The Frontierado holiday is this Friday, August 1st! As we all count down to it like little kids excitedly awaiting Santa Claus here’s another look at the legends centered around even more neglected figures of the American west. Check out this Three of a Kind.
1. QUEEN KITTY – Kitty LeRoy was also known as Kitty the Schemer, Dancing Kitty, the Female Arsenal and much later as Deadwood Kitty. Queen Kitty is the most appropriate nickname in part because of her last name but mostly because she was variously known as “the Queen of the Hoofers”, “the Dancing Queen”, “the Queen of the Barbary Coast” and “the Queen of the Faro Tables”.
Kitty was born in 1850 and by the age of 10 was earning money for her family as a professional dancer and novelty act in her home state of Michigan. By 14 she was performing exclusively at adult venues and had added trick shooting to her repertoire. Her most famous shooting trick at this time was shooting apples off the heads of volunteers. At age 15 Queen Kitty was performing in New Orleans and married her first husband – the only man in the city brave enough to let Kitty shoot apples off his head while she was riding around him at a full gallop.
LeRoy loved flirting and sleeping around, however, and this led to the breakup of her first marriage within a year. By 1870 Queen Kitty had married a second time, to a man named Donnaly, with whom she had a daughter. The Queen had gravitated more and more to the Faro tables, making a killing as a celebrity dealer. With Dallas as a home base Kitty and her husband would travel throughout Texas with LeRoy earning money dancing and dealing Faro. Kitty also earned a name for being able to handle any violence that came her way from sore losers and was involved in multiple gunfights and knife fights in dangerous saloons.
The adventurous lady was often called “the Female Arsenal” because, dressed in either male or female garb she always had multiple pistols, derringers and knives stashed on her person for emergencies. Queen Kitty and her husband headed west in search of fresh gamblers to wipe out, with Kitty plying her trade in towns and cities throughout New Mexico and Arizona.
In California Kitty gained renown as the Queen of the Barbary Coast, charming the Golden State and wiping out new sets of gamblers in casinos and saloons up and down the coast. She also claimed (but it’s never been proven) that she had traveled across the Pacific Ocean, gambling onboard as well as at casinos in Hong Kong and other seaports. At some point Queen Kitty abandoned husband number two along the way as her life of gambling and gunplay continued in full force.
Sometime in the early to mid- 1870’s LeRoy’s third marriage took place. She and a pushy male admirer were having a fierce argument over his refusal to take no for an answer and when Kitty drew her guns the man refused to respond in kind since she was a woman. Queen Kitty supposedly stormed off and came back dressed in one of her suits of male clothing. In the ensuing gunfight Kitty mortally wounded the importunate man and as he lay dying our conscience-stricken heroine let him die happy by having a preacher marry them in her dying suitor’s final days.
1876 found the Queen cleaning out Faro players in saloons and casinos throughout Nevada and Colorado but she eventually headed for Deadwood, SD where she rubbed elbows with the likes of Sam Bass, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Queen Kitty opened The Mint Gambling Saloon and may or may not have been a madam providing prostitutes in addition to gambling and drinking. Amid her usual rounds of Faro dealing and gunfighting the notorious lady also married her FOURTH husband – a German prospector who had struck it rich. The marriage only lasted until the hard-partying couple had exhausted all the man’s sudden fortune, at which point Kitty threw him out.
Queen Kitty married for the fifth and final time on June 11th, 1877 to gambler Samuel L Curley aka Curly Sam. This marriage was as raucous and troubled as the others, with Kitty continuing to sleep with whoever she pleased, including the ex-husband she had thrown out previously! Sam Curley was a very jealous man and on December 7th, 1877 the latest quarrel between him and Queen Kitty ended with him shooting her to death in Deadwood’s Lone Star Saloon. He then turned the gun on himself and ended his own life.
2. LUCKY BILL – William B. Thornton was the real-life inspiration for Bret Harte’s fictional gambler Jack Hamlin. Lucky Bill was born sometime in the 1820’s in New York and after serving in the Mounted Rifles during the Mexican War of 1846-1848 had wandered as far as Michigan when word of the discovery of gold in California hit in 1849. Thornton traveled west with one of the countless wagon trains, putting his Monte-playing skills and his con artist tricks to good use along the way. By the time the wagon train reached California Lucky Bill had supposedly acquired a large amount of cash and valuables from his traveling companions. Periodic clashes enroute with the Pawnee and other tribes helped hone Lucky Bill’s gunmanship.
Rather than soil his hands prospecting for gold Bill settled in to fleece prospectors and other gamblers at the Monte table or with his skill at the Shell Game. Eventually, after winning many pots and losing a few others Lucky Bill settled in Sacramento, already with a trail of dead bodies in his wake courtesy of his Colt Walker pistol. Thornton played his game and his cons out of casinos like Jimmie Lee’s Stinking Tent, Mansion House, The Humboldt, New Orleans West and The Diana. He even spent time working The Empire, run by Andrew Butler, the brother of future Civil War General Benjamin Butler.
