopalian family back in Kentucky
from knowing that she supported herself by gambling, and that the
money she frequently sent them came from what they would have considered
shocking and illicit means. Instead, she told her mother and sister
that she had married a wealthy cattleman from Texas. She would never
see her family again nor would they ever learn the truth about her.
was born on April 21, 1844, to upper-class Warsaw Kentucky farm owners.
Warsaw, in the area of Lexington and Louisville, traded with both
northern and southern states (her father served in the Kentucky General
Assembly), though the region was southern in flavor, and slavery was
prevalent. As did many a young lady of the same exalted station in
life, Lottie had her own nanny, Mary Poindexter, a seven-foot-tall
slave who exhibited devotion and loyalty to Lottie as both protector
and companion, even after the Civil War and for many years to come.
The main crops of the Warsaw region were tobacco and hemp, which were
shipped north to Detroit and south to New Orleans. Other interests
of the area, then as now, were horse breeding, horse racing and horse
trading. Lottie's father engaged in these lucrative pursuits as well
as selling crops.
After completing her education at an Episcopalian convent with her
younger sister, Lottie usually accompanied her father on his many
business trips to Detroit, New Orleans, and even Europe.
When racing his horses in New Orleans, Lottie's father also indulged
in another favorite pastime, one in which he excelled: gambling. He
taught his daughter all the tricks he knew about card playing in the
belief that there was more to survival than simply being a southern
belle. She had been well versed in the social graces at the convent,
and since he had no son to carry on after him, he expected his eldest
daughter to be strong, independent, and able to financially care for
her younger sister when the time came. He showed her how to gamble
on land and on riverboats, and he passed on to her his passionate
skill at cards, known as "flipping the paste boards."
the 1850s, New Orleans was known as the "Good time Town," a playground
for grownups, and the racing mecca of the entire nation. Lottie's
father conducted his business and found his pleasures at establishments
like the St. Charles Hotel, Creole Orleans, Victor's, and the Cafe
de Quatre Saisons. He visited the Gem on Royal Street, the most elegant
drinking house in the city, and placed bets at the Common Street Gallery
"where men tried to shoot the flame off burning candles at twelve
paces twenty times in succession. Men could bet on bullfights, cockfights,
dog races and even rat races," writes Cynthia Rose in "Lottie Deno:
Gambling Queen of Hearts." Lottie's father was free to do as he wished
at night since New Orleans had a strict curfew for both ladies and
slaves, and young Lottie and Mary had to be inside by 8:00 p.m. or
Mary would have been arrested and her owner fined.
north and south were already politically polarized when John Brown
and his men attacked Harpers Ferry in 1859. Kentucky tried to remain
neutral but in September 1861, Confederate troops invaded western
Kentucky and Ulysses S. Grant moved in and occupied Paducah, forcing
Kentucky to join with him and drive out the Confederates.
This was the year 17-year-old Lottie's father, a southerner at heart,
enlisted in the Confederate army. He was killed in battle, and the
health of Lottie's mother began to fail. Relatives decided to send
Lottie to friends in Detroit in hopes she would meet and marry a wealthy
man who would take over the family business. They collected enough
to pay the fare north for Lottie and Mary Poindexter.
Lottie easily took to the social life in Detroit and happily attended
parties, dancing the nights away. But instead of concentrating on
finding a suitable husband of means, Lottie fell for Johnny Golden,
one of her father's former jockeys, now a gambler himself. It is speculated
that Lottie and Johnny had an affair earlier in New Orleans and that
was the real reason she was shipped off to Detroit by her family who
wanted her to forget about Johnny, a nobody.
Instead, Lottie, Johnny, and the ever-present Mary Poindexter, took
to the Mississippi River, becoming experts at working the riverboat
gambling parlors and tidewater towns.
"Not much is known about Lottie's days on the river," says Rose, but
in her later life, Lottie recounted a story that "the boat [she] and
Mary were traveling on stopped along a sandbar in the river. Late
in the evening, Lottie and Mary decided to take a walk. Lottie preceded
Mary along the shoreline, carrying her parasol and enjoying the evening
air. Suddenly Mary's sharp eye spotted a large rattlesnake coiled
and ready to strike her mistress. The tall, strong woman lunged forward
and threw herself on top of the reptile, saving Lottie from injury.
Mary herself was bitten and became deathly ill, necessitating the
amputation of a finger."
the end of the War, Lottie decided to head west for San
Antonio where she continued practicing her profession. On one
occasion, a young Union soldier accused Lottie of cheating and went
for her. Mary Poindexter jumped between the two, grabbed the soldier
and threw him overboard into the river.
On the frontier, every professional gambler cheated. As one biographer
put it, "An expert card player, Lottie could win a good percentage
of the time," but "that was not enough for a woman who depended on
gambling for a living and expected to maintain the standard of elegance
she had known from childhood."
San Antonio was a wide-open gambling town, and Lottie was soon hired
as a dealer at Frank Thurmond's University Club, receiving a percentage
of the winnings. Cowboys lined up, hats in hand, for the privilege
of playing the pretty lady.
As a lady of social distinction, Lottie wore the latest fashions and
never permitted smoking, drinking or cussing at her table. Mary Poindexter
sat behind her on a stool and watched for cheaters or surly losers.
