Madame Moustache: The Notorious Life of Eleanor Dumont

The initial beginning of Madame Moustache remains conjecture but what is known is that she arrived in Nevada City, California in 1854. At the time she was about 20 years old. Her reason for being there was that she was hoping to capitalize on the fascination held by the rough-and-tumble men of the West for French women. However, she was not born in France but probably born to French Creole parents, who lived in New Orleans.

 

Madame Moustache. Public domain.

She was also likely born Simone Jules in 1829 and became well known as a frontier gambler in the mining towns of California’s Gold Rush. When she stepped out of the coach in Nevada City, one witness described her as “pretty, dark-eyed, fresh-faced,” but mentioned no moustache. No one met her and it was reported she checked into Fepps Hotel signing the register under a name she had taken, Eleanor Dumont. However, she also sometimes went by the name of Eleonore Alphonsine Dumant.

She stayed alone in her room and curiosity about who she was, what she was doing there, and why she had come to Nevada City was not satisfied for about ten days. It was then that people discovered her reason for being there. It came in the form of a printed handbill that revealed she had opened a gambling emporium named Vingt-et-un (Twenty-One) on Broad Street. She had furnished it in a luxurious gambling style and was announcing its opening with a fancy champagne gala consisting of soft lights and appealing music.

Madame Moustache - Nevada City

Nevada City, Nevada in 1856. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Madame Moustache was also to be one of the card dealers at her new place. That was a novelty at the time as there were no female card dealers in California. Further, the pretty brunette was a distraction at the tables with her ruby red lips, sparkling dark eyes, and glittering low-cut gowns. She was also good as a dealer. That meant that miner after miner lost their hard-earned cash to her because of her skill. Biographer Duncan Aikman, who is sometimes noted to have been a flamboyant writer with little regard for the facts, wrote about her opening night stating:

“The luckier and better staked miners made a ruse for her début, first getting out the stove-pipe hats and dress clothes of solemn grandeur that had done duty at southern plantation quadrilles and eastern college commencements. The rank and file carefully refurbished working clothes, coon-skins and felt sombreros, and … precedents were broken on the very first night both in local attendance and more subtle matters. For the first time in its somewhat eventful history Nevada City saw a game of chance played by gentlemen with their hats off who made no recourse to profanity even in exasperation. Familiar topers were hesitant about ordering the usual liquid refreshments and inveterate smokers about consoling themselves with their customary tobacco habits. The Madame’s place was not only orderly beyond all local records ― it trembled on the brink of becoming ill at ease.

The catastrophe, however, the Madame averted with magnificent tolerance. … Between games the proprietress passed among her guests with a personal word of greeting for all, a miracle of that astute general familiarity which women needing the patronage of large groups of men use at once to charm them and to keep them at their distance.”[1]

Fortunately, Madame Moustache’s cash registers filled with money and she was so successful word of her establishment spread. Miners from far and wide poured into play twenty-one and to get a good look at Madame Moustache. Aikman also noted her success stating:

“Within a week, it was quite plain that the gallantly feminist little enterprise would not die when its novelty was exhausted.”[2]

Although Madame Moustache might have been enjoying great financial success with her venture, there were problems. For instance, she found it was difficult for a single woman to deal cards and handle the day-to-day matters related to a gambling establishment. She therefore took a partner joining forces with Dave Tobin, a professional New York gambler. Together they expanded their operations from twenty-one to faro and keno. They also opened Dumont’s Place, which likewise proved successful until the Nevada City gold mines started to dry up.

With reduced profits Madame Moustache decided to sell her business and in 1859, three years before Samuel Clemens would begin using the penname Mark Twain in Virginia City, she left Nevada City. She and Tobin had also dissolved their partnership some months earlier. Apparently, he had requested that she give him more of the profits and when she refused he returned to New York. She then began wandering from mining town to mining town. She also visited San Francisco and Bodie in California, Deadwood in South Dakota, Tombstone in Arizona, and Fort Benton in Montana.

During her wanderings, Madame Moustache also spent time in Bannack, Montana, the city named for the Bannack Native American Indians and the spot where gold was discovered on 28 July 1862. It was here that the famous nickname of Madame Moustache became synonymous with her. She acquired the nickname because of “a distinguishing feature,” a dark hair line that appeared on her upper lip. According to American author Curt Gentry:

“The thin line of soft down on her upper lip was not at all uncommon to women of Gallic extraction; unfortunately the Madame’s kept growing … with ‘Mediterranean luxuriousness.’ It was perhaps inevitable that the men, ‘with their terrible western gift for mordant nick-names,’ began referring to her among themselves, as Madame Moustache.”[3]  

Her extravagant and colorful lifestyle along with her unique nickname helped attract crowds whenever she dealt cards. Moreover, she had by this time also gained a reputation of being a fair dealer, which also drew gamblers to her tables.

