The Strange Saga of Madame Mustache

 

Illustration of Madame Mustache firing on smallpox victims trying to come ashore at Fort Benton, Montana.
Illustration of Madame Mustache firing on smallpox victims trying to come ashore at Fort Benton, Montana.

GRUBSTAKE PEETE and his comrade, Slim stood in the shadows of a smooth river boulder, transfixed. They had crossed the country several times looking for gold. They had gotten lucky in California, gone back east spending their treasure along the way, and now they were on their way to California once again. They stopped near Fort Benton, Montana, to spend a few days gambling in some of their favorite saloons. Slim had won a ‘not too paltry’ sum for his efforts and that would allow them to take a leisurely journey back to their favorite and secret spot near Sacramento—a prime location for finding mineral riches.

“What the hell is goin’ on, you reckon?” Pete asked his good friend of twenty years. They watched as a steamer approached the bank of the Missouri River and were dumbfounded to see a woman in a frilly dress with six shooters belted around her waist, run up to the bank and holler at the steamboat captain to take his vessel elsewhere. She popped off a few warning shots at disembarkers to make her point. A group of onlookers had gathered and as the steamboat pulled away from the bank, the onlookers cheered the woman’s efforts. The group then followed their heroine to a nearby saloon where drinks were on the house. Grubstake Pete and Slim followed the group. Their curiosity had the best of them.

Madame Moustache
Madame Moustache

After a few beers, they realized the six-shooting woman was the owner of the very establishment they were in. Grubstake Pete decided to finally ask another of the patrons what all of the excitement was about. The cowboy replied, “That steamboat was full of passengers with smallpox. You don’t think Madame Dumont was going to let them come ashore, now, do you?” Grubstake Pete and Slim seemed satisfied with his answer in the form of a question and went back to their drinking. They could not take their eyes off of Madame Dumont. Her beauty had faded some, and the peach fuzz that had been on her upper lip had darkened and coarsened into a full mustache, but they were convinced they had seen her before.

“I think I have a recollection,” Slim said, finally. “We have seen her plenty of times before. We first saw her in San Francisco. Wasn’t she a croupier at one of the roulette wheels there? It had to be in the 1850s. Weren’t many women at all in gambling houses back then. She was a real beauty, slim, black hair. Before her mustache got real noticeable, the men used to come in just to gaze at her. She had a French accent if I recall.”

“Yeah, now I remember that woman. She was quite a rarity. We saw her off and on in several saloons and casinos. She did have a little of that fuzzy stuff over her mouth, even back then, but it has sure gotten more noticeable, now.”

“I think she was the owner of several gaming houses. She did well for herself, but you can tell she has seen better days,” Slim agreed as he glanced at his surroundings. “Poor girl. She is a fighter.”

In the early 1850s, a Frenchwoman named Simone Jules had taken the heat from local newspapers near San Francisco for appearing at California gambling casinos. They emphasized that a woman’s place was in the home and not being a roulette croupier in the Bella Union. She vanished from that scene, but a woman who bore a strong resemblance soon appeared in Nevada City, California, and she also had the characteristic downy lip. She was now calling herself Eleanore Dumont. She rented a space there and started games of vingt-et-un, or twenty-one. She imposed stringent standards on the men who came there. They had to wear jackets and watch their language. They obeyed. She then opened, Dumont Palace, a saloon. When miners left an area, she would leave it too, opening new establishments with fine furnishings and quality spirits. Yes, Grubstake Pete and Slim had been in many of them.

Where had she come from? Some say she claimed to be the product of fallen nobility in France in a round-about way, but her own birthplace was probably New Orleans, in the late 1820s.

As the years went by her fabled beauty faded and her establishments went downhill. Madame Dumont brought prostitution into some of them and began to drink heavily herself. She retained her pioneer spirit, even preventing a riot in Pioche, Nevada, between miners and Mexican workers.

Grubstake Pete and Slim were in a Delmonico’s Cafe in Sacramento one day in 1879 when Slim passed a newspaper he had been reading to Pete. “Read this,” he said, pointing to a small article.

Pete read the story, shaking his head. It stated that some gambling professionals had gone into a gambling establishment in Bodie and cleaned it out. The owner of the gaming house was found dead in a nearby cabin. She had committed suicide by taking poison, morphine. The woman, Eleanore Dumont, familiar throughout mining camps was known by many as Madame Mustache.

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