By Maggie Van Ostrand
Cowboys and Longhorns, soldiers and forts, Comanche, the buffalo trade, 18 saloons, and 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 stagecoach. To the denizens of Fort Griffin Flat, known as “The Toughest Town in Texas,” and 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.
The 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 Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, Sheriff Pat Garrett and Bat Masterson 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 Saloon or 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 saloon’s rear corner, “Honey, with winnings like them, you oughter call yourself “Lotta Dinero.”
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 Texas. She would never see her family again nor would they ever learn the truth about her.
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 crops.
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 pasteboards.”
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.
Instead, 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 San Antonio 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 the river.
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 from childhood.”