Our Newsletter to your inbox every week!
On June 15, 1853, a vivacious, petite woman stepped cheerfully off a stagecoach in Nevada City, California, dressed with all the style of Princess Eugenia of Sweden and Norway. As she strolled into the National Hotel with her dainty steps and her bustle looping back and forth, she made a decision to changer her name from Mlle. Simone Jules (the handle she used when she first arrived in California in 1850) to Madame Eleanora Dumont. She wanted a new sobriquet to go with the new gambling hall she had opened in the booming, gold mining town. At the time it was unheard of for a woman to enter into such a business venture alone, but Madame Dumont was defiant and confident she would be successful. Champagne and food were free at her place and the girls she employed more lovely than any west of the Rockies.
Eleanora’s gambling hall was filled to overflowing every night. Her specialty was dealing Twenty-One or Blackjack. In her flinty, sing-song voice, she would invite card players to “have a go” at vingt-et-un, the French translation of the game. Patrons were so busy talking with the charming Madame Dumont during the round that they scarcely noticed when they’d lost. Losers who were good sports were treated like royalty by the women who worked in Eleanora’s brothel. Keeping customers in good humor despite losing their money ensured repeat business. When she had to pay off, she did so with a careless, come-on laugh. Hundreds of miners came to inspect the novelty of a beautiful lady gambler and stayed because they had a better time at the “Madams” than at other gambling joints.
According to the July 6, 1859, edition of the Logansport Journal, “Eleanora learned her trade in London. There was more gambling among women at the time,” the column read, “than had been the case since public gambling tables were put down by act of Parliament. The harmless bet of a few pairs of gloves at race meetings is now considered far beneath the notice of a dashing matron or fast maiden. There are but few female ‘plungers’ on the turf who ‘put the pot on,’ as the idiotic jargon of the race course has it, with as much eagerness as the broke subaltern at the Raleigh, who stands to win a heap of money at Ascot or at Goodwood, with the alternative of running his old father, the country rector, if he loses, and allow his sisters’ portions to be swallowed up in paying for his ‘debts of honor.’ If the female plunger be unmarried, she has resource probably to some accommodating dressmaker, or, worse still, she accepts pecuniary help from some male friend, and perhaps puts herself for life in the power of a man who will one day make her pay dearly for her indiscretion.”
Eleanora was twenty years old when she moved to San Francisco from Europe. She took a job right away as a croupier for the roulette game at the Bella Union saloon. From there she traveled to Nevada City where in a short time she amassed considerable capital.
When Eleanora wasn’t dealing at her Nevada City gambling hall, she mingled with the rowdy clientele, flirting and flattering, rolling cigarettes and pouring drinks. Outside of her business, Madame Dumont conducted herself with the upmost propriety. She was always appropriately dressed, polite and careful to never appear snobbish or withdrawn. She graciously declined the advances of amorous miners who hoped to “make an honest woman” out of her. Her evenings were spent alone in her hotel room.
Nevada County historians note that the sophisticated Eleanora harbored a deep love for Editor Waite of the Nevada Journal. She adored him and longed for the respectability that he offered. Waite, however, did not return Eleanora’s affections. There were occasional late-night calls to her room, but outside of fulfilling a basic need, Waite had no further use for her. The ultimate demise of their relationship came after Waite married a “socially acceptable” woman. Eleanora would never get over the loss.
Rumors of gold being played out in the region began circulating in early 1855. Prospectors slowly filtered out of the mining town. Eleanora’s business suffered as a result. The decrease in revenue, combined with the sadness she continued to feel over Editor Waite’s marriage, left her venerable both professionally and emotionally. Enter Lucky Dave Tobin. Tobin, a tall man with devilish good looks, was an itinerate gambler. Not long after introducing himself to the French beauty, he persuaded her to take him on as a partner in her struggling establishment. Tobin immediately began making improvements. He added Keno tables, roulette wheels, and a Faro bank. Dumont’s place flourished once again.
The relationship between Eleanora and Tobin eventually became more than business. As their romance flourished, the percentage he made from her gambling hall increased. Their partnership dissolved when Tobin demanded a bigger cut of the income than Eleanora was willing to give. In a heated discussion one evening, she informed him that she didn’t need a man. She had gotten along fine prior to his assistance and would do so again. The partners went their separate ways.
Tobin took his huge stash of earned profits and headed to New York. According to an article in the December 9, 1928, edition of the Oakland Tribune, Tobin opened his own gambling house there. Between 1862 and 1865, Tobin made thousands of dollars in card games he played with Civil War profiteers and successful politicians. Tobin died in 1865; what became of the money he had remains a mystery.
Madame Dumont did not stay in Nevada City long after Tobin walked out of her life. In 1856, news of the rich Comstock Lode in Nevada reached the mining community, and Eleanora decided to go where money could be made. She sold the business and decided to follow the various gold and silver strikes throughout the West. She was always a mining camp favorite and never failed to draw a crowd. Prior to Editor Waite’s betrayal, she had always been a temperate wine drinker. When she realized all hope of having him in her life was lost, she began consuming whiskey and brandy on a regular basis. Her drinking increased substantially once she began traveling from one gold rush town to another. For a while, Eleanora became careless at the gambling tables because of her drinking, and her winnings decreased. Her presence in mining towns like Columbia, California, threatened gamblers who had established those spots. The criticism she received about her drinking, followed by a strong suggestion she leave the area, further enhanced her alcohol intake.
