CLOSE

6 Wild Women of the Wild West

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

arrow
History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
arrow
History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios