Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Gamblers, Gunmen & Gun-Toting Ladies of the Wild West in the 1800's

While visiting Cody, Wyoming, I found magazines that talked about the history of the gunmen (and women) of the 1800s and their impact on history. Reading about them was quite interesting, and I wanted to share what I learned about them. I hope you find it interesting as well.


The following story highlights Doc Holliday, however, his life connects with some of the other gunmen listed below, then I move into the lives of the gun-toting ladies. These people lived in the 1800s in the Wild West. It was a fascinating time, but I don't think I would have wanted to be around during this time.


Young Doc Holliday




The name Doc Holliday conjures images of gambling halls and gunfights and a legendary showdown between cowboys and lawmen on a dusty street near the OK Corral. But perhaps the most dramatic episode in Doc's Western life happened not in the silver mining camp of Tombstone, but in the Santa Fe Trail town of Trinidad in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southeastern Colorado.

In the fall of 1878, John Henry "Doc" Holliday arrived in Trinidad after several months in Dodge City, where he would play cards and pull teeth and, according to Dodge City, Kansas, lawman Bat Masterson, mostly stayed out of trouble. Dodge was a fine place for a traveling dentist to spend the cattle drive season, with hundreds of cowboys coming into town with fresh trail pay in their pockets -- often bad teeth that needed dental work. But Dodge was also hot that summer -- 101 in the shade, where one could find any, and dusty, which was bad for a man battling the lung disease called "consumption," now known as Tuberculosis. So when the cowboys moved on, so did Doc, taking his mistress Kate Elder with him for a ride on the Santa Fe Railroad, headed to cooler climate of the Animas Valley of Colorado -- Trinidad, Colorado.

According to Bat Masterson, who would later become marshal of Trinidad, after Doc's arrival he got into an altercation with a local sport by the name of Kid Colton, shooting and seriously wounding him. Although no legal record remains of either the incident or the victim, Bat claimed it was the Kid Colton shooting that made Doc move on again. Kate Elder, however, tells a much different story in her later memoirs: "Doc was taken sick so we had to stay in Trinidad ten days. Then we had to hire an outfit to take us to Las Vegas, New Mexico. We traveled with a big freight outfit. The railroad was built only a few miles out from Trinidad. This was in November ... and we arrived a few days before Christmas."

This was not Holliday's first visit to Trinidad. He and his paramour, "Big Nose" Kate Elder, a prostitute also known as Mary Katherine Harony, had spent a short time there in December 1878. According to Masterson, the dysfunctional couple left dusty Dodge City, Kansas, for Holliday's health. Again, Masterson, who was in Dodge City at the same time, described Holliday: "It was easily seen that he was not a healthy man for he not only looked the part, but he incessantly coughed it as well."

Kate and Doc traveled by covered wagon on the rutted Santa Fe Trail. South of Trinidad, the trail crossed over the treacherous Raton Pass, elevation 7,834 feet with a grade so steep that wagons had to be tied down onto huge iron rings hammered into the mountainside to keep from careening out of control. The crossing averaged five days, the wagons crawling to the crest of the mountain and then crawling back down the other side. In the deep ravines below the road were the remnants of wagons that did not survive the crossing. 

Doc and Kate made this trip in the snowy late fall when the temperatures were frigid. They spent the night at the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico, finally arriving at Fort Union, the end of the wagon train's trail. Their final destination was the hot mineral springs of nearby Gallinas Canyon. The Montezuma Hot Springs had been famous for a hundred years or more, named after the ancient Mexican king who supposedly took the healing waters there. The springs bubbled up out of the rocky bed of the Rio Gallinas, steaming and smelling of sulfur. 

Milagro!, the Spanish-speaking locals called the cures of the Montezuma Hot Springs, and Doc Holliday seemed to be one of them. After taking sick in Trinidad, after traveling the Santa Fe Trail, after soaking and steaming and breathing in the sulfur ad pine-scented air, he was finally well enough to start gambling and practicing dentistry again. And Kate Elder, at least for that part of their journey, was the heroine of the story. As for the unverifiable Kid Colton shooting back in Trinidad, Doc may have made up that story himself, preferring to have a reputation as a dangerous man to a dying one.

