The Lovely, “Madame Moustache”
Soiled doves of the Old West frequently wrestled with matters of the heart. Many longed to meet a man who could help them escape the life they were living. Popular, frontier madam Eleanor Dumont dreamed of such a savior. Shortly after she moved to Northern California she met a man she believed could love her and build a life with her away from the saloons and brothels. Tragically, she was wrong.
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.
Historians note that Eleanora harbored a deep love for Editor Waite of the Nevada Journal newspaper. 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.
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.
Lines of grief and desperation now 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.
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.
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.
On the morning of September 8, 1879, 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.
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.”
Here are a few love lessons learned from the tragic Eleanora Dumont:
- Some men didn’t mind being seen with a lady card dealer at a gambling hall in the evening, but most didn’t want to be seen with a woman in that profession in public during the day.
- Gambling in the Old West was considered a man’s job opportunity. Eleanora learned that her unique talent was not going to be embraced by out-of-work poker dealers. Some men might even hate you for it.
- Beware of handsome card players who flatter their way into your heart and bank account. “It only makes your luck run kind of muddy,” prospectors in 1850 used to say.
- Drinking yourself to an early grave won’t win the heart of the man you love. It’s like playing a harp with a hammer,” was another saying prospectors in the mid-1800s used.
- A mustache on a woman isn’t as well received as on a cowboy. Eleanor’s reign as the Queen of Twenty-One came to an end when men began to make fun of her fading beauty.
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.