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Wild Women Of The West: Lottie Deno

The atmosphere of a smoky saloon, the endless supply of alcohol and distractions from sporting girls helped create the occasional sore loser.

June 27, 2018

Lottie Deno.

A broad grin spread across Doc Holliday’s thin, unshaven face as he tossed five playing cards face down into the center of a rustic, wooden table.  His eyes followed a petite, gloved-hand as it swept a pile of poker chips towards a demur, dark-haired beauty sitting opposite him. Lottie Deno watched the infamous dentist, gambler and gunfighter lean back in his chair and pours himself a shot of whiskey.  Doc’s steely blue eyes met hers and she held his gaze. “You want to lose any more of your money to me or is that it, Doc?” “Deal”, he responded confidently. Lottie did as he asked and in a few short minutes had managed to win another hand.

A crowd of customers at the Bee Hive Saloon in Fort Griffith, Texas slowly made their way over to the table where Lottie and Doc had squared off.  They cheered the card sharps on and bought them drinks. Most of the time Lottie won the hands. The talented poker players continued on until dawn.  When the chips were added up, the lady gambler had acquired more than thirty thousand dollars of Holliday’s money.

“If one must gamble they should settle on three things at the start…,” Doc said before drinking down another shot.  “And they are,” Lottie inquired? “Decide the rules of the game, the stakes and the quitting time.” Holliday smoothed down his shirt and coat, adjusted his hat and nodded politely to the onlookers.  “Good evening to you all,” he said as he made his way to the exit. Lottie smiled to herself as she sorted her chips. Holliday sauntered out of the saloon and into the bright morning light.

Historians maintain that it was only natural that Lottie Deno would have grown up to be an expert poker player –  her father was a part-time gambler and who had taught his daughter everything he knew about cards. She is recognized by many gaming historians as being the most talented woman to play five card draw in the west.

Lottie was born Carlotta J. Thompkins in Warsaw, Kentucky on April 21, 1844.  She was the eldest of two girls her parents would have. Her mother and father had amassed a substantial amount of money tobacco farming.  They lavished their children with every advantage possible including travel. Her father took his oldest child with him on business trips to New Orleans and Detroit.  At both locations he escorted his daughter to the finest gambling houses and introduced her to the art of poker, roulette, horse racing and faro. Lottie’s seven foot nanny, Mary Poindexter, accompanied the pair on every journey.  By the time Lottie was 16 she was a skilled card player often in need of protection from gamblers she fleeced. Mary made sure her charge never got hurt.

The attack on Fort Sumter in April of 1861 outraged many Southerners, prompting them to enlist in the Confederate Army.  Lottie’s father was no exception. Six hundred and eighteen thousand men lost their lives over the course of the Civil War.  Lottie’s father was killed in the first engagement he fought.

The news of his death devastated his daughters and wife.  Lottie’s mother’s health immediately began to fail. The now seventeen-year-old girl assumed the role as head of the family and took over the business of the Thompkins plantation.  Distant family members, who felt it was inappropriate for a female to be in such a position, persuaded Lottie’s mother to send her away. She agreed and Lottie was sent to Detroit to live with friends.  Her mother hoped she would meet a suitable man to marry there.

Lottie arrived in the city at the peak of the social season and the limited funds her mother supplied her with did not last long.  Expenses had been much more than anticipated. Back home in Kentucky, Lottie’s mother and sister were struggling financially as well.  The war had left the plantation in disarray and the lack of workers prevented the crops from being planted. When news of the hardship her family was enduring reached Lottie she decided to get a job.

An invitation to visit a gambling fraternity provided a way for her to earn an income.  Lottie’s talent for winning at the poker tables gave her enough money to send home and support herself in style.  No questions were asked as to how Lottie came in to the money and no explanation was offered.

Not only did Lottie jeopardize her social standing in the community by frequenting the gambling house, but it also exposed her to a cast of unsavory characters.  It was there she made the acquaintance of a charming, but ruthless gambler named Johnny Golden. Golden was from Boston and was of Jewish descent. Lottie’s mother and other family members, as well as a large percentage of the population at the time were anti-Semitic.  Lottie was strongly chastised for her association with Golden, but that only made him more enduring to her.

Not only did the couple gamble together, but they lived together unmarried for a time.  Johnny was not as lucky in cards as Lottie. His misfortune at the poker table, combined with the difficulties he experienced as a Jew, led to the two parting company.  Golden headed back East and Lottie moved on to Louisiana.

