The Old West Petticoat Dealer "Madame Mustache"

Eleanore Dumont, known as “Madame Mustache in the frontier gambling saloons, was truly one of the historical phenomenons of that era. As a young petticoat dealer, she became a “super star” dealing twenty-one on the gambler’s gypsy circuit that roamed throughout the West.

There is debate about Dumont’s birthplace; some say that she was a French born immigrant named Simone Jules while others say she was born in New Orleans around 1829. What is known is that a Madame Simone Jules rolled into San Francisco’s Bella Union Saloon and Gambling Hall in the spring of 1850, took over a roulette table, and created a major sensation. Forty-niners, hungry for a mere glimpse of a beautiful woman were staggered by the young Frenchwoman with creamy alabaster skin, shinning black eyes, a flirtatious smile, and long dark tresses that fell to her shoulders. Within a few days men were standing in line to lose their gold dust to the demure mademoiselle that on very close inspection showed a thin line of downy hair on her upper lip.

The Bella union was packed night and day with players eager to see or play against the marvelous Madame Jules. Not to be outdone the other gambling halls quickly imported French women to preside over their roulette wheels. Over the next few years, women croupiers or dealers became the headliners for most of the gambling operations throughout Portsmouth Square. Then as suddenly as she had appeared Madame Jules disappeared from the scene and her name was not mentioned again in any records or newspaper reports.

Several years later in 1854, a stagecoach rolled onto the dusty streets of Nevada City, California, and a well-rounded young woman emerged. Dressed in fine Parisian clothes and expensive jewels, the whole city was set on its ear by the mysterious raven-haired French woman that descended from the coach. She was small and dainty, with doe-like eyes, a mane of curly dark hair, and just a slight hint of diaphanous down on her upper lip. She said her name was Madame Eleanore Dumont and offered nothing about her past – an inscrutable woman of mystery.

Satisfied with her transformation to Madame Dumont the gambling vixen rented a place in the center of town and hung up a sign naming her establishment, the “Vingt-Et-Un” (French for “twenty-one”). Citizens all over town received invitations to visit Broad Street and enjoy a game with Madame Dumont. Though there were over a dozen gambling halls in Nevada City, the Vingt-Et-Un was the undisputed queen of the sporting crowd. Twenty-one was Dumont’s game of choice and she was a master at the game, sweetly expressing regret as she raked in her winnings. When she closed up her table, she would order bottles of champagne to treat the losers, leading most miners to say that they “would rather lose to the Madame than win from somebody else.”

Miners and townsfolk flocked to the establishment, drawn both by the attraction of winning money and the charisma and wit of the French hostess. Decorum was strictly enforced, customers could not engage in brawling or using vulgar language; strangely enough, the rough crowd of miners found it impossible to resist the polite requests of the tantalizing owner. In a very short time, she moved her operation to larger quarters where she added faro, chuck-a-luck, roulette tables, and a staff of dealers. She called her new gambling hall the Dumont Palace and hired a Nevada City gambler named Dave Tobin to be her manager-partner.

Then over the next two years, the money rolled in on a daily basis, so much so that Tobin, who had moved in with Dumont at the National Hotel, wanted to take control of the operation. When he tried to make his move Dumont flew into a rage – just because they shared a bed did not make him the boss of the outfit. She gave him an ultimatum; if he did not like the arrangement then “get the hell out.” He certainly did not like the setup so after a final settlement he slipped out of Nevada City and headed back east.

When the gold in Nevada City eventually ran dry, Eleanore sold her operation and began a tour of the other mining camps of northern California. She opened her game in the Yuba River settlements of Bullard’s Bar, Downieville, and Sierra City; then moved on to mining camps on the Feather River and later the Klamath. In 1857 she dealt twenty-one in George Foster’s City Hotel in Columbia for more than a year before she moved on to Virginia City where she managed a swanky joint that boasted furnishings valued at over $30,000. It was during these series of California mining camps that she added the “extras” to her table operations – a visit to her boudoir requiring a “room charge.”