On May 10, 1882, Holliday left Trinidad for Pueblo. It would be the last time he would ever visit southern Colorado. Settling in at Pueblo, Holliday made a point to introduce himself to the local law enforcement. When he met with Pueblo chief of police, Patrick Desmond, Holliday realized the two were old acquaintances from their time with the Royal Gorge War in 1878. The Pueblo Chieftain of May 17, 1882, reported on Holliday's stay in their city: "Holliday made no effort to conceal his identity, and when questioned as to his doings in Arizona, said he had nothing to fear from that quarter, as he had received full pardon from the governor for his bloody work, in consideration of the effective services he had rendered to the authorities."

The gun-fighter, dentist must have believed his good public persona would help him set his reputation straight. It was not to be. Due to his sordid past deeds it was that reputation that followed him rather than the one he was trying to improve. When another reporter peppered him with questions about his past, Holliday had had enough. He replied: "I'm not traveling about the country in search of notoriety, and I think you newspaper fellows have already had a fair hack at me."

In a strange way, Holliday's reputation seems to have helped him. From the time Doc Holliday left Trinidad until his Colorado death in Leadville in 1887, he as involved in only one more deadly shooting.

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin was likely the more prolific killer in the Old West. He ranked at the top of the most lists of gunfighters. It is said he killed up to 40 men, but the actual number is closer to 11 or 12. Hardin always claimed his shootings were in self defense or for some good reason, and the number exaggerated. He is supposed to have said, "They say I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well it ain't true. I only killed one man for snoring." While in prison, Hardin studied law and attempted to practice law upon his release.

Billy the Kid
Bill the Kid died at age 21, but he did not kill 21 men as the legend goes. He killed four outright and helped kill five others. His gunfights numbered 16. This violence, together with his youth and cheerful personality, captured the public imagination like that of no other gunfighter. The Kid's love for Paulita Maxwell brought him to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where he died in a surprise encounter with Pat Garrett in a dark room on July 14, 1881. 

There is another side to Billy the Kid's story, which I have highlighted here, when we visited the Billy the Kid museum in Hico, Texas.

Pat Garrett
Pat Garrett was doing his duty, as well as saving his own life, when he killed Billy the Kid. Garrett was ambitious but had little success in his life. He would always be known only as "the man who killed Billy the Kid."


Ben Thompson
Born in England in 1843, Ben Thompson became known as one of the most deadly gunmen of the West. Bat Masterson wrote of him, "It is doubtful if, in his time, there was another man living who equaled him with a pistol in a life-or-death struggle." This rare book was published in 1884, a few months after Thompson was killed in San Antonio. The author writes that much was "taken from his (Thompson's) own lips."


Jesse James
Jesse James was born in 1847, and would become the most famous bandit in America. Growing up during a time of violence in the Border States, Jesse James and his older brother Frank joined the bloody Missouri guerrilla bands of Quantrill. After the Civil War, the James brothers and the Younger brothers banded with other former guerrillas to rob banks and trains. Sympathy helped them evade capture because train and bank companies were out of favor with the public at that time. In September 1876, Jesse and Frank joined Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, and three others, to rob the bank in Northfield, Minnesota, far from Missouri. It was a spectacular failure. The Youngers went to the Minnesota State Prison. While there, Cole wrote of the bungled Northfield bank robbery.



The Wild Bunch
They robbed banks and trains from Texas to Montana. L to R: Harry Longabaugh (Sundance Kid); Bill Carver; Ben Kilpatrick (Tail Texan); Harvey Logan (Kid Curry); Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy). Taken in Forth Worth, Texas in November, 1900. They met to party, wearing new suits and derby hats bought with the spoils of their crimes.


Tom Horn
Wild Bill Hickock
Butch Cassidy


The Sundance Kid with his lady, known only as "Etta Place." They posed in a New York studio in 1902, then departed for Argentina to meet Butch Cassidy. Sundance and Butch were killed in Bolivia in 1908 after an attempted robbery; Etta vanished from history.


Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp has become one of the most controversial gunfighters of the Old West. The 1881 OK Corral gunfight, pitting Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp with Doc Holliday, against "The Cowboys," brought unwanted attention to Wyatt for the rest of his life. He died at 80 in 1929.

Bat Masterson
At Trinidad's Imperial Saloon on April 16, 1882, John Allen quarreled with Cockeyed Frank Loving, an old gambling friend of Holliday's from Dodge City, Kansas. When Allen pulled his gun and mortally wounded Loving, Bat Masterson stepped in and calmed the crowd. The next day Masterson was sworn in as marshal of Trinidad by the town fathers.

