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Belles And Madames
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Calamity Jane
Libbie Custer
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Belles And Madames

The record of the pistol-packing mamas of the old West is not altogether easy of access. Folklore endowed a good many belles and madames with gun-toting proclivities who, in proper fact, never so much as secreted a dainty derringer in their reticules (in its time and place the .41 Caliber Derringer carried in a reticule was as deadly and universal as the Colt's Navy), let alone swaggered through Tombstone, Alder Gulch or Bismarck with six pounds of Colt's patent hardware strapped to their waists.

Folklore to the contrary, too, it is doubtful if many women even among those known to affect firearms as ornaments were particularly competent to use them. There is no record that Calamity Jane Canary was able to hit the proverbial barn door even when she was sober, which was infrequently. Mattie Silks, who engaged in the only known formal duel between women in the bad old days in Denver, although she constantly carried a gun in a special pocket of her dress, was so bad a shot that she hilariously hit her lover in the neck when he was standing among the bystanders. Or was it accident? At this remove, one wonders.

Another swashbuckling woman who affected the identical "De Medici look" made fashionable by Mattie Silks, and proved to be an only slightly better marksman, was Verona Baldwin, who claimed to be a cousin of Lucky Baldwin and, cousin or not, lodged a .38-caliber slug in the millionaire's arm as he was leaving his private dining room in Baldwin's Hotel in San Francisco. Verona Baldwin claimed to be a member of the ruling family of Britain and was tall and stately and complemented her De Medici costume with a jeweled tiara and a shoulder-high staff with which she made dignified entrances to Denver's parlor houses in the nineties. She ran one herself, for that matter. "I shot Mr. Baldwin even though we are related by blood," she said haughtily to the police after the scuffle in San Francisco. "He ruined me in body and mind."

Still another pistol-packing mama of the old frontier was Belle Starr, a Dodge City resident in the spacious days of the cattle drives from Texas to the loading pens at Dodge, where Wyatt Earp was at the moment marshal. Belle, an accomplished horsewoman whose vocabulary achieved fame even in a time and place of great freedom of expression, had a personal interest in other people's livestock which kept her in constant hot water. When her husband, an Indian named "Blue Duck," lost $2,000 in a brace game of faro in Dodge, Belle, according to Forbes Parkhill, held up the gambling establishment and recovered not only the original $2,000 but interest to the tune of $5,000 more, "proving that a pair of six-shooters beats a pair of sixes." On another occasion Belle was leading a band of horse thieves near Fort Smith, Oklahoma Territory, when her hat blew off. Nobody did anything about it and Belle pulled her Colt. "Get down there and pick it up, you ignorant bastard," she screamed at Blue Duck. "Haven't you got any manners when you're with ladies?"

Of all the women in the gun-fighting record, Mattie Silks is incomparably the most enchanting figure. Queen of the Denver tenderloin and the most celebrated bagnio proprietor of her time, Mattie, although nobody would call her exactly a connoisseur, had an eye for effect. Somewhere she had encountered a reproduction of Rubens' portrait of Marie de Medici dressed in a cloak with a long velvet train worn over a tight-fitting bodice with a high turned-up collar encircling the back of her neck. Mattie's working attire as the Queen City's ranking madame was a precise duplicate of the outfit, with two special pockets in the skirt, one for gold coins, for Mattie never acknowledged the existence of paper currency, and one for a pearl-handled six-shooter of modest dimensions.

Mattie's duel with Katie Fulton was for the favors of a Denver tout named Cort Thompson and took place on the banks of the Platte at a resort known as the Olympic Gardens, owned by the Denver Brewery. Every no-gooder in Denver's half-world was on hand for the event: shills and shell men, monte throwers, tappers, roulette dealers, con artists, pimps, bartenders and sports promoters. The disputants were armed with revolvers and marched to their appointed positions as thousands cheered. The guns blazed simultaneously and there was an outraged scream from the spectators' gallery. Cort Thompson had caught Mattie's slug just behind the ear. The next day The Rocky Mountain News ran a stern editorial calling on the Denver Brewery to prevent the repetition of such sporting events on its premises.

Then there was Big Nose Kate Fisher, inamorata of the elusive Doc Holliday, himself a handy man with a sawed-off shotgun, as he was able to demonstrate when he and the Earp Brothers shot the tripes out of the Clanton gang at the O.K. corral in Tombstone.

Kate and Holliday met up in Fort Griffin, Texas, where, shortly after this star- crossed event, Holiday had occasion to cut a man's throat during a friendly game of poker. While Holliday was being held in a hotel room a mob gathered and there was talk of lynching. With admirable presence of mind Big Nose Kate set fire to an adjacent livery stable and when the mob, its interest momentarily deflected from murder, went to put out the flames, she entered the hotel, covered the sheriff with a brace of Colt's Navy revolvers produced from under her skirt, and together with her rescued lover galloped off to Dodge City, a hundred miles away. "We laughed about it all the way," Doc afterwards told Wyatt Earp.

Some of the lady gamblers of the Old West carried firearms, others did not, relying on frontier chivalry in the event of unpleasantness. Poker Alice Ivers, perhaps the most nerveless professional dealer ever seen on the frontier, went armed, and on occasion used her long-barrel Colt's to persuade reluctant customers. There is no record that she ever discharged a revolver.