Dumont left for the gold strikes in Idaho and Montana in the early 1860s and by the end of her tour, she was approaching her thirtieth birthday. The passing years had not been kind to her; the long nights of cards and debauchery began to take its toll, and her once-legendary appearance slowly started to fade. Looking jaded and spent, she lost her hour-glass figure and what was years before only a faint hint of fuzz on her upper lip, had begun to darken – earning her the sobriquet-Madame Mustache.

At Bannack, she teamed up with man by the name of McHarney in a two-story gambling saloon that featured upstairs cribs for quick trysts with the young dancehall girls that worked the saloon below. They had the operation up and going for only a short time before her partner was shot to pieces in a gun battle with another gambler named MacFarlane. What to do? Never missing a beat Dumont had the bloody corpse dragged away, fresh sawdust scattered on the floor, and the saloon swung back into action as if nothing had ever happened. Then she hustled down to the jail to post a one thousand dollar bail for MacFarlane, who in less than an hour after the killing agreed to be her new partner. Yes sir, the Frenchwoman never missed an enterprising opportunity.

Coming out of Bannack, Dumont headed to Fort Benton, a hustling-bustling supply point for the Montana goldfields. Here she duplicated her previous operation that featured booze, beauties, and betting. However, the luster was gone from her earlier emporiums where elegance and decorum was paramount. She was reduced to operating in a low-rent dive. Steamboat captain, Louis Rosche described Dumont’s gambling saloon:

“The inside of the gambling house was worse looking even than the outside. The bar and the gaming rooms were housed in one big downstairs room. A rickety set of stairs led up to a second-floor balcony where I saw doors leading to about a dozen smaller rooms. The place was foggy with smoke and smelled of sweating, unwashed bodies and cheap whiskey. The floor was filthy… Faintly from one of the upstairs rooms I could hear the gibberish of a drunken man and the high, shrill laughter of a woman who was quite sober.”

Dumont bounced from one location to another until she decided it was time to retire from the gambling life so she bought a cattle ranch in California and for a short time tried to make a go of it in honest work. Quickly realizing she had no idea how to run a ranch she hooked up with a smooth-talking man named Jack McKnight who claimed to be a savvy cattle buyer. Handsome and well-dressed, McKnight promised her he could take care of everything and they tied the knot. With the ink barely dry on their marriage certificate McKnight did just that – he took everything she had and absconded.

Forced to return to the only thing she knew how to do Dumont hit the mining camps and eventually landed in Deadwood in the fall of 1876. She dealt twenty-one in various saloons and was observed by John F. Finerty, a journalist for the Chicago Times. In an article, he wrote: “She had a once-handsome face, which crime had hardened into an expression of cruelty. Her eyes glittered like that of a rattlesnake and she raked in the gold dust or chips with hands whose long white fingers, sharp at the ends, reminded me of a harp’s talons.”

Reduced to barely eking by as a dealer in low-class gambling dens, Dumont finally drifted into Bodie, California, in 1879. By this point, she was usually drinking heavily and finding it much harder to compete against professional sharps that sat at her twenty-one table. On the night of September 7, at the Magnolia saloon, she borrowed $300 to bank her table against two blacklegs. Try as she might she just did not have it in her; she was 49, penniless, befuddled by a whiskey soaked brain, and finally as she turned the last card she was completely out of luck. Gathering all the dignity she could muster she pushed her chair away from the table and stood up, “Gentlemen, the game is yours.”

The next morning they found her dead lying beside an empty bottle of morphine. Among the personal items found on her body was a letter that she had written. Along with directions for the disposition of her effects, the letter stated, “she was tired of life.” The Sacramento Union summed up her entire life with these few lines: “Bodie: September 8. A woman named Eleanore Dumont was found dead today about one mile out of town, having committed suicide. She was well-known throughout the mining camps.”