The location of Bannack in Montana. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Madame Moustache didn’t stay long in Bannack because she also supposedly joined the “Hell On Wheels” camps of the 1860s that followed the Union Pacific railroad workers westward as they constructed the First Transcontinental Railroad. In these camps she was said to have a way over men but the charm she displayed was something she had also demonstrated in Nevada:

“One time in Pioche the room in which she was dealing her game became filled with a noisy, quarreling crowd of miners, maddened with drink and flourishing pistols. They seemed bound to have a free fight. The barkeepers and faro dealers were fruitlessly trying to quiet the crowd, when Mme. Dumont, observing their dismay, quietly approached the noisiest and looked at them for a few moments without saying a word. Then she reproved them laughingly for their ungallant conduct, and succeeded in clearing the room and avoiding a bloody conflict. The instigator of the row she asked to remain with her as a sort of protector until the others had disappeared, and thus separated him from the quarreling crowd, the others got away in peace.”[4]

Despite her peace-making abilities and success at the tables, by 1860 Madame Moustache began doing more than dealing cards. It was reported that around this time she became a “madam” of a brothel. In the towns where she worked, she supposedly promoted her brothel by parading her girls around the town in carriages and showing off their beauty in broad daylight much to the dislike and chagrin of the local women.

Madame Moustache also reputedly ran a brothel when she lived in San Francisco. Perhaps she hoped to retrieve the luck she had lost with her brothel, but it did not happen. In fact, her lack of success was mentioned by John Henry Anderson, a professional magician from Scotland who left his father’s troupe at the age of eighteen and began his own independent career as a conjuror. He became known as “The Wizard of the North” and styled himself a “Professor of Magic.” He also toured the U.S., kept a journal, and mentioned Madame Moustache on 8 October 1869:

“Mlle Dumont has apparently gone out of business. S took [told?] me early this morning carriages took the ladies and their baggage, and shortly after dinner she saw the proprietress depart, without a word to anyone … A man came later this afternoon and took two loads of chairs, but not, the bed. Is Parisian Mansion no more? Mother Plummer should have never left. The Dumont woman was vanity itself. Vain, moustachaoed, always making airs. Some say she was a gambler here in the early days but I opine she was an engot. It is no surprise she succumbed. Customers complained that they came to see the ladies and not her.”[5]

Madame Moustache - John Henry Anderson

John Henry Anderson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

There were plenty of tall tales about Madame Moustache and over the years fact and fiction often became intertwined. Whether the stories were true or not they were legendary and entertaining, such as one that supposedly happened in Fort Benton when a steamboat captain by the name of Louis Rosche strolled into her establishment. He related the following tale to a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

“Madame walked to the platform, sat down at the table, picked up a decked of cards, and began shuffling them, her rings flashing as she did so. Two large raw-boned men, six-shooter holsters swinging from their hips, strolled up and leaned on a post directly behind her. I knew that they were bouncers. This was the moment that I had looked forward to for years, and yet I had little stomach for it now. I was tempted to call it quits and save my $200, but I walked to the table and sat down. I took out my leather purse and emptied out its contents of bills, gold and silver on the table.

‘Ma‘am,’ I said, there’s more than two hundred dollars there. Let’s get going now, and I don’t want to quit until you’ve got all my money or until I’ve got a considerable amount of yours.’ I noticed the Madame’s brown eyes for the first time and saw that they at least, remained youthful. She studied me thoughtfully and said, ‘The young steamboat officer is very practical. What shall it be, young man? Name the play.’

I didn’t play any kind of cards well enough to have a choice. I saw her eyes light up. ‘Very well then,’ [she said,] ‘It shall be vingt-et-un.’ …

It would be painful to exhume the memories of the hour that followed. When it was all over and my bills and gold and silver pieces were stacked neatly in front of the Madame, I got up, returned my empty leather purse to my pocket, and started to leave. ‘No, no, no,’ said my hostess, waving her hands excitedly. ‘The steamboatman must not go before he has had his drink on the house.’ … ‘I don’t want a drink,’ I said … I saw the two men who had been lounging against the post suddenly straighten. ‘Pardner,’ one of them drawled, ‘the Madame wants to set ‘em up, and I believe it’d be healthy for you to let her do it.’

I had a thirty-eight caliber revolver in my hip pocket, but I knew that I would have no chance against the two armed bouncers … Just then the barkeeper placed a glass on the table, and I saw to my astonishment that it was filled with milk.