From Columbia she moved to Idaho, stopping off long enough in gold mining towns like Orofino, Florence, and Boise City to win large sums of money. She used her winnings to purchase other gambling houses. One such place was in Virginia City, Nevada. While she was there some of her old gaiety seemed to return. She started a riot at the gambling hall one evening after soundly beating a popular prospector at poker. Several of the prospector’s friends, intent on getting the miner’s money back that he had lost, started after her. She slowly backed up against one of the walls in the hall and started kidding the rowdy crowd. Other patrons who had known Eleanora for years and were witness to the ruckus told Virginia City newspaper reporters that her wit again sparked and there was a flash in her eyes. “For a brief moment it almost seemed some of the heartache she had known since the hour Editor Waite married another had faded,” the article in the December 19, 1858, edition of the Territorial Enterprise read.
By 1864, she was sharing her talents with Argonauts in Bannack, Montana. She purchased a fancy, two-story place that had a saloon downstairs and a brothel upstairs. Among the many young women who worked to keep the miners’ winnings in the house was a fifteen-year-old girl named Martha Jane Cannary. Martha Jane, better known as Calamity Jane, was one of the Wild West’s most notorious characters.
Madame Dumont’s time in any one place was brief. After her stay in Bannack, she moved on to Bozeman, then to Fort Benton. In 1867, she added railroad construction camps to her itinerary of stopovers. She followed the United Pacific workers throughout Wyoming and back to Nevada.
Historical records indicate that somewhere on her journey, between 1865 and 1868, she met, married, and divorced a cattle buyer named Jack McKnight. The pair settled on a ranch near Carson City, Nevada, and for a while they were happy. The blissful union ended when McKnight abruptly left, taking all of Eleanora’s money with him. Alone and destitute, she was forced back into a life of gambling and prostitution.
Madame Dumont now began drinking heavily. Lines of grief and desperation marred her beautiful face. Her features coarsened, and a growth of dark hair appeared on her upper lip. Unsympathetic men she encountered in towns and camps ridiculed her looks and conferred upon her the title of “Madame Moustache.” Although she tried to hide it, the handle cut deeply.
In 1867, Madame Dumont returned to San Francisco, where her career had begun, and opened another parlor house. Her excessive drinking had affected her skill at cards, but patrons continued to seek her out and challenge her to games. She still managed to win the majority of hands, and most maintained that they “would rather lose to Madame Dumont than win from any male tin horn.”
Not everyone appreciated Eleanora’s notoriety. Some men resented being taken by a woman at cards and looked forward to the day when her career would end and she would leave town altogether. In the fall of 1869, she did leave San Francisco, and stage magician John Henry Anderson remarked: “Mlle. Dumont has apparently gone out of business. I was told that early this morning carriages took the ladies and their baggage, and shortly after dinner the proprietress was seen departing, without a word to anyone, as perhaps fitting. A man came later this afternoon and took those two loads of chairs, but not the beds.”
After departing San Francisco, Eleanor headed back to Montana, where she frequented such locations as Virginia City and Last Chance Gulch. From there Madame Dumont took her business back to Idaho and towns like Murray, Coeur d’Alene, and Eagle City, then on to Deadwood, South Dakota, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. At each stop Eleanora kept an eye out for her ex-husband, Jack McKnight. Her pistol was always close at hand in case she saw him. She promised herself that if their paths ever crossed, she’d put a bullet in the man who had stolen her heart and her money.
At the age of fifty, her card-playing talents and beauty fading and her once petite figure now overweight, Eleanora decided to move her game to Bodie, California. A gold strike there had made the tough northern California camp a popular destination for ambitious miners.
Madame Dumont arrived in the bustling town in September of 1879. After enjoying more than a few drinks at one of the thirty saloons in the small town, Eleanora staggered over to a Twenty-One table and began playing. By the end of the evening, she had lost all of her money.
Sitting in the back of the Grand Central Saloon, Eleanora contemplated how far she’d come from the profitable days she had once enjoyed in Nevada City. She thought about all she had lost, and her mind settled on Editor Waite. She sunk into a deep depression. The bartender offered her a bottle of whiskey, and she didn’t refuse. Maybe she could drink her memories away.
On the morning of September 8, Madame Dumont’s dead body was found outside town. An empty vial of poison was discovered nearby, and clutched in her hand was a tear-stained note requesting that she be buried next to Editor Waite. Newspapers across the West posted the famous gambler’s obituary, graciously omitting from their report the cruel nickname of Madame Moustache. The Sacramento Union reported: “A woman named Eleanor Dumont was found dead today about one mile out of town, having committed suicide. She was well known through all the mining camps. Let her many good qualities invoke leniency in criticizing her failings.”
Bodie townspeople and saloon owners took up a collection for Eleanora’s burial. They were able to raise money to bury her in Bodie and would not allow her to be laid to rest in the “outcast cemetery.”