Poker in the Past: Lottie Deno
The period referred to as Frontier America begins with the English colonial settlement of mainland USA in the early 1800s and ends with the admission of the last mainland territories as states in 1912. The violence, grit, dust and sense of romantic adventure during this time period is often greatly exaggerated by films and television programs such as HBO’s Deadwood.
Carlotta J. Thompkins, commonly known as Lottie Deno, was one of the famous poker players in the State of Texas. Throughout her life, Lottie was known by many nicknames. In some parts she was known as ‘The Angel of San Antonio’ or ‘Queen of the Pasteboards.’ The legend surrounding the origin of her most famous pseudonym tells that one night, Lottie won every hand of cards against any man brave, drunk or foolish enough to take her on. After this, a drunken cowboy shouted from the corner of the saloon, “Honey, with winnings like them you ought to be called Lotta Dinero!” Dinero in Spanish means money. Lottie lived much of her adult life under this pseudonym, partly to protect her religious family. Lottie told her mother and sister that she had married a wealthy cattle rancher. The family would have been upset to find their homestead and farm were financed by gambling winnings. Lottie never returned to her childhood home.
There is much confusion and misinformation surrounding the early years of Deno’s life, even her given name and the whereabouts of her birth are a matter of intense debate among historians. Although debate persists regarding Lottie’s formative years, historians and Texans alike can agree on one thing; Lottie Deno was the most famous poker player in frontier Texas.
Throughout her childhood and teenage years, Lottie and her father traveled extensively around the USA. Lottie’s father was a prominent horse breeder and enjoyed reaping the fruits of his labors. Thought to be quite a wealthy man, father and daughter would move from one saloon to the next playing the most expensive tables. It was on these journeys that Lottie learned how to play poker. Lottie’s father believed there was more to surviving in the old west than being a Southern Belle. Her father had no sons so expected his eldest daughter to be a strong, smart, independent woman. Lottie was only 17 years old when her father enlisted in the Confederate Army. He was killed during the American Civil War.
Following the death of her father, Lottie’s mother sent her off to Detroit to find a wealthy husband. Lottie set off on her journey accompanied by her slave and nanny, Mary Poindexter. Reportedly standing seven foot tall, Mary acted as Lottie’s bodyguard. At some point on their journey, Lottie and Mary ran out of money. She spent several years living the life of a roving gambler instead, going up and down the Mississippi River. Lottie became an expert at working riverboat gambling parlors. Mary Poindexter protected Lottie with her life, reportedly jumping on a rattlesnake that was poised to attack her mistress and on another occasion, throwing a drunken soldier overboard for threatening her.
In 1865, Lottie arrived in San Antonio and began working as a house gambler for a wealthy Georgia family called the Thurmonds. Lottie met and fell in love with Frank Thurmond, a fellow poker aficionado. Frank was accused of murder so the couple set off from San Antonio to travel the frontier towns and forts. There was an economic boom in the region at this time. High demand for bison skins put extra wads of spending money into the hands of trackers and ranchers; money that Lottie and Frank intended to make their own.
It was at Fort Griffin, an area renowned for rough saloons and brutish violence, that Lottie’s star began to rise. Notoriety and fame as an excellent player raised her mythical status, putting her on the Mount Rushmore of famous Wild West personalities.
Fort Griffin had been described by newspapers of the period as “One of the wildest gambling hellholes ever spawned on the frontier.” It was also said that Fort Griffin had “a man for breakfast every morning.” During her time at Fort Griffin, Lottie was rarely seen during the day except for short supply runs and then at night she could be found gambling or presiding over the games at the Bee Hive Saloon. Her hermit status added to the air of mystery around her.
One local legend about her time in Fort Griffin claims that two low-stakes gamblers by the name of Monte Bill and Smokey Joe both accused each other of cheating. The men drew their pistols and shot at the same time. The two lifeless bodies slumped to the floor. Anyone who had anything to hide, and even those who didn’t, scattered before the law could arrive. When the sheriff arrived to the saloon, it was empty except for the feisty redhead still sat at the table coolly counting her chips. The sheriff inquired as to why Lottie had not run along with the other patrons and Lottie responded calmly, explaining “you have never been a desperate woman.” In some versions of the story, the prize money on the table disappeared and it is speculated to have ended up in Lottie’s purse.
On one well-recorded occasion, notorious Wild West gambler Doc Holiday lost $3,000 to Lottie playing poker.
Five years after their arrival in Fort Griffin, Frank and Lottie left for New Mexico where they were married. They were forced to put an end to their life of gambling and hedonism after Frank stabbed a man with his bowie knife while acting in self-defense. This was the second time in so many years that Frank had to defend himself with fatal results. Frank went on to succeed in both banking and real estate, eventually becoming the manager of a local bank chain.
Lottie, with her poker years behind her, became a well-respected and much beloved member of the community. According to local folklore the original structure of St. Luke’s Church was financed by Lottie’s poker winnings. Frank and Lottie were happily married for forty years, although Lottie lived for a further 26 years after he passed away in 1908. Lottie died in 1934 and was buried a few inches beside the left shoulder of Frank’s headstone “in the lookout seat.”
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