Lottie's dress and manners dispelled suspicions of her cheating and
she became the highly respected "Angel of San Antonio."
fell in love with part-Cherokee boss Frank Thurmond and remained loyal
to him, dumping her other admirers. During a poker game, Frank and
another player got into a fight. Frank killed the man with his Bowie
knife which he kept on a string down his back and could easily access
just by reaching down his shirt collar. The man's family put a bounty
on Frank, who was forced to leave town. It is thought that Frank later
taught the Bowie knife hiding place to his friend, Doc Holliday.
Soon Lottie followed looking for him, gambling her way around West
Texas in Fort Concho
(where she was called "Mystic Maude"), San
Fort Worth and Jacksboro,
eventually finding Frank working at the Bee Hive in Fort
Griffin. Lottie got a job there dealing cards and it was here
that she was introduced to Frank's friend, Doc Holliday, who soon
became an admiring customer at Lottie's faro table. On one well-recorded
occasion, Doc lost $3,000 to the lady.
Over the front batwing doors of the Bee Hive hung this rhyme:
|Within this Hive,
we are alive;
Good whiskey makes us funny.
Get your horse tied, come inside;
And taste the flavor of our honey.
has it that, during a faro game at the Bee Hive, Doc and Lottie were
in the middle of a game when Big
Nose Kate Elder, Doc's girlfriend, arrived in a jealous rage.
An argument ensued in which both women drew their guns, ready to fire.
Doc had to step in and stop the fight.
Cynthia Rose claims that, "according to several historians, Kate and
Lottie had heated words one night over Doc. After Kate and Doc had
made it known they were a team, Kate began to show her jealousy" and
"one evening she accused Lottie of trying to steal his affections.
The accusation brought Lottie to her feet:
"Why you low down slinkin' slut!" shouted Lottie. "If I should
step in soft cow manure, I would not even clean my boot on that bastard!
I'll show you a thing or two!" whereupon she pulled a gun, and
Kate also drew a weapon. Doc Holliday placed himself between the two
Bearing in mind Lottie's reputation as an elegant lady, and the fact
that stories tend to get ever juicier when told by many people over
a long period of time, this may not be historically accurate, no matter
what the historians say. But one thing is probable -- the two women
had serious words over Doc.
At Fort Griffin, Johnny
Golden, the jockey-gambler, came back into Lottie's lifeóbut not for
long. Although he found his former sweetheart dealing cards at the
Bee Hive, next day, he was shot dead on the street behind the saloon.
Lottie paid for his burial suit plus $65.00 for a coffin, but did
not attend the funeral. Rather she sat in her house with the curtains
Photo courtesy TXDoT
most famous story about Lottie during her Ft.
Griffin days is this one, taken from "Doc Holliday" by John Myers:
|It was during
the time [Lottie] was dealing Faro in the Flats that a couple of tinhorn
gamblers, known respectfully as Monte Bill and Smokey Joe, quarreled
over a short card game. Each accused the other of cheating, and each
was probably right. Each thought he could beat the other to the draw
and each was only half right. There were two corpses on the floor
when Sheriff Bill Cruger rushed in to take charge. Everybody that
could had made tracks, with the exception of the red-headed Lottie,
who was coolly counting her chips as the sheriff arrived. When the
sheriff said that he couldn't understand why she had remained on the
scene, she merely murmured, "But then you have never been a desperate
several versions of the story, the money on the table that night disappeared
and most witnesses believed it ended up in Lottie's purse.
was said of Lottie that she had class and refinement. A lifelong friend
told an interviewer many years later that she "was a fine looker...
in manners a typical Southern Lady. She had nothing to do with the
common prostitutes... she was not a 'gold digger'." Lottie, "stood
apart from the rabble".
After five years, Lottie and Frank left Texas for New Mexico where
they finally married. Not long after, Frank for the second time used
his Bowie knife to terminate a man. It was self-defense, but it was
the turning point for Frank and Lottie. They swore off gambling and
settled down in Deming. Frank succeeded in mining and real estate,
eventually becoming vice president of the Deming National Bank.
Lottie, under her married name Charlotte Thurmond, became a well respected
member of the community. Although she quit dealing, according to legend,
in 1892 the original structure of St. Luke's frontier church was financed
by $40,000 of winnings from a poker game with Doc Holliday in attendance
and hosted by Lottie Deno. And, for a fact, Lottie Deno made one of
the altar cloths used by St. Luke's. Respectability was at last hers.
Frank and Lottie were together over 40 years when he passed away in
1908. Lottie lived another 26 years. When she died in 1934, she was
buried beside Frank, her headstone set a few inches behind Frank's
left shoulder "in the lookout seat."
Epilogue: The character immortalized as the beautiful, redheaded
Miss Kitty who ran the Longbranch Saloon in the famous "Gunsmoke"
radio and television series, was based on Lottie Deno.
"A Balloon In Cactus"
August 3, 2007 column
Queen of Frontier Gamblers by Byron Liggett June 12th, 2006 issue
of Poker Player
Gambling Queen of Hearts by Cynthia Rose
by John Myers
History For Kids
Church website: www.southernnewmexico.com/Articles/Southwest/Luna/Deming/St.LukeDeming.html