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6 Wild Women of the Wild West

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When the American West was settled, women were few and far between. Explorers, trappers, miners, and outlaws tended to leave their families behind, if they had any. Pioneer settlers came later, and mostly stayed out of the limelight. But there were women who became famous for taking full advantage of what the West had to offer. Here are just a few of them.

1. THE GAMBLER

Lottie Deno went by the names Carlotta J. Thompkins, Charlotte Tompkins, Charlotte Thurmond, Mystic Maud, "the Angel of San Antonio," and "Queen of the Pasteboards" at different times in her life. She came by her gambling skills honestly, learning them from her plantation-owner father. After he was killed in the Civil War, young Lottie went to Detroit, where she fell in with Johnny Golden. Golden convinced her to become an itinerant gambler, which led her to San Antonio, Texas, in 1865. That's where Lottie fell for Frank Thurmond, whose family owned the gambling parlor in which she worked.

When Frank went on the lam over another man's death, Lottie followed, leaving Johnny behind. But Johnny followed Lottie as well, and was killed only a day after finding her in Fort Griffin, Texas. Lottie made a reputation for herself as a gambler all over Texas, even playing against professional gambler Doc Holliday. One night, when she was accused of cheating, someone said she should call herself "Lotta Dinero," after which she was known as Lottie Deno. Lottie and Thurmond traveled the Texas circuit, but eventually opened their own gambling room in Kingston, New Mexico, and later a restaurant in Silver City, New Mexico. She and Thurmond were finally married in 1880 and settled in Deming, New Mexico, where Thurmond later became vice president of the town's bank. Lottie gave up gambling and became an upstanding citizen and a founding member of the local Episcopal Church for the next 50 years. Lottie Deno is said to have been the inspiration for the character of Miss Kitty on the TV show Gunsmoke.

2. THE HOMEWRECKER

Baby Doe Tabor was born 1854 and named Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt. She married Harvey Doe and followed him to Central City, Colorado, to work in the mines. Harvey lost his job and ignored his wife, who became bored and took up with a man named Jake Sands. Eventually, Baby Doe divorced Harvey Doe and followed Jake to Leadville, Colorado. But then she met Horace Tabor, a silver magnate and Colorado's lieutenant governor, and the two fell in love. It took years for Tabor to separate from his wife, and even then she would not agree to a divorce. So Tabor engineered an illegal divorce and a secret marriage to Baby Doe. Years later, Augusta Tabor finally consented to a divorce in which Tabor had to pay dearly. Tabor, by then a temporary US senator, publicly married Baby Doe.

Tabor was 24 years older than his wife, and Colorado and Washington socialites were well aware of the affair before Tabor's divorce. The Tabors lived in splendor in Denver and had two daughters (they named their youngest Rosemary Silver Dollar Echo Honeymoon Tabor), but Baby Doe was never accepted among Colorado society. Tabor lost his fortune in the Panic of 1893, and the family had to give up the mansion and move into a rented house. Tabor worked in the mines until he was appointed postmaster, but died soon after. Baby Doe could have remarried, but she chose to try making Tabor's Matchless Mine profitable again. In her efforts, she lived in a mine shack in Leadville for the last 30 years of her life and died in poverty.

3. THE MADAM

Fannie Porter was born in England and immigrated to the US as a child. She was a prostitute in San Antonio, Texas, by the age of 15, and a madam by age 20 (which was in 1893). Porter was known as the owner of a "boarding house" with five women living there -although the residents turned over often, and everyone knew what really went on inside. Porter was scrupulous about keeping the place, and the women, clean and fancy-looking. She was also known for her discretion, so the well-paying members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch felt safe frequenting her place. It is possible that this is where Henry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid, met his future wife Etta Place.

Porter would never reveal details of her customers, whether they were lawmen, outlaws, or even federal agents. William Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, interviewed Porter about the Wild Bunch in 1901, Porter liked Pinkerton, who may have even been a valued customer, but that has never been conformed. Shortly after Butch and Sundance fled to South America, Porter retired, supposedly a wealthy woman. She kept a low profile afterward, and nothing is known about her later life.