When Jimmie Lee earned enough cash to buy a casino with four walls around it a criminal element took over his tent and renamed it The Round Tent, attracting the toughest of the tough and the deadliest of the deadly. Lucky Bill’s skill with cards and a gun enabled him to thrive in this cutthroat atmosphere and he supposedly earned $24,000 IN EIGHTEEN FIFTIES MONEY during one particular two-month winning streak.
At some point in 1851 Thornton and fellow gambler Sidney “Sid the Kid” Charles decided to tour the outlying camps around the California goldfields like Hangtown. After the pair wiped out a fair number of prospectors in card games and cons they were chased out of the boondocks in running gunfights with some of their aggrieved victims. On another occassion Lucky Bill encountered the vengeful brother of one of his victims on a stagecoach between San Francisco and Sacramento. The man wounded Bill in the side and Bill wounded him in the shoulder but both gunslingers recuperated at a Sacramento hotel under a doctor’s care.
Over the next year Thornton worked at adding a certain P.R. element to his game and often refunded small stakes to gamblers he wiped out, like the time he won two oxes and $60 from a farmer but kicked back one of the oxes. Lucky Bill also took to handing out some personal charity to unlucky prospectors or strapped local businessmen, earning a certain amount of gratitude which would manifest itself in public protection or sotto voce warnings about sore losers gunning for him.
In very late 1852 Bill went on a legendary $20,000 losing streak and decided to head back east while he still had a small fortune left in savings. In Michigan Lucky Bill charmed three ladies into traveling with him when he headed back out west in 1853. In a famous incident at a Peoria train station involving two of the ladies’ gun-toting fathers and railroad detectives two of the young women returned home with their respective fathers. The third, Martha Lamb, remained with the gambler/gunfighter.
In Saint Joseph, MO, the jumping-off point for many wagon trains headed west, the couple blew all Bill’s remaining money in a profligate spending spree. Thornton returned to con games and the card tables, soon amassing another nest egg with which he and Martha headed west. This time Lucky Bill worked the Carson Valley goldfields and boomtowns in Nevada. Learning a lesson from his previous financial ups and downs Bill quit this time while he was well ahead in terms of gambling winnings and bought land near Genoa, NV.
With Martha still by his side (no marriage records were ever found, though) Lucky Bill became a hugely successful rancher and sawmill operator as well as the owner of the lucrative Carson County Toll Road. Thornton just couldn’t keep his nose clean indefinitely, however, and was soon acting as an accomplice or mastermind for local criminal elements like rustlers and armed bandits. On June 18th, 1858, allegedly stolen livestock were found on Lucky Bill Thornton’s spread and he was summarily hanged by a Vigilante mob.
3. LONG JOHN DUNN – Yet another gambler/gunfighter who deserves a movie or television series made about them! Who do Long John Dunn, Lucky Bill and Queen Kitty have to sleep with to get some more pub? At any rate Dunn was born in Victoria, TX in the year 1857. As a teenager he served as a cowboy on cattle drives along the Goodnight/ Loving trail to the Kansas railheads. He picked up his nickname from his height of six feet, four inches.
It was in between cattle drives one year that Long John Dunn, who had picked up gunmanship clashing with would-be rustlers on cattle drives, shot his brother-in- law to death for an unknown reason. He got a life sentence but escaped from prison early on in his sentence and settled in as a smuggler in Matamoros.
While gambling with fellow career criminals in between capers Long John soon realized he had a knack for cardplaying and drifted more and more into life as a professional gambler. As his skills increased exponentially he eventually became a sort of philosopher or zen master of the trade, spouting gems of wisdom like “Whiskey has pushed more gambling money across the table to sober men than all the dumb players on Earth.”
Dunn opened a Monte game at a casino in Matamoros and judiciously employed his talent and his gun as needed to survive in the life-is- cheap atmosphere of the town’s saloons. A dispute with a Cajun gambler ended with Long John blowing the Cajun’s head off and Dunn skipped town ahead of the law.
In iconic “E-Town” (Elizabethtown, NM) Long John stopped running and threw in with a former prison-mate now serving as the town’s Marshal under an assumed name. The Marshal staked his old pal $300 to get into the biggest, toughest and deadliest game in E-Town and when the dust had all settled John’s cardplaying skill had won the pair of prison alumni a small fortune AND the casino the tournament was held in.
And so it went for years, with Long John Dunn cleaning up at cards, often running entire gambling establishments, and moving on after losing his shirt or after shooting down another man or to elude bounty hunters when he was in danger of his past catching up with him. Dunn’s travels took him to Taos, NM; Rapid City, IA and Cheyenne, WY during this period.
After pulling in poker pots and slinging lead in those three areas John later toured California with a carnival as one of a troupe of card-sharps and trick shooters. From there Dunn moved on to the Nevada boomtowns, settling in Goldfield where he opened up another establishment of his own, this one called The Alamo. One night Long John lost The Alamo to another gambler and had to sign on as a Faro dealer with iconic gambler Tex Rickard at his casino The Northern.
Believe it or not Long John Dunn had the lengthiest life-span of this article’s trio of gambler/gunfighters. He lived to the age of 96, dying with his boots off in 1953. A man who had herded cattle along the Goodnight/ Loving Trail lived to see the Atomic Age and the Korean War!
FRONTIERADO IS FRIDAY, AUGUST FIRST!
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