News of her mother’s death reached Lottie just as she was settling into a hotel in New Orleans.  She was broken hearted and lonesome for her sister. She wanted to make sure her sister was generously cared for and given the opportunity to continue her education.  In an effort to make that happen, Lottie found steady poker games on the river boats that traveled the waterways through the southeast. She made a lot of money, enough to put her sister through private school.  Once Lottie’s sister graduated she purchased a train ticket for her sibling to meet her in San Antonio, Texas.

Lottie was restless and bored with New Orleans when she set out for Texas in May of 1865.  San Antonio was an exciting city, teaming with new gambling parlors and betting houses. Games of chance weren’t restricted to evening entertainment either.  The opportunity to make a fortune was open to professional gamblers and gaming enthusiasts twenty-four hours a day.

Lottie played poker at the Cosmopolitan Club, a posh saloon and casino near the Alamo Plaza.  After seeing her play, the owner of a rival business known as the University Club, offered her a job as house gambler at his establishment.  A house gambler used money the saloon provided them with to play poker. The professional card player would invite patrons to join them in a few hands with the expressed purpose of separating them from their cash or property.  The house gambler received a percentage of the winnings.

Lottie’s beauty and the novelty of seeing a woman gambler attracted a lot of men to the saloon.  She waited at the poker table like a spider waiting for her victims to wander into her web. Many University Club patrons referred to Lottie as the Angel of San Antonio.  Dressed in the finest styles available in New Orleans, dealing cards and batting her large, dark eyes at customers, she was a popular inducement. Besides five card draw, her specialty was a game called faro.  The game, which originated in France, was one of the most popular in the west. Frank Thurmond, the owner of the University Club, had more than a professional interest in Lottie.  Not long after she began working at the saloon the two became romantically involved. Their love affair was short lived, however.  Thurmond was forced to leave town after stabbing a disorderly patron and killing him. Lottie left the area soon afterwards to find him.  It was rumored that Frank had headed west. Lottie did the same. She arrived in Fort Concho, Texas in early 1870 needing additional traveling money to go on.  She quickly found a game at a local saloon and in no time was impressing cowhands and drifters who sat across from her at a poker or faro table.

Lottie refused to say what brought her from Louisiana to Texas.  She was afraid she might cause trouble for Frank if she admitted publicly that she was looking for him.  It was the evasiveness about where she came from and where she was headed that prompted people to start calling her Mystic Maude.

From Fort Concho she traveled to Jacksboro, San Angelo, Dennison and Fort Worth.  At each stop she gambled, winning hand after hand. When one town was played out she moved on to another.  Her actions led many to speculate that she was waiting for a man to meet her. Some guessed he might be an outlaw.  Lottie avoided conversation on the subject and redirected the curious back to the cards she dealt them.

A few humiliated gamblers who had the misfortune of losing to Lottie believed she was a cheat.  “The likelihood of a woman being able to win enough pots to make a living playing cards is farfetched,” a saloon-keeper in El Paso told a newspaper reporter in 1872.  “That could only happen if she were crooked.”

If Lottie was dishonest at cards she was as good at not being detected as she was at the game.  Most onlookers focused on her winnings rather than her actual game. The fortune she amassed in one night at the tables in Fort Griffith, Texas brought her a lot of attention and a new name.

She had won several hands in a row and was stacking her chips in a neat pile when a drunk ranch hand standing nearby yelled out, “Honey, with winnings like them, you ought to call yourself Lotta Denero.” Of all the handles she had acquired in her career, it was a name she thought suited her best.  She shortened the nom de plume to Lottie Deno and used if the rest of her life.

Fort Griffith had a reputation for being one of the roughest towns in the west.  Outside of a few shady ladies, the burg was populated primarily by young, rowdy men, former Confederate soldiers distressed about the way the Civil War had ended.  It was a volatile environment where Lottie thrived and had great success as a gambler.

Lottie hosted a regular game at the Bee Hive Saloon in Fort Griffith and was treated like royalty by the men who frequented the business.  Bartender Mike Fogarty treated her especially well. Fogarty, it would later be determined, was in fact Frank Thurmond. Still fearful of being found out by the law who knew the pair had been involved, Thurmond and Lottie would steal away to a nearby town for secret rendezvous. The couple’s true relationship remained hidden from the public until they were married in December of 1880.

