Libby Thompson twirled gracefully around the dance floor of the Sweetwater Saloon in Sweetwater, Texas. A banjo and piano player performed a clumsy rendition of the house favorite, “Sweet Betsy From Pike.” Libby made a valiant effort to match her talent with the musician’s limited skills. The rough crowd around her was not interested in the out of tune playing; their eyes were fixed on the billowing folds of her flaming red costume. The rowdy men hoped to catch a peek at Libby’s shapely, bare legs underneath the yards of fabric on her skirt. Libby was careful to only let them see enough to keep them interested.
Many of the cowboy customers were spattered with alkali dust, grease, or plain dirt. They stretched their eager unkempt hands out to touch Libby as she pranced by, but she managed to avoid all contact. At the end of the performance, she was showered with applause, cheers, and requests to see more. Libby was not in an obliging mood. She smiled, bowed, and hurried past the enthusiastic audience as she made her way to the bar for a drink.
A surly bartender served her a glass of apple whiskey, and she headed off to the back of the room with her beverage. When she wasn’t entertaining patrons, Libby could be found at her usual corner spot by the stairs. A large, purple, velvet chair waited for her there along with her pets, a pair of prairie dogs. As Libby walked through the mass of people to her spot, she saw three grimy, bearded men surrounding her seat. One of the inebriated cowhands was poking at her animals with a long stick.
“Boys, I’d thank you kindly to stop that,” she warned the unruly trio. The men turned to see who was speaking then broke into a hearty laugh once they saw her. Ignoring the dancer they resumed their harassment of the small dogs. The animals batted the stick back as it neared them, and each time the men would erupt with laughter.
Libby watched the three for a few moments then slowly reached into her drawstring purse and removed a pistol. Pointing the gun at the men she said, “Don’t make me ask you again.” The drunken cowhands turned to face Libby, and she aimed her pistol at the head of the man with the stick. Laughing, the man told her to “go to hell.” “I’m on my way,” she responded, pulling the hammer back on the gun. “But I don’t mind sending you there first so you can warn them,” she added. The cowboy dropped the stick, and he and his friends backed away from Libby’s chair. One by one they staggered out the saloon. Libby put the gun back into her purse, scooped up her frightened pets, scratched their heads, and kissed them repeatedly.
Libby Thompson was known by most as Squirrel Tooth Alice. Named for a slight imperfection in her teeth and for the burrowing rodents she kept that were often mistaken for squirrels, Alice was one of the most famous madams on the Western front.
Libby Thompson was born Mary Elizabeth Haley on October 18, 1855 in Belton, Texas. Her parents, James Haley and Mary Raybourne, owned a plantation along the Brazos River. Prior to the Civil War the Haleys were a wealthy family. Libby, along with her three brothers and two sisters, were accustomed to the finer things in life. When the South lost the War, the Haley fortune went with it. James managed to hold onto his land, and his children helped him work the rich soil. He was never a big success as a farmer, but he did manage to keep his family fed. He was not able to protect them from hostile Indian parties that raided homesteads and stole their livestock, however.
In 1864, Comanche Indians raided the Haley plantation and took Libby captive. James and Mary searched for their daughter for three years. After locating the tribe that had taken Libby, a ransom was offered for her release. The distraught Haleys agreed to pay the price, and Libby returned home in the winter of 1867.
Speculations as to how the Comanche Indians treated female captives ranged from forcible rape and torture to marriage and servitude. Thirteen year old Libby rarely spoke of the harrowing ordeal. Historians at the University of Texas note her behavior was indicative of most captives. Even if she had described the perilous ordeal to the curious Belton population, it would not have changed the way they treated her. Libby showed no physical signs of abuse, and the public took that to mean she willingly submitted to the Indian’s demands. Libby was shunned from polite society and ostracized from the community.
Rejected by friends, neighbors, and some family members, Libby was driven to keep company with an older man who accepted her in spite of her experience with the Comanche Indians. When Libby brought the gentleman friend home to meet her parents, she introduced him as her husband. James was so enraged at the idea of his teenage daughter being taken advantage of, he shot and killed Libby’s lover. The scandal further tarnished her already questionable reputation.
At the age of fourteen, Libby ran away from home to start life fresh in a new location. She chose Abilene, Kansas, as the spot to begin again. She took a job as a dance hall girl in one of the town’s many, wild saloons. It was in one of these establishments that she met a cowboy gambler named Billy Thompson. Billy was ten years older than Libby. He swept her off her feet with his boyish good looks, irresistible charm, and promise of an exciting life on the frontier. The two left Abilene together in 1870 and made way for Texas.
