Eleanore Dumont (aka Madame Mustache) was the first known professional blackjack player in history. Undoubtedly, there were other cardsharps before her, but none whose names are known and who specialized in the game of twenty-one exclusively.
Her gambling career lasted almost thirty years, and in the gambling dens of the old West, she became a legend in her own time.
Her story began in 1854, when a stagecoach rolled onto the dusty streets of Nevada City, California (a town which had sprung up when a rich vein of gold was struck in the Empire mine) and a shapely young woman emerged. Dressed in pretty clothes and expensive jewels, the whole city was soon wondering as to the nature of this mysterious raven-haired French woman.
Within a few weeks of her arrival, she removed all doubts as to her intentions when she rented a place in the center of town and hung a sign out front which named her establishment, appropriately, the "Vingt-Et-Un" (or "21"). Citizens all over town received invitations to visit Broad Street and enjoy a game with Madame Dumont.
Blackjack was her game of choice, and she herself would deal the cards. And, as a good Frenchwoman, she vowed that there would be free champagne for all.
Miners and townsfolk swarmed to the establishment, drawn both by the allure of winning money and the charm and wit of their hostess. Patrons were asked not to brawl or use bad language, and the rough-hewn men of the mining town found it impossible to resist the polite requests of a Frenchwoman who rolled her own cigarettes and drank champagne.
Madame Dumont dealt blackjack like a seasoned pro. When she would win, she'd sweetly express regret as she raked in her winnings. When she lost, she seemed pleased for their good fortune and would laugh it off as a trifle. According to Robert DeArment (author of Knights of the Green Cloth), "After closing her game, she would uncork bottles of champagne and treat the losers. More than one miner averred that he would rather lose to the Madame than win from somebody else."
In fact, mining camps as far as one-hundred miles away would choose representatives to travel to Nevada City and gamble against the French beauty.
But the gold in Nevada City eventually ran dry, forcing Eleanore to move on to the next mining camp to ply her trade. She moved to Columbia in 1857, then Virginia City in 1859, and again in 1861 to Pioche, basically following the gold strikes and amassing a small fortune along the way. In Pioche, she reportedly fell in love with a saloon owner named Jack McNight and married him, but he deserted her shortly after the marriage, taking all of her money in the process.
The passing years were not kind to the Madame, and she eventually turned to prostitution as a way to supplement her income. Both time and the harsh life of the West began to take its toll, and her once-legendary looks slowly started to fade. Nicknames were easy to come by during this time, and, as the down on her upper lip began to darken, she was dubbed Madame Mustache by the miners (although never to her face).
After her failed marriage, she resumed dealing cards. She moved to Fort Benton, Montana, then to Helena, then to Salmon, Idaho, back to Virginia City, and finally to Bodie, California. On September 8th, 1879, her body was discovered near Bodie. She had committed suicide by drinking poison.
Eleanore Dumont had been a natural when everything else was a gamble. Madame Mustache, a direct product of the frontier mining age, measured up to the eclectic standards of both prospectors and gamblers alike. In recognition of her place in history, Eleanore was nominated for inclusion in the Blackjack Hall of Fame in 2006.
Although she wasn't selected, there's little doubt that she will eventually be enshrined alongside the greats of the game.
You can find more information on Eleanore in any of the following books:
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