Eleanor Dumont, better known from Colorado City to Lead as "Minnie the Gambler," never was known to have a weapon in her hand although she dealt stud for Charlie Utter up and down the West until the close of her professional career in El Paso in 1904. Madame Moustache, who operated faro games all the way from San Francisco to Bannack and Eureka, was reputed to be a dead shot with hand arms, and the record contains at least one instance of her having ventilated a brace of tough customers.

All of which brings us to Rose Dunn, the "Rose of the Cimarron," who married "Bitter Creek" George Newcomb, one of the last great outlaws, and herself participated in the Battle of Ingalls, certainly the last of the great pitched battles between the forces of law and those of horseback crime which marked the passing of the old frontier.

One night in the spring of 1893 Bill Doolin and his mobsters robbed the Cimarron National Bank of Cimarron, Kansas, and then went into hiding in a veritable robber's roost at Ingalls, a tiny township and crossroads near Stillwater, Oklahoma. Rose was being wooed by Doolin's lieutenant, Bitter Creek, later described by E. D. Nix, the Oklahoma marshal, as a "fine specimen of manhood," when five months later the Federal marshals converged on Ingalls. The lay had been well spied out and they came in force, twelve or fifteen strong, with arms and ammunition for a protracted campaign.

The Battle of Ingalls, the greater part of which was waged on the premises of Mrs. Pierce's Hotel, was one of the epic encounters of the even then vanishing Old West. Perhaps its peer among pitched engagements can be found in the Battle of Northfield, where an embattled citizenry forever put the James boys of action. Its approximation can be found in a score of the better film spectacles of our own time. Driven by a hurricane of lead from Pierce's Saloon, Doolin, Bitter Creek, Bob Dalton, Tulsa Jack Blake and Dynamite Dick Clifton sought refuge in the stable, firing as they crouched and ran with rifles and revolvers. With them, loading and firing and laden with cartridge belts and spare Colts, went the Rose of the Cimarron, archetype of all the pistol-packing heroines of romance, cinema and stage. When Bitter Creek went down with a bullet in his leg in the inn yard and his gun flew out of reach, Rose braved a storm of lead to rush a fresh gun and cartridge belt to him. Chivalrously, the marshals held their fire.

When twilight fell, Rose, Doolin and Bitter Creek, the latter badly wounded, made their escape. For weeks while Rose nursed her lover the three of them took it on the lam, hiding out deep in the Creek Nation. For nearly four years they lived in bandit hideaways while Bitter Creek and the remnants of Doolin's gang made occasional ineffectual safaris against remote banks or ranches. The marshals were closing in and one winter afternoon Bitter Creek and a companion were ambushed and shot from the saddle. The Rose of the Cimarron married a blacksmith and faded from public sight, but not before she had entered the valhalla of legend as one of the authentic pistol- packing women of the riding years.

A noted gunslinger amongst the ranks of the lady gamblers of the West was Madame Moustache, who followed the hell-on-wheels towns that accompanied the Union Pacific's end of track across the continent. Eureka, Nevada, Bannack, San Francisco, Corinne, Utah, Nevada City and Grass Valley all knew the quick hand of Madame Moustache. Finally she drifted to Bodie, wickedest city of all, where two imprudent footpads, as shown here, attempted to hold her up on the way home one night with the house bank. She killed one and the other escaped. In 1879, still at Bodie, Madame Moustache's luck ran out with unalterable finality. She killed herself with prussic acid.

One of the Black Hills pioneers who eventually achieved the repository of folklore was Calamity Jane Canary, a boozy and disreputable hanger-on in border deadfalls from Billings and Cheyenne south to the Rio Grande, whom one of the chroniclers of her checkered career characterized as "part of the overhead" of the saloons she haunted. The consort of teamsters, bullwhackers and other hardened personnel of the staging stations and army posts, the Calamity wore men's clothing, swore men's oaths and became a property of Beadle's Pocket Library in her lifetime.

She claimed to have been a Pony Express rider carrying the government mails between Custer and Deadwood and after Chief Joseph's defeat of the Seventh Cavalry she tended the wounded as they were returned to Miles City. She also claimed to have been the wife of Wild Bill Hickok, near whom she was eventually buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.

Almost everyone in the West knew Calamity Jane well. She spent her latter years telling tall tales of the old days in Confederate Gulch, Lander and Livingston for anyone who would listen and was glad to pose in festive attitudes, as depicted above, for the primitive cameras of the age. Claiming friendship with most of the great of her era, she practiced a sort of primordial self-publicization and ended as a museum piece which gave her curators some trouble to classify. At one time she faced the footlights, shooting out property mirrors and telling audiences about life in Gilt Edge, Montana, and Deer Lodge, but her intemperate way of life caused her to miss cues and ad lib with bullwhacker's language and she soon lost the one legitimate employment of her life.

Never one to assume a virtue if she had it not, Calamity Jane used to boast that she once was thrown out of a bagnio in Bozeman, Montana, "for being a low influence on the inmates." On another occasion, when she briefly maintained an address at a Tucson brothel, she repelled the advances of some customers who happened to be Mexican with gunfire. At Fort Pierre, Dakota Territory, she caused a sensation when she appeared in the role of Calamity Jane, the Girl Hawkshaw "on horseback and in man's clothing looking for cattle thieves." This role may have given rise to her billing by Kohl & Middleton as "The Terror of Evildoers in the Black Hills." That she was a terror everyone including Jane herself was ready to admit.

Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg. The American West the Pictorial Epic of a Continent. Bonanza Books. 1955

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