When Libby wasn’t following her man over the Chisholm Trail while he punched cows for any cattle drive crew that needed him, the pair was holed up in a saloon. Billy would gamble, and Libby would dance. Dance hall girls were paid well and could earn even more if they engaged in acts of prostitution. Libby was not opposed to entertaining gentlemen in that manner if it brought in extra cash. As long as she shared her income with Billy, he didn’t object either. The carefree couple drifted from town to town, staying long enough to tire of the place and then move on.
In 1872, Libby and Billy left Texas and headed back to Kansas. This time they settled in Ellsworth. Work was readily available there. Numerous cattle drives came through the area, and there was a lot of money to be made and won at the busy saloons. In less than six months, Libby and Billy had amassed a small fortune. Most of the pair’s wealth was lost after a few luckless nights of gambling. By this time Libby was expecting their first child. Broke and desperate, Billy decided to join a drive heading south.
Cohabitation without the benefit of marriage was illegal in the Old West. Libby and Billy lied about their marital status. They did so not only to get away with living together but also for Libby to go along on the cattle drives. As trail boss, Billy’s family was permitted to accompany him. Holed up in the back of a wagon, a pregnant Libby followed the herd from Kansas to Oklahoma. On April 1, 1873, she gave birth to a son and named him Rance. Three months later, in a formal setting, Billy decided to legally marry the mother of his child.
The Thompsons were vagabonds; it was not in their natures to lay down roots. Having a son did not inspire the couple to settle down. They wanted nothing more than to drift freely from cow town to cow town plying their individual trades. A deadly, impulsive act ultimately robbed them of their uninhibited, wandering lifestyle.
On August 15, 1873, after an all-night drinking spree, Billy accidentally shot and killed a Kansas sheriff. He was arrested, and the cattle company he worked for bailed him out of jail. Worrying about the reprisals from the sheriff’s friends and family and fearing for his life and that of his wife and child, Billy and Libby ran from the cow town. Their itinerant lifestyle then became a matter of necessity rather than choice.
Libby and Billy sought refuge from the law in Dodge City. Libby found work as a dancer, madam, and part-time prostitute. Billy gambled at the saloons around town. They befriended some of the area’s most famous residents, namely Wyatt Earp and his lover Mattie Blaylock. After Kansas, the Thompsons traveled to Colorado and then back to Texas. Along the way, Libby gave birth to three more children. One of those children died from fever.
By the summer of 1876, Libby and her family were settled in Sweetwater. She and Billy purchased a small ranch outside town and a dance hall on Main Street. Libby was the main attraction on stage, but the stable of women who worked for her behind the scenes brought in the lion’s share of the business.
Billy protected his wife whenever he needed to but spent much of his time away from the saloon, leaving the daily operations of the brothel and tavern to Libby.
Libby was not shy or ashamed of how she earned a living. She openly confessed her profession to anyone who asked. When the census was taken in the area, she boldly listed her occupation as “one who diddles and squirms in the dark.” Libby’s frankness drew customers to her place, but that wasn’t the only reason. Her pet “squirrels” also garnered a lot of attention. The “squirrels” or prairie dogs were good pets. She took the small animals with her wherever she went.
Early in their relationship, Billy accepted and encouraged his wife’s profession. In later years, however, it was a source of tension between the two. Billy’s absence while on long cattle drives took its toll on the marriage as well. Both began to look to other people to make them happy and fill the voids. Each had a succession of lovers, but they never lost the connection that initially brought them together. They always found their way back to each other. During the course of their twenty-four years of marriage, the couple had nine children. History recorded that Billy was absent for much of their children’s upbringing.
In 1896, Billy returned to Sweetwater after having spent several months in Colorado gambling. During his stay in Cripple Creek, Colorado, he contracted consumption. When he arrived in Texas he was dying from the disease. Libby was unable to provide adequate care for her husband, so she sent him to his family in southern Texas. Billy passed away on September 6, 1887, at the St. Joseph Infirmary in Houston.
Libby didn’t stay single for long. She moved in with a man simply known as “Mr. Young.” Young was a cattle rustler who’d had several run-ins with the law. Historians suspect that Mr. Young was the father of Libby’s ninth child, not Billy Thompson as she led her deceased husband to believe. If that were the case, Mr. Young proved to be just as bad at parenthood as Billy. Libby was lacking in that department as well. In addition to the nine children she had with Billy, and possibly Mr. Young, she had three more children with two different men. Several of her sons choose a life of crime, and many of her daughters followed her into the prostitution trade.
Libby’s days as a madam came to an end in 1921. She retired at the age of sixty-six and alternated living with her children.
The last month of her life was spent at the Sunbeam Rest Home in Los Angeles. Squirrel Tooth Alice died of natural causes on April 13, 1953. She was ninety-eight years old.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.