‘Your special drink, Mr. Steamboatman,’ said Madame Moustache. Her face was sober, but there was a mischievous gleam in her eyes. That was how I first learned of the Madame’s famous milk drink. I later found out that it was her custom after trimming a sucker to set him up to a glass of milk.”[6]

In early 1876, that frontiersman Charlie Utter and his brother Steve led a wagon train to Deadwood, South Dakota in the Black Hills and Madame Moustache was among those they brought to the town. The town had become known for its lawlessness where murders were common. Moreover, western justice reigned in the form of a lynching. The town attained further notoriety when gunman Wild Bill Hickok was killed on 2 August 1876 and both he and frontierswoman Calamity Jane were buried at Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery, as well as other notable figures such as Seth Bullock, a politician, sheriff, and prominent citizen of Deadwood.

Madame Moustache - Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Utter brothers planned to provide Deadwood with needed commodities to help bolster some of the more questionable local businesses such as brothels, saloons, and gambling establishments. After her arrival, Madame Moustache she set up shop in what was referred to as Deadwood Gulch. A St. Paul Pioneer-Press correspondent was in the city in 1877 and reported seeing her there. He noted:

“A character who attracts the attention of all strangers is ‘Madame Mustache,’ a plump little French lady, perhaps forty years of age, but splendidly preserved.  She derives her name, which is the only one she is known by, from a dainty strip of black hair on her upper lip. She deals her own faro, and is quite popular with the boys, who treat her with marked respect. She has bright, black eyes, and a musical voice, and there is something attractive about her as she looks up with a little smile and says, ‘You will play M’sieur? ‘Tis just so fair for one as order.’ She is said to be very rich, and has followed her doubtful calling for more than fifteen years.’”[7]

Deadwood in 1876. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Madame Moustache eventually left Deadwood and it seems likely that she was exhausted and down on her luck. A wiser and older Madame Moustache then reappeared in Nevada on 28 May 1878. This time she surfaced in the mining town of Bodie. Today it is ghost town but in her day it was a revived mining camp having become so after a profitable deposit of gold-bearing ore was discovered in 1876.* The discovery transformed Bodie from an isolated mining camp into a Wild West boomtown. In fact, by 1879, it had attracted a population of between seven to ten thousand people and it remained a boom-town until the mid- to late-1880. This was noted by the Chicago Tribune in June of 1879:

“Just twenty-four hours after leaving Virginia we enter the neat little Town of Bodie, and, on learning that we are 9,000 feet above the sea-level, we can scarcely wonder at the absence of trees and the conspicuousness of lighted stoves in the houses. … Although there are plenty of shooting scrapes … and although the locators of claims have had to defend their property with shot-gun and pistol from the incursions of ‘jumpers,’ yet at present everything is quiet and peaceable, the presence of so many ladies doubtless exercising a softening influence on the camp.”[8]  

Although women may have been there Bodie was known to be a tough town. Furthermore, Madame Moustache was just one more woman among the many who ran out of luck in that city. Her demise happened on 8 September 1879 from an overdose of morphine. Both tragic and unexpected the report of death was first published by the Sacramento Union. Other papers quickly picked up the story:

“One fine September morning the dead body of a woman was found two miles south of Bodie on the Bridgeport road. It was identified as that of Mme. Mustache. It seems that when her bank ran low she borrowed $300 from a friend, and, with her own funds, opened a faro bank. It lasted but a few hours, when it was broken. Without a word to any one, she wandered to the sagebrush, where her dead body was discovered with an empty poison vial, which told the tale of suicide. In a letter to the public administrator she said that was tired of life. Since then the mining camps of the west have never known one such as she.”[9]  


*Gold had been initially discovered in Bodie in 1859 by a group of prospectors. However, that discovery coincided with the discovery of silver at nearby Aurora and the distant Comstock Lode beneath Virginia City. Therefore, while these two latter towns boomed, interest in Bodie remained lackluster.

References:

  • [1] D. Aikman, Calamity Jane and the Lady Wildcats (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), p. 287.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 289.
  • [3] C. Gentry, The Madams of San Francisco (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1964), p. 141.
  • [4] Morristown Republican, “Pet of Rough Miners,” August 8, 1896, p. 1.
  • [5] C. Gentry. 1964, p. 143.
  • [6] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Old Man River – Famous Woman Gambler,” June 18, 1943, p. 33.
  • [7] The Selma Times, “How Miners Keep Sunday,” August 26, 1877, p. 1.
  • [8] Chicago Tribune, “Booming Bodie,” June 28, 1879, p. 16.
  • [9] Morristown Republican, p. 1.

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