When you travel high into the Sierra Nevada foothills between Sacramento and Donner Pass, the entire town of Nevada City California stands out as a living historic site of what was once a roaring gold mining camp and town. Nevada City stood apart from some of the other California gold towns. Nevada City in it’s heyday sported about three dozen saloons, many with beautiful mahogany and plate glass. There was another thing that Nevada City had. It was an incredibly successful, at least early in life, female gambler.
Gold Dust and the Frenchwoman / Enter Madame Dumont
Stepping off a stagecoach in 1854, Eleanore Dumont knew exactly why she came to Nevada City. Like other professional gamblers, Eleanore’s aim was to extract as much gold dust and nuggets from the miners as possible without actually mining herself. Interestingly enough, the professional gamblers collectively did an excellent job of doing just that.
In the history books, Madame Dumont is often referred to as Madame Mustache. This nickname apparently came about when a Californian who noticed a darkening line of Latin down on her upper lip used the term to describe her. For whatever reason, the name stuck and this was the nickname that Eleanore Dumont, the Frenchwoman gambler, was known as to many a gold miner.
Starting a New Gambling House
After hanging around Nevada City’s hotel for a few days, Madame Dumont set up a gambling parlor where she specialized in “vingt-et-un”, better known as Twenty One. The Madame excelled in dealing out the cards. She had gained much of her ability in San Francisco. She also excelled in producing happy losers. Probably a invaluable trait for a professional gambler.
Prospectors, working hard all day in the diggings looked forward to hanging out at Dumont’s gambling parlor because the proprietor was a woman. This was the era of the California gold mining towns where females in general were quite rare. Especially an unattached charming female, such as Dumont. A chance to spend time with one was not easily ignored. The story was that these miners actually cleaned up and dressed up before paying a visit to Madame Dumont. This in itself was quite rare for any Sierra Nevada gold miner to do. One’s attire was not an up front issue in the early 1850’s at a gold mining camp.
Success Had It’s Limits
Madame Eleanore Dumont had spent time previously in San Francisco where she came into contact with the more successful miners. She had a knack of understanding them and figured out what they liked and disliked.
It was probably with this educated knowledge that she journeyed to Nevada City to try her luck with her own establishment. Knowing your customer is one of the best attributes of any business owner and Madame Dumont was a master at it.
A perfect example of this is described in the book Anybody’s Gold by author Joseph Henry Jackson when he describes how she was able to actually make a man feel privileged to lose an entire weeks sifting of gold in her gambling parlor. After just one week in Nevada City, with the early success she experienced in relieving men of their money, Madame Dumont knew very well that she would remain in town for some time to come. All of her goals were unfolding like clockwork.
The built in problem that Dumont faced was that a dealer could operate only one table. Perhaps a half dozen gamblers at any one time would gamble at her single table. She knew well that there was much more of the miner’s gold to tap with more than one “Twenty One” table. She wanted more volume. As a result, Madame Dumont went into a partnership with a young professional gambler, a male.
The partnership worked quite well and business grew and additional games were added such as Keno and Chuck-A-Luck. Profits grew at a fast clip and this cash flow wasn’t lost to Dumont’s new male partner. The partner demanded more of the profits than he had originally agreed to. He pressed the issue with Dumont. For whatever reason, the Frenchwoman was determined that her partner would get not one dollar more than what they previously had agreed to. With that, the partnership dissolved, her partner taking whatever his then share was worth and left town. He not only left Nevada City but he traveled all the way to New York and ended up establishing his own very successful gambling house in that bustling city.
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Time to Leave Nevada City
Madame Dumont’s luck in Nevada City California was starting to wane. It just so happened that her new one person gambling operation began at about the time that the easy pickings were starting to dry up in the surrounding area.
The dry diggings and the river mining were on a downtrend and quartz mining was starting to take over. The tremendous values to come out of the quartz mines would not be felt for a little while. With this backdrop, the Madame found herself in a transitional time for Nevada City. Her original scheme was to arrive in Nevada City at it’s peak, with her knowledge and charm, take as much gold from the miners as possible and then leave town. The year 1856 was when Madame Eleanore Dumont decided to leave Nevada City.
Whatever Happened to Madame Mustache?
The exact facts of what happened to Eleanore Dumont over the next twenty years of her life is not etched in granite. What is known comes in bits and pieces of stories shared among the gold miners and others all over the west.
The story is that Eleanore Dumont traveled a lot. She was reported seen in such far away places as Deadwood Dakota Territory, Virginia City Montana, Tombstone Arizona and the wild mining town of Bodie California. The story also contends that in Madame Dumont’s later years she resorted to prostitution to earn her living. It appears that it was at Bodie that Madame Mustache took her own life in 1879.
While Bodie was a well known wild mining town with it’s share of violence, it’s not as well known as some other western frontier mining towns because it didn’t have star characters such as Doc Holliday or the Earp’s. Madame Mustache could very well have been the most notorious female gambler to have ever stepped foot in both Nevada City and Bodie California. It’s one of those stories that could only have come out of the Gold Rush days.
(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)