Not long after Masterson had settled into his new job Wyatt Earp and his posse, including Wyatt's youngest brother Warren, Doc Holliday, Texas Jack Vermillion, Sherman McMasters, and Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, arrived at the train depot in El Moro, very near Trinidad. Masterson joined them for a final meeting before everyone went their separate ways. However, Holliday rather enjoyed the gambling establishments of Trinidad and chose to stay for an extended period of time. Apparently that sentiment was not reciprocated by all in Trinidad as the Trinidad News of May 4, 1882, did not make mention of Doc Holliday.

"Messrs. Wyatt and Warren Earp are still with us. Their brothers went south Wednesday morning. Again the news takes great pleasure in saying they are all 'way up'  boys - gentlemen of the first order." 

Bat Masterson was a part-time lawman and a full-time gambler and sporting man. Bat died at 67 as a sports writer (at his desk in New York City) in 1921.

Cards and guns during the 1800s in North America was an everyday occurrence. Everywhere one turned someone would be shuffling, dealing cards, or calling them. It was a form of entertainment that cost many men their hard earned money and for others their lives. Men were the dominant gamblers at the card tables and it didn't matter if it was a game of faro, blackjack or five-card draw. There were the card sharks -- professional card players; then there were the cardsharps -- also professional card players, but with the ability to cheat at the table.

There were many excellent lady gamblers at a time when it was wild and rough with many unsavory characters roaming the Southwest, but the ladies knew how to protect their own interest, relying on their 38 calibers, or the like thereof. Getting smart with these ladies wasn't in the cards as they too were very good at handling a gun; if all else failed, their long hair pins might drive home the point they wanted to convey - hands off.

There were many ladies that gambled and played cards, but the majority of the ladies were a bit more discreet, as their games were kept private. Ladies at the card tables were few, but when one appeared most men wanted to play at their tables. The ladies had higher odds for winning as the men would be distracted and the lady gamblers took advantage of that opportunity.

One of the great gamblers and one who was very good with a gun was Poker Alice.



Poker Alice (Alice Ivars Tubbs) (1851-1930) was one of the best known female poker players that made the rounds during the days of the Wild West. Mining towns in Colorado were popular for gamblers and Poker Alice circulated through notably Trinidad, Georgetown, Central City, Alamosa, and other mining towns. 

Poker Alice had everything going for her as she had come from Virginia where she had attended a girl's finishing school, before heading west and winding up in Colorado. Poker Alice was a beautiful lady with blue eyes, petite at 5'4" with nice brown hair. She wore the finest of gowns from New York City and was a crowd pleaser. Her features were a plus when dealing and playing faro, blackjack or five-card draw. 

During the 1800s, it appeared that circumstances had much to do with what options a lady had if they lose their spouse. This was the case when Poker Alice's husband was killed in a mining explosion. She was the best of the best when she sat down at the faro table. Hand after hand, she raked in the chips until she had taken in $150,000 and broken the bank.

Poker Alice was one of the finest gamblers that made the circuit, but she was far from naive when it came to safety. She had been taught by her father at the age of 12 how to shoot a gun, and she stood with the best of gunmen. Her proficiency with a gun served her well at least three times during her gambling career. Once a drunken miner pulled a knife at a gambling table, but soon became acquainted with a bullet from Poker Alice's 38 caliber pistol. Another incident at her home involved a couple of soldiers that were destroying her house; again Poker Alice and her 38 gained respect.

Besides being called Poker Alice throughout the West, residents in Deadwood, South Dakota referred to her as the Faro Queen of Deadwood. In her later years of life, she estimated that she had won a mere $250,000 during her lifetime at the card tables. The life of Poker Alice is one amazing story and the late Elizabeth Taylor played her part in the movie titled, "Poker Alice."

Other lady gamblers that had an amazing life at the card tables or on the western frontier were:



Martha Jane Canary, aka Calamity Jane (May 1, 1852 - August 1, 1903)  was an American frontierswoman and professional scout known for being an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok and fighting against Indians. Late in her life, she appeared in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. She is said to have exhibited compassion to others, especially to the sick and needy. This facet of her character contrasted with her daredevil ways and helped to make her a noted frontier figure. She was also known for her habit of wearing men's attire. 

