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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

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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Animals
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
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crime
Meghan Markle Is Related to H.H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer, According to New Documentary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network

Between staging paparazzi photos and writing open letters to Prince Harry advising him to call off his wedding, Meghan Markle’s family has been keeping the media pretty busy lately. But it turns out that her bloodline's talent for grabbing headlines dates back much further than the announcement that Markle and Prince Harry were getting hitched—and for much more sinister reasons. According to Meet the Markles, a new television documentary produced for England’s Channel Four, the former Suits star has a distant relation to H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

The claim comes from Holmes’s great-great-grandson, American lawyer Jeff Mudgett, who recently discovered that he and Markle are eighth cousins. If that connection is correct, then it would mean that Markle, too, is related to Holmes.

While finding out that you’re related—however distantly—to a man believed to have murdered 27 people isn’t something you’d probably want to share with Queen Elizabeth II when asking her to pass the Yorkshire pudding over Christmas dinner, what makes the story even more interesting is that Mudgett believes that his great-great-grandpa was also Jack the Ripper!

Mudgett came to this conclusion based on Holmes’s personal diaries, which he inherited. In 2017, American Ripper—an eight-part History Channel series—investigated Mudgett’s belief that Holmes and Jack were indeed one in the same.

When asked about his connection to Markle, and their shared connection to Holmes—and, possibly, Jack the Ripper—Mudgett replied:

“We did a study with the FBI and CIA and Scotland Yard regarding handwriting analysis. It turns out [H. H. Holmes] was Jack the Ripper. This means Meghan is related to Jack the Ripper. I don’t think the Queen knows. I am not proud he is my ancestor. Meghan won’t be either.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified his comments via his personal Facebook page:

In the 130 years since Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, hundreds of names have been put forth as possible suspects, but authorities have never been able to definitively conclude who committed the infamous murders. So if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll could have done it, why not the distant relative of the royal family's newest member?

[h/t: ID CrimeFeed]

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