4. THE DRIVER

Charley Parkhurst was known as one of the greatest stagecoach drivers of the Old West. Parkhurst was short but strong, and even after retiring from driving, could outwork men half her age as a lumberjack. But after Parkhurst died, those who had known "him" for years were shocked to discover Parkhurst was a woman! Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst was born in New Hampshire in 1812. Dressed as a boy, Parkhurst worked in stables and learned the craft of a driver. She built a reputation as a skilled driver, then fled to Georgia, possibly over the threat of exposure. She moved west to California in 1851, where she again built a reputation as a skilled and talented driver. At least once her secret was discovered, but those who knew kept it confidential to preserve her dignity. After her death in 1879, doctors not only discovered Parkhurst's sex, but announced that she had at sometime in her life given birth! Nothing is known of the child. Parkhurst had also voted, which would have been illegal if her true sex was known. 

5. THE BLACKJACK DEALER

Eleanor Dumont was called Madame Moustache because of her appearance later in life. But when she was young, she was regarded as exceedingly beautiful. She kept her past private, so no one is sure where she came from, but she used French terms and named her blackjack parlor in Nevada City, California, "Vingt-et-un," leading many to believe she was French, or maybe from New Orleans. Dumont first made her reputation as a gambler in San Francisco in 1849, determined to cash in on the California Gold Rush. Her casino in Nevada City was a novelty in that no women were allowed inside except herself, and customers had to behave as if ladies were present. The casino was a success, and led to Dumont opening a second casino with additional games of chance.

After the Gold Rush subsided, Dumont bought a ranch, but lost her fortune when she fell in love with a con man named Jack McKnight. When he sold the ranch and absconded with the proceeds, Dumont tracked him down and shot him dead. She was never charged in the killing. Dumont had to return to work, as a gambler, prostitute, and madam. This occupation took her to Montana, Idaho, Utah, South Dakota, Arizona, and anywhere there was money in a boomtown. Dumont's luck ran out in 1878 in Bodie, California, where she miscalculated and lost $300 in a night of gambling. The money had been borrowed. She left the table and was found the next morning dead, a suicide by an overdose of morphine

6. THE PROSTITUTE

Big Nose Kate was born Mary Katharine Haroney in Hungary in 1850. Her family moved to Davenport, Iowa, where her parents both died. Kate ran away from a foster home when she was 16 to seek her fortune. She was recorded as being a prostitute in Kansas. In 1876, she moved to Fort Griffin, Texas, where she met Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Kate and Holliday began a relationship that was to last until Holliday's death in 1887. They broke up occasionally, but those separations were temporary. Even when the two were together, Kate still made money as a prostitute. Kate went by many names, at times being known as Kate Fisher, Kate Elder, Nosey Kate, Mrs. John H. "Doc" Holliday, Kate Melvin, and Kate Cummings, depending on the place and time, but was best known as Big Nose Kate to distinguish her from another prostitute named Kate.

Big Nose Kate lived in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and South Dakota, with and without Holliday. Kate once even broke Holliday out of jail in 1877 by starting a fire and pulling a gun on the guard while everyone else tended to the blaze. After Holliday died, Kate married a blacksmith for a short while. In her later life at the Arizona Pioneers Home, Kate was asked about her days with Doc Holliday, but she refused to cooperate unless she was paid. She died at age 89. Despite the name, the John Wayne film The Sons of Katie Elder was not based on the life of Big Nose Kate, but on a different true story

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6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.

STOP 1: BANNERMAN CASTLE // BEACON, NEW YORK

59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
Garrett Ziegler, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.

STOP 2. GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK // EAST HADDAM, CONNECTICUT

116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.

STOP 3. BELCOURT CASTLE // NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.

STOP 4. HAMMOND CASTLE MUSEUM // GLOUCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS

111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.

STOP 5. BOLDT CASTLE // ALEXANDRIA BAY, THOUSAND ISLANDS, NEW YORK

430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.

STOP 6. FONTHILL CASTLE // DOYLESTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA

327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.

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7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
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Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

A black and white photograph of John Wilkes Booth
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The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

A portrait of Napoleon
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

A portrait of Henry VIII
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In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
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The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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