Much of what she claimed to have witnessed and participated in cannot be proven. It is known that she had no formal education and was an itinerant alcoholic. She was one of the toughest ladies that could ride, rope, curse with the best, and drink and gamble. Wild Bill Hickok was her friend until he was shot in a card game. Calamity Jane died in Deadwood as a poor lady at the age of 53 in 1903.



Kitty Leroy (1850 - December 6, 1877) was a dancer, gambler, saloon owner, prostitute, madam, and trick shooter of the Wild West. Leroy was born in Michigan and by the age of 10 she was dancing professionally. By the time she was fourteen she was performing in dance halls and saloons. She also had developed shooting skills that few could match, including the ability to shoot apples off people's heads. She married for the first time by 15, but the marriage was short-lived. She ventured west seeking her fortune, settling for a time in Dallas, Texas. By the age of 20, she had married a second time and was one of the most popular dancing attractions in town. She soon gave up dancing to work as a faro dealer and became known for dressing in men's clothing, and at times like a Romani. By this time, Leroy had developed into a skilled gambler.

She and her second husband headed to California, where they hoped to open their own saloon. Somewhere along the line, she left him for another man, marrying for a third time. However, this marriage was extremely short-lived. According to an unconfirmed legend, the two became involved in an argument, during which she challenged him to a gunfight. When he refused to fight her because she was a woman, she changed into men's clothing and challenged him again. When she drew her gun, he did not, and she shot him. As he did not die right away, she called for a preacher and the two were married. He died within a few days.

Leroy made her way to Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876, traveling in the same wagon train as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.  There, she worked as a prostitute in the brothel managed by Mollie Johnson. She opened the Mint Gambling Saloon and married for a fourth time to a Prussian prospector. However, when his money ran out, they began to argue often. She hit him over the head with a bottle one night and threw him out, ending the relationship.

Her saloon was successful. In addition to the gambling income, Leroy occasionally worked as a prostitute but mostly managed her own women. On June 11, 1877, Leroy married for the fifth and final time, this time to prospector and gambler Samuel R. Curley. This marriage, as her others, was volatile. Curley was alleged to have been extremely jealous and Leroy continued to have affairs, one of which was with her latest ex-husband, and another, according to rumor, with Wild Bill Hickok. On the night of December 6, 1877, Curley shot and killed Leroy in the Lone Star Saloon, then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. The pair were laid in state in front of the saloon the next day, then buried together. 


Belle Starr


Belle Starr, the "Bandit Queen," contrary to popular belief, never robbed a train or bank and is never known to have killed anyone. She did, however, have a lust for adventure and a love for gunfighters. Among them were members of the Jesse James Gang, including Cole Younger, whom she claimed fathered her daughter, Pearl, who is pictured on the right. She was a gun toting gambler with nerves of steel. She supported the Confederate cause in Missouri during the Civil War (1861-1865) and supplied Quantrill and his guerillas with Union information. Belle Starr became known as Quantrill's Little Secret.


Dirty Alice
Minnie Smith was also known as Dirty Alice. Virtually nothing is known about Minnie’s formidable years.  The first historical recording of the hot-headed Smith occurred in 1886 in Colorado City.  She was recognized throughout Colorado not only as Minnie Smith, but also as Lou Eaton and Dirty Alice.  She used a different pseudonym in the various locations across the state where she owned bordellos and saloons. Like many madams, Minnie felt the alternate handles gave her a sense of mystery which ultimately brought in business. 

Competition for business was fierce in the gold mining camp.  The other madams operating houses in Cripple Creek and Creede were considerably younger than Minnie and able to attract a regular clientel.  Minnie was 45 and few took notice of her now. In late 1893, after falling into a deep depression, she decided to take her own life. She committed suicide by swallowing a large dose of morphine. Minnie Smith’s body was laid to rest at the Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs.  She left a substantial amount of money and property behind, but no one knows what became of her estate.

When it came to lady gamblers, gun-toting ladies and madams, it appears that their professions demanded to much of their good will and in doing so destroyed many of them through drugs, alcohol and poison. But they all had one thing in common - they were all in it for the money and held the aces in their hands, which were: Saloons (alcohol), card rooms (gambling), and bordellos.




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