In addition to seeing thousands of dollars come and go, Lottie witnessed her share of violence at the tables as well.  Most of the time she watched disinterested in the explosive action of the drunken miner or cowboy who lost numerous poker hands.

The atmosphere of a smoky saloon, the endless supply of alcohol and distractions from sporting girls helped create the occasional sore loser.

One evening when Lottie was dealing faro, an argument involving a pair of fledgling gamblers broke out at a table adjacent to her.  The fight became physical and shots were then exchanged. Fort Griffith Sheriff Bill Cruger intervened, killing both men who drew on him as he hurried into the saloon to settle things.  With the exception of Lottie, everyone in the saloon had fled when the bullets started flying.

Sheriff Cruger was amazed at Lottie’s demeanor and commented to her that he couldn’t understand why she had stayed at the scene.  “You’ve never been a desperate woman, Sheriff,” she calmly told him. Lottie was immune to such tensions. Her focus was on winning the pot.  Enduring the temper of unfortunate card players went with the territory. She never feared for her life, but she did fear being poor.

Lottie’s monetary drive, beauty and talent captured the attention of many colorful frontier characters.  Authors, songwriters and artists painted pictures of the lady gambler and penned stories about her vivacious, unconventional spirit.

Dan Quin, a cowhand turned writer, wrote a series of books about his adventures through the Old West and one story featured a gambler fitting the description of Lottie Deno.  In the book, Quin, who used the pen name Alfred Henry Lewis, renamed Lottie “Faro Nell.”

Faro Nell was “a handsome lady with a steady hand and quick mind made for flipping the pasteboards”.  Lewis’s book, published in 1913, helped immortalize the lady gambler. However, Lottie was not flattered by the publication.  She saw it as an “unfair representation” showing her as an “unsophisticated lady without proper breeding.”

After dealing various games at the Bee Hive Saloon for five years, Lottie left Fort Griffith and headed to Kingston, New Mexico where she met Frank Thurmond.  The pair went into business together in mid-1878. They established a gambling room at the Victorio Hotel in Kingston and opened a saloon in nearby Silver City.  Both towns were booming from the gold and silver strikes in the area and miners were eager to part with a few dollars drinking and playing cards.

Lottie and Frank were not only making money hand over fist, but had acquired several mining claims that had been put up as bets.

The pair became so wealthy they began lending money to mining operations in exchange for a stake in their findings.  The couple used a portion of their income to get married and establish a home. They exchanged vows on December 2, 1880 at the Silver City courthouse.

Lottie continued working, dealing cards at night and managing the Thurmond’s two saloons, restaurant, hotel they now owned, during the day.  She also ventured into charity work, providing room and board for newly released prisoners.

In 1883, Lottie and her husband purchased a liquor distribution business in Deming, New Mexico, another growing gold mining town.  They also bought property in the heart of town and a large ranch at the base of the mountains surrounding the ever developing city.

If not for the brutal murder of a gambler by the name of Dan Baxter, Lottie might have stayed on as a house faro dealer at the saloon she and Frank owned in Silver City.  Little is known of the actual event. It started with a quarrel between Baxter and Frank. Baxter threw a billiard ball at Frank and Frank pulled out a knife and stabbed him in the abdomen.  Baxter died. Law enforcement determined Frank had acting in self-defense, but the incident forced Lottie to reevaluate her career choice.

She was tired of the senseless violence that accompanied her line of work and she decided to retire.

Lottie and Frank settled down in Deming to live a quiet, orderly existence.  Frank focused his attention on the mines, land and cattle ranches they jointly owned.  Lottie became involved with civic organizations and helped build an Episcopal church.

The second half of Lottie’s life was tame compared to her first half.  She adapted easily to the role of proper wife and respected community leader, trading in a hand of poker for a game of bridge and helping to form a local association called the Golden Gossip Club.  The social club, which still exists today, was made up primarily of wives of leading businessmen. They got together and quilted swapped recipes and played cards.

In 1908, after having been with Lottie for more than 40 years, Frank passed away.  He died of cancer. Lottie lived another 26 years after her husband’s death. On February 9, 1934, at the age of 89, she became critically ill and died.  The daily newspaper, The Deming Graphic, noted that she “maintained her usual cheerful spirit to the last.”

The memory of Lottie Deno has been kept alive in feature films and television programs.  Motion picture historians maintain that the character of Laura Denbo in the movie Gunfight at the OK Corral, and the character of Miss Kitty in the television show Gun Smoke, is based on Lottie Deno.

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