Lottie Deno: Queen of the Paste Board
By Maggie Van Ostrand
Cowboys and longhorns, soldiers and forts,
the buffalo trade, 18
an abundance of "soiled doves" were the
sights greeting beautiful Lottie Deno as she rode into
Fort Griffin Flat from Jacksboro,
sitting next to the driver atop the stage coach. To the denizens of
Fort Griffin Flat, known as "The
Toughest Town in
described as "one of the wildest... gambling hellholes ever spawned on the
frontier," this was shocking behavior from an apparently well-bred lady of
culture and refinement.
wild and woolly town of Fort Griffin,
also known as "The Flat," enjoyed a reputation in the 1870s as having "a
man for breakfast every morning." The frontier community sprang up at the
crossroads of two major cattle trails that converged below a bluff, atop
which the U.S. military established a frontier fort in 1867 during the
Indian Wars. Frontier legends
Billy the Kid,
Sheriff Pat Garrett
once sauntered down its streets.
Lottie took up residence in a Clear Fork shanty. An air of mystery
developed about her. She was a vivacious redhead with sparkling brown
eyes, who was seldom seen except when she visited the stores for supplies,
or at night when she played cards at the Bee Hive
presided over its gambling room.
Lottie was known by many names, including Carlotta J. Thompkins (the name
she was christened with), Laura Denbo, Faro Nell, and Charlotte Thurmond.
She was dubbed Lottie Deno the night she won every hand of
poker from every
opponent foolish enough to think he could win. After the very last hand of
the very last game had been played and won by her, a drunken cowboy yelled
out from the
corner, "Honey, with winnings like them, you oughter call yourself "Lotta
Seeing the advantages of a nickname to protect her real identity from
family and friends, she thereafter called herself "Lottie Deno." This new
name protected Lottie's pious Episcopalian family back in Kentucky from
knowing that she supported herself by gambling, and that the money she
frequently sent them came from what they would have considered shocking
and illicit means. Instead, she told her mother and sister that she had
married a wealthy cattleman from
would never see her family again nor would they ever learn the truth about
She was born on April 21, 1844, to upper-class Warsaw Kentucky farm
owners. Warsaw, in the area of Lexington and Louisville, traded with both
northern and southern states (her father served in the Kentucky General
Assembly), though the region was southern in flavor, and slavery was
prevalent. As did many a young lady of the same exalted station in life,
Lottie had her own nanny, Mary Poindexter, a seven-foot-tall slave who
exhibited devotion and loyalty to Lottie as both protector and companion,
even after the
Civil War and
for many years to come.
The main crops of the Warsaw region were tobacco and hemp, which were
shipped north to Detroit and south to New Orleans. Other interests of the
area, then as now, were horse breeding, horse racing and horse trading.
Lottie's father engaged in these lucrative pursuits as well as selling
After completing her education at an Episcopalian convent with her younger
sister, Lottie usually accompanied her father on his many business trips
to Detroit, New Orleans, and even Europe.
When racing his horses in New Orleans, Lottie's father also indulged in
another favorite pastime, one in which he excelled: gambling. He taught
his daughter all the tricks he knew about card playing in the belief that
there was more to survival than simply being a southern belle. She had
been well versed in the social graces at the convent, and since he had no
son to carry on after him, he expected his eldest daughter to be strong,
independent, and able to financially care for her younger sister when the
time came. He showed her how to gamble on land and on riverboats, and he
passed on to her his passionate skill at cards, known as "flipping the
In the 1850s, New Orleans was known as the
"Good time Town," a playground for grownups, and the racing mecca of the
entire nation. Lottie's father conducted his business and found his
pleasures at establishments like the St. Charles Hotel, Creole Orleans,
Victor's, and the Cafe de Quatre Saisons. He visited the Gem on Royal
Street, the most elegant drinking house in the city, and placed bets at
the Common Street Gallery "where men tried to shoot the flame off burning
candles at twelve paces twenty times in succession. Men could bet on
bullfights, cockfights, dog races and even rat races," writes Cynthia Rose
in Lottie Deno: Gambling Queen of Hearts. Lottie's father was free
to do as he wished at night since New Orleans had a strict curfew for both
ladies and slaves, and young Lottie and Mary had to be inside by 8:00 p.m.
or Mary would have been arrested and her owner fined.
The north and south were already politically polarized when John Brown and
his men attacked Harpers Ferry in 1859. Kentucky tried to remain neutral
but in September 1861, Confederate troops invaded western Kentucky and
Ulysses S. Grant moved in and occupied Paducah, forcing Kentucky to join
with him and drive out the Confederates.
This was the year 17-year-old Lottie's father, a southerner at heart,
enlisted in the Confederate army. He was killed in battle, and the health
of Lottie's mother began to fail. Relatives decided to send Lottie to
friends in Detroit in hopes she would meet and marry a wealthy man who
would take over the family business. They collected enough to pay the fare
north for Lottie and Mary Poindexter.
Lottie easily took to the social life in Detroit and happily attended
parties, dancing the nights away. But instead of concentrating on finding
a suitable husband of means, Lottie fell for Johnny Golden, one of her
father's former jockeys, now a gambler himself. It is speculated that
Lottie and Johnny had an affair earlier in New Orleans and that was the
real reason she was shipped off to Detroit by her family who wanted her to
forget about Johnny, a nobody.
Lottie, Johnny, and the ever-present Mary Poindexter, took to the
Mississippi River, becoming experts at working the riverboat gambling
parlors and tidewater towns.
"Not much is known about Lottie's days on the river," says Rose, but in
her later life, Lottie recounted a story that "the boat [she] and Mary
were traveling on stopped along a sandbar in the river. Late in the
evening, Lottie and Mary decided to take a walk. Lottie preceded Mary
along the shoreline, carrying her parasol and enjoying the evening air.
Suddenly Mary's sharp eye spotted a large rattlesnake coiled and ready to
strike her mistress. The tall, strong woman lunged forward and threw
herself on top of the reptile, saving Lottie from injury. Mary herself was
bitten and became deathly ill, necessitating the amputation of a finger."
Near the end of the War, Lottie decided to head west for
where she continued practicing her profession. On one occasion, a young
Union soldier accused Lottie of cheating and went for her. Mary Poindexter
jumped between the two, grabbed the soldier and threw him overboard into
On the frontier, every professional gambler cheated. As one biographer put
it, "An expert card player, Lottie could win a good percentage of the
time," but "that was not enough for a woman who depended on gambling for a
living and expected to maintain the standard of elegance she had known
was a wide-open gambling town, and Lottie was soon hired as a dealer at
Frank Thurmond's University Club, receiving a percentage of the winnings.
Cowboys lined up, hats in hand, for the privilege of playing the pretty
As a lady of social distinction, Lottie wore the latest fashions and never
permitted smoking, drinking or cussing at her table. Mary Poindexter sat
behind her on a stool and watched for cheaters or surly losers. Lottie's
dress and manners dispelled suspicions of her cheating and she became the
highly respected "Angel of
Lottie fell in love with part-Cherokee
boss Frank Thurmond and remained loyal to him, dumping her other admirers.
Frank and another player got into a fight. Frank killed the man with his
Bowie knife which he kept on a string down his back and could easily
access just by reaching down his shirt collar. The man's family put a
bounty on Frank, who was forced to leave town. It is thought that Frank
later taught the Bowie knife hiding place to his friend,
Soon Lottie followed looking for him, gambling her way around West
Texas in Fort
Concho (where she was called "Mystic Maude"), San Angelo, Denison, Fort
Worth and Jacksboro, eventually finding Frank working at the Bee Hive in
Lottie got a job there
dealing cards and it was here that she was introduced to Frank's friend,
who soon became an admiring customer at Lottie's
faro table. On one well-recorded occasion,
Doc lost $3,000 to the
Over the front batwing doors of the Bee Hive hung this rhyme:
Within this Hive, we are alive;
Good whiskey makes us funny.
Get your horse tied, come inside;
And taste the flavor of our honey.
Legend has it that, during a faro game at the
Lottie were in the middle of a game when
Big Nose Kate
Doc's girlfriend, arrived in a jealous rage. An argument ensued in
which both women drew their guns, ready to fire.
Doc had to step in and
stop the fight.
Cynthia Rose claims that, "according to several historians,
Lottie had heated words one night over
Doc had made it
known they were a team, Kate began to show her jealousy" and "one evening
she accused Lottie of trying to steal his affections. The accusation
brought Lottie to her feet:
"Why you low down slinkin' slut!" shouted Lottie. "If I should step in
soft cow manure, I would not even clean my boot on that bastard! I'll show
you a thing or two!" whereupon she pulled a gun, and
Kate also drew a
placed himself between the two women."
Bearing in mind Lottie's reputation as an elegant lady, and the fact that
stories tend to get ever juicier when told by many people over a long
period of time, this may not be historically accurate, no matter what the
historians say. But one thing is probable -- the two women had serious
At Fort Griffin, Johnny Golden, the
jockey-gambler, came back into Lottie's
lifeóbut not for long. Although he found his former sweetheart dealing
cards at the Bee Hive, next day, he was shot dead on the street behind the
saloon. Lottie paid for his burial suit plus
$65.00 for a coffin, but did not attend the funeral. Rather she sat in her
house with the curtains drawn.
The most famous story about Lottie during her
Fort Griffin days is this one,
taken from "Doc Holliday"
by John Myers:
"It was during the time [Lottie] was dealing faro
in the Flats that a couple of tinhorn gamblers, known respectfully as
Monte Bill and Smokey Joe, quarreled over a short card game. Each accused
the other of cheating, and each was probably right. Each thought he could
beat the other to the draw and each was only half right. There were two
corpses on the floor when Sheriff Bill Cruger rushed in to take charge.
Everybody that could had made tracks, with the exception of the red-headed
Lottie, who was coolly counting her chips as the sheriff arrived. When the
sheriff said that he couldn't understand why she had remained on the
scene, she merely murmured, "But then you have never been a desperate
In several versions of the story, the money on the table that night
disappeared and most witnesses believed it ended up in Lottie's purse.
It was said of Lottie that she had class and refinement. A lifelong friend
told an interviewer many years later that she "was a fine looker... in
manners a typical Southern Lady. She had nothing to do with the common
prostitutes... she was not a 'gold digger'." Lottie, "stood apart from the
After five years, Lottie and Frank left
where they finally married. Not long after, Frank for the second time used
his Bowie knife to terminate a man. It was self-defense, but it was the
turning point for Frank and Lottie. They swore off gambling and settled
down in Deming. Frank succeeded in mining and real estate, eventually
becoming vice president of the Deming National Bank.
Lottie, under her married name Charlotte Thurmond, became a well respected
member of the community. Although she quit dealing, according to legend,
in 1892 the original structure of St. Luke's frontier church was financed
by $40,000 of winnings from a
poker game with
in attendance and hosted by Lottie Deno. And, for a fact, Lottie Deno made
one of the altar cloths used by St. Luke's. Respectability was at last
Frank and Lottie were together over 40 years when he passed away in 1908.
Lottie lived another 26 years. When she died in 1934, she was buried
beside Frank, her headstone set a few inches behind Frank's left shoulder
"in the lookout seat."
Epilogue: The character immortalized as the beautiful, redheaded Miss
Kitty who ran the Longbranch Saloon in the famous "Gunsmoke" radio and
television series, was based on Lottie Deno.
© Maggie Van Ostrand, August, 2007
About the Author: Maggie Van Ostrand's
articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe,
various magazines; monthly in the Mexican publication, El Ojo Del Lago
and mexconnect.com, and numerous contributions to
Online Magazine, from which this article was provided.
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today, June, 2007, Kathy Weiser.
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