Dance with the Dead: Lottie Deno

lottie deno
Cover image, “Lottie Deno: Gambling Queen of Hearts”

Lottie Deno: Texas Gambling Queen

Inspiration for Miss Kitty in "Gunsmoke" may inspire a Dance with the Dead costume

By Mike Patterson, ITC Communications Volunteer
The well-dressed woman with dark red hair and sparking black eyes arrived by stage in "the toughest town in Texas" one evening in 1876. Lottie Deno was an enigma the moment she set foot in The Flat, the rowdy, untamed, depraved frontier settlement outside of Fort Griffin on the banks of the Clear Fork of the Brazos River in Northwest Texas.
Her true name was unknown; her past was a shadowy mystery. She lived as a recluse in a shanty – no visitors allowed – and ventured out only to purchase provisions and attend to her profession – playing cards in the gambling room of the Bee Hive Saloon. For this much was soon learned by those with the misfortune to bet a few dollars against her at the poker table, Lottie Deno was a notorious card sharp.
The Flat of the 1870s was the crossroads of all that was wild and wicked about the Old West, a rambunctious collection of 1,000 so-called residents and 18 saloons, packed with smelly cowboys just off the trail, soldiers, buffalo hunters, outlaws, gunslingers, gamblers, fortune seekers and prostitutes. Wyatt Earp, John Wesley Harden, Billy the Kid, Sheriff Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday – who lost $3,000 to Lottie – all passed through this pathetic outpost on their ramblings across the frontier.
Unlike the other unsavory characters who frequented The Flat, though, Lottie was never known to take a drink nor cavort with the rough-and-tumble male population out to have a good time with some female companionship. Historians believe Lottie was actually Carlotta J. Thompkins, born to an upper class family in Kentucky in 1844 and who learned the tricks of the gambling trade as a young girl accompanying her father on business trips. She perfected the game to the point where she could successfully ply her skills as gambler on Mississippi riverboats before making her way to San Antonio. Here, she met and fell in love with Frank Thurmond who promptly hired her as a dealer at his University Club.
Unfortunately for the blossoming romance, Thurmond had to suddenly skip town after he killed a man with a Bowie knife during a fight over a poker game. Lottie gambled her way across Texas in search of Thurmond before finally finding him at the Bee Hive in The Flat. But misfortune continued to befall those caught in Lottie’s orbit. A former lover showed up in town but soon ended up dead. Lottie fled The Flat, leaving only a note in her shack that stated: "Sell this outfit and give the money to someone in need of assistance."
Eventually, she and Frank reunited, married and settled in Demining, New Mexico. They became respectable members of the community. He was vice president of the local bank and she a devout Episcopalian, devoted to social welfare and other charitable causes. She died in 1934.
It is believed that the fictional Miss Kitty, proprietor of the Longbranch Saloon in the television series Gunsmoke, was based on the real-life character Lottie Deno. And how did she come to be called Lottie Deno? After cleaning out a tableful of gamblers one night, a drunken cowboy was heard to exclaim: "With winnings like that, you ought to call yourself Lotta Dinero!"


©2014 Institute of Texan Cultures. University of Texas at San Antonio. All